I love to talk about the blues and some of the other genres we often associate with it. I have a fascination with those “cross-over zones” where the blues “come together” with other great genres of American music.
Although I get that music transcends our labels, it’s also true that artists, critics and fans need to throw around some terms to help us make sense of it all.
For some reason this idea of “cross-over zones” has become a BIG deal for me. I think of the “blues-country zone” and artists like the great Jimmy Rogers, Lee Roy Parnell, his harp-playin’ bro Rob Roy Parnell and others.
In that very cool “blues-jazz” fusion zone, you’ve got people like Joe Williams (not “BIG Joe”, the other guy) Count Basie, and modern ones like Jimmy Witherspoon and Robben Ford. And I must not leave out Billie Holiday or the late Eva Cassidy.
Speaking of modern artists, John Mayer is amazingly adept at fusing, Rock, Pop, Jazz and Blues; I’m not sure if anyone is as good at that as he is.
Mississippi blues man “Little Milton” Campbell was often described as a “soul-blues” fusionist and I’d put Bobby Rush and Bobby “Blue” Bland in that category as well. Seeing Bobby Bland live here in Barnett Park in Orlando was quite a thrill for me. That was back in ’97 if my memory is working.
Then there’s that whole “blues-rock” thing; that zone really sets me off! There are so many greats who have “hung out” in this awesome zone! I’ll name only a few here: Johnny Winter, Stevie Ray, Walter Trout, Joe Bonamassa, Jimmy Thackery, and of course, Jimi Hendrix! What a line-up that is! Stevie Ray also loved jazz, of course and was a BIG fan of jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell.
Having said all that, I probably hang out more in the “blues-folk” zone than any other one! I play acoustic a lot, partly because it’s so easy to do, what with the minimum of gear that’s needed, etc., and partially because here in Central Florida, the “Friends of Florida Folk” are so active and sponsor so many great shows, fests and activities.
Josh White might just be the “best of the bunch” when it comes to artists who had one foot in the folk world and the other one in the blues. Josh Sr., I mean.
His “set list” and mine would have a rather large overlap; he did a lot of spirituals and gospel as well! As many of my friends know, I got my start singing in our family gospel quartet at the age of six and sang in church choirs and youth chorales all the way up until college. (And that’s where the I got bit by the “blues bug”; more about that in a minute.)
Josh White was well-known as a New York folk-blues singer and guitarist who helped “get the blues over” with a fan base that was already “tuned-in” to folk music. Because his work featured liberal helpings of gospel, he was sometimes billed as “Joshua White, the Singing Christian”.
Josh died in New York in 1969 and his son, Josh White Jr., has followed in his father’s footsteps, performing originals and much of his father’s material as well.
In 1973 as was a 17 year old music-lovin’ frosh at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa when Josh Jr. came to campus to play as one of our Student Activity Concerts. My room mate had just begun to introduce me to Muddy Waters, harmonica wizard Little Walter and some of those cats; thanks again, Dr. Carver! I was already into Johnny Winter and had been introduced to the music of Willie Dixon in the same way as so many other white suburban kids, via Led Zep records. So you might say that I was really ready for a life-changing experience, and that’s the best way to describe what happened to me that night in the Dining Commons there in my freshman year! I’ve been a confirmed blues freak ever since and began performing the blues in the mid ’90s.
I do feel as though I owe a real debt of gratitude to Josh White Jr. for the show that night. No doubt I’m only one of many white middle-class kids who may never have “discovered” this most incredible genre of American music if Josh had not been booked to play at our schools. Josh spent years in the ’70s and ’80s playing hundreds of college campuses, a fact of which he is quite justifiably proud. And I and many others today love and support and play the blues because Josh booked so many of those college dates. Thank you, sir!
Josh’s home page has a fine bio, of course, and one on his Dad as well. His site is here.
To have a look at the site for the “Friends of Florida Folk”, the outstanding non-profit org here in the Sunshine State working tirelessly to promote and preserve folk music, click here.
At the end of the day, all authentic genres of music are merely branches off the same tree. These days, we often lump all of it together under the term Americana. I like the term. But until terms and labels which have been in use for a couple of centuries lose all meaning, it’s good-and useful-to break it down, take a closer look and remember why we love the music so well.