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John Lee Hooker’s spirituous Delta Blues

John Lee Hooker

Original Folk Blues

Released: March 3rd, 1965

8.5
Album Review John Lee Hooker

The events we write about at Gaslight Records happened in some form or another 50 years ago to the day. Roll along with us and imagine you are back in 1970.

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Right in the heart of Coahoma County, Mississippi, rests the town of Clarksdale, a place that could summarily be described as both hard-edged and mysteriously beautiful. Clarksdale was founded due to its proximity to prime cotton-farming land, but after years of growth and prosperity on account of the area's fertile soil, the town began to feel the strain of the stock market crash and subsequent decline in cotton prices in the late 1920s – early 30s. The next twenty or so years would see a mass migration away from the delta region by the African-American families who had worked its fields for nearly a century. Author Nicholas Lemman called it the "great black migration [that] changed America".

John Lee Hooker’s spirituous Delta Blues
Clarksdale, Mississippi

What remained of Clarksdale following the mass exodus was something of a husk: a town full of empty brick tenements, grain refineries, and an abandoned train depot that had once been a central connection terminal between north and south. Curiously, however, unlike other towns that suffer such massive blood loss, Clarksdale didn't become an out-and-out domicile for ghosts. People still live there today amid the old abandoned buildings and warehouses that act as constant reminders of southern toil.

But it's not just the old buildings that remained of Clarksdale's history. There's also a spirit about the place, a kind of ethereal quality that even a highly pragmatic man might struggle to deny. Maybe it's more a case of the weight of history bearing down as you stand there on the outskirts of town looking across the dead-flat plains that run on to gnarled trees at the horizon - having consulted history books, you know some hella bad stuff has happened here. And what's more, you know it's happening still: just two years ago, black and openly gay Mayoral candidate Marco McMillian's severely mutilated corpse was found on the outskirts of Clarksdale in what officials labeled a crime of extreme hatred.

It's hard to feel that there's not something else at work on one's perspective about Clarksdale other than its history though. Like, everyone knows that terrible stuff has gone down in just about any city you can name, but still, you don't necessarily get the heebies walking through Washington Square Park just because it played host to many a hanging in years gone by. In Clarksdale, however, the air seems to throb with static energy at night time even when seemingly nothing is going on. And it's a dark energy in the air, full of blood and grit, and yet, somehow deeply appealing, like that girl who you know straight away is tear-your-heart-out and ruin your life trouble but you just can't resist.

Some of the locals put the atmospheric eeriness down to an old Native American curse. Before white settlement in the area, Mississippi was home to the Chocktaw and Chickasaw tribes. But when the first 'Indian Removal Treaty' was carried out, roughly eleven thousand acres (pretty much the whole state) were emptied of the Natives, who mostly moved to Oklahoma. The Clarksdale area had, up until that point, been a major intersection between trade paths - a crossroads for the Lower Creek Trade Path which extended west to New Mexico, and the Chakchiuma Trail which ran northeast to Old Pontotoc. Rumor has it that upon being ejected from the region, the Natives cursed the prominent Clarksdale area in particular, and as a result, it has been plagued with turmoil ever since.

Believe in curses or no, one cannot help but think it's pretty uncanny that the Native American intersection would later be the same place where Robert Johnson purportedly sold his soul to the devil at the 'crossroads'. Who knows whether he was even aware of the town's tribal history, and yet, he claimed that that's where one needs to go if they want to deal in curses and black magic trade off's. Johnson sold his soul for the ability to play the blues, and indeed it is in the spirituous energy of his music, and that of his acolytes, that all things mysterious and painful about Clarksdale are best laid out for the world to interpret.

John Lee Hooker’s spirituous Delta Blues
Robert Johnson

Chief among those who followed in Robert Johnson's footsteps was the Coahoma County born and bred, John Lee Hooker. And never was Lee Hooker's contribution to the Clarksdale/delta blues mystique more evident than on Original Folk Blues.

On the surface, Original Folk is a record made up of songs about relationship woe, love, lust—the old wheelhouse themes. But getting to the heart of Lee Hooker's music is less about looking for thematic or poetic prowess in the lyrics, as it is about letting the dark-chill atmosphere rattle its way into your guts. He was a soul man but not in the way that, say, Otis or Sam Cooke were soul men; rather in a dark shamanistic type way that, in-turn, provides a porthole to the swampy pain-lands that are the Mississippi delta. That shamanistic-soul-man quality is what made Lee Hooker a master. Sure, he could rifle off blues licks with the best of them, but it was the ability - so prevalent on Original Folk—to get his fingers underneath the dark energies of the delta blues and convey its workings that made him a man apart.

The broken, pained and strained quality is really what sets Original Folk, and indeed, John Lee Hooker apart.

"Crawling King Snake", for example, walks less with the predictable chops of a blues standard in halftime, and more with the enigmatic quality of later experimental blues patterns by the likes of Cream and the Rolling Stones. Difference being, of course, that Lee Hooker beat them all to the party by about twenty years with that style of playing. In talking about the resonance of "Crawling King Snake", it's almost impossible not to mention Jim Morrison: a man who offered himself as the great white shaman of the 1960s and took on "CKS" as one of the anthems to solidify his reputation as such. One can hardly fault Morrison's acumen. The song fit both his image and philosophical aesthetic to a tee: dark brooding creature slithering it's way into town, entrancing your daughters and wives, and propagating some sort of mysterious hedonism that you can't quite put a finger on.

John Lee Hooker’s spirituous Delta Blues
Jim Morrison & The Doors recorded 'Crawlin' King Snake' on their 1971 album L.A. Woman

Only rarely does Original Folk slip into formulaic territory: "Sally Mae" and "Let's Talk it Over" lean towards some traditional blues trudging, and they fall out of sync with the buzzing energy of the rest of the album as a result. "Let Your Daddy Ride", on the other hand, is one of the best examples of the album's energetic pulse. It's essentially a dance hall number, complete with honky tonk piano and a sharp time signature. But what's unique about the song is its level of distortion coupled with the fact that the recording sounds like it took place in some sort of echo chamber. The outcome being that the mind's eye is transported less to a swinging bar room, as to a dilapidated factory building where a half-broken gramophone is sounding off from somewhere beneath the dust and rubble.

John Lee Hooker’s spirituous Delta Blues
John Lee Hooker in the studio

The broken, pained and strained quality is really what sets Original Folk, and indeed, John Lee Hooker apart. Further, his particular brand of spirituous pain and mystique forms an inextricable link between his music and his birthplace of Clarksdale. A song like "Whistlin' and Moanin' Blues", for example: how could that have been written by anyone other than one of the few bluesmen who tapped into the cursed energies of the town on the crossroads? - at about 1:46mins into the track one could even swear they heard the devil laughing in the background for a second. And after listening through this record a few times, on top of taking a trip down Highway 61 to Clarksdale, it's not so hard to believe that dark, seductive airs could really be aflow.

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