A lot of folks say a lot of things sometimes and knowing what to take as fact and what as fiction can be hard to tell. Some folk even go so far as to show evidence in the form of pictures to back up what they're saying. Take for example the issue about who listens to The Blues. If you were to judge by what some people say, and the pictures they show you, you'd think it was only white people who were listening to The Blues.
Black people don't listen to the Blues; they listen to Rap and Hip-Hop is the authoritative word from those "who know". Look at the crowds at House Of Blues and other places like that – how many Black people do you usually see in the audience? None – well there you go – Black people don't listen to the Blues.
Of course there's no way that the possibility exists that Black people just don't go to the House Of Blues, I mean who wouldn't want to go hang out in a House Of Blues? Nope it must be that Black people don't listen to Blues anymore.
Well somebody needs to tell the people of Chicago that, because they don't seem to be paying any attention to the voice of authority. All you have to do is watch the Delmark Records release of Trail Dragger's DVD My Head Is Bald recorded live at Vern's Friendly Lounge on the West Side and you'll see how out of touch Chicagoans are. The audience is at least three quarters Black and none of them seem to be to upset about finding themselves there.
I've seen the inside of a lot of bars that look like Vern's but I've never been in one where the band setting up in the corner has Lurrie Bell on lead guitar and Billy Branch with a tool belt full of harmonicas. There's also a young white cat (Kevin Shanahan) with really long hair fooling around with an old open body Gibson, and the rhythm section of drums (Kenny Smith) and bass (Bob Stroger) looks to be the same one I had seen playing on another live DVD from Delmark.
The people are all ages, and they are all here for the regular Sunday five pm show put on by Tail Dragger. Now that's not his real name of course, supposedly Howlin' Wolf hung it on him when he used to sit in with him in the sixties. He was born James Yancy Jones in Altheimer, Arkansas in 1940.
When he moved up to Chicago in 1966 he was still working a day job, but would hang out at the Blues bars at night and sit in when he could. In the sixties the old Masters like Howlin' Wolf could be found playing at places like Vern's and the Blues that Tail Dragger sings is still what he learned at the feet of those people. There's nothing cultured or slick about it, it's as raw as an open wound, as rough as sandpaper and will send shivers up your spine listening to it.
Tail looks to be about six feet seven inches tall, but he's built like a bean pole and wears a massive Stetson hat on his head so it could be an illusion and he might only be six-two. But he sure is resplendent with his sparkling grey shirt, bow tie, and Stetson. He carries himself with the assurance of a rooster who knows he's king of the coop, and Mick Jagger could take lessons on how to strut from him.
But the real show begins when he starts to sing. After telling everybody about how he's old now and hopes they don't mind if he sits down while he sings, he coils himself up in a chair just in front and between Lurrie and Billy. He gives an imperious nod of his head, and they're away.
After only about two lines of "Sitting Here Singing My Blues" he's on his feet and walking the length and breadth of the bar for the whole number. He shimmies and he shakes, singing and flirting with the women in the audience while keeping track of the band. Every so often he'll turn back to the band and call out "take it Lurrie – or Billy –or Kevin and the named player will solo.
I've been avoiding the subject of Tail Dragger's voice for as long as I could but I can't put it off forever. The problem is how do you describe the indescribable? I could use some fancy, almost romantic language, about it being the voice of experience; that it is a road map on which can be read the pitfalls and joys that come with living life to its fullest or other such shit.
But that doesn't even come close to describing the experience of seeing Tail Dragger open his mouth and start singing and his whole heart, mind, and body being forced through his throat and out his mouth. But even when he's singing stuff like "My Woman Is Gone", and walking right up to every woman in the bar and singing it to her, it sounds more like a song of joy then someone mourning a break up.
Tail Dragger might be singing the Blues, but it's Blues that expresses a passion for life, that recognizes that even the stuff that causes pain has value and needs to be celebrated in song. The truth doesn't win very many beauty contests, and Tail Dragger's voice isn't likely to be even voted in as Miss Congeniality, but it has a beauty far richer than anything you're liable to find emitting from an easy listening station.
Sexuality, passion, pain, joy, mischief; anything and everything you can think of that’s part of being human and feeling is contained in the voice. From the humour of the title track "My Head Is Bald" (which had every man in the audience with a bald pate removing their hats with pride) to the sting of "Prison Blues" Trail Dragger's voice covers every emotion under the sun and all the ones that come out at night too.
People who say that Black people don't listen to the Blues anymore have obviously been listening to the wrong bands playing in the wrong bars. How many Black people are going to go to white bars to hear white people sing their music when the can go to Vern's and listen to people like Tail Dragger sing it the way it was meant to be played.
With My Head Is Bald Delmark Records delivers another great recording of a live performance from a local bar in Chicago. The camera work is wonderful, staying with Tail Dragger when needed and switching back to the band for the solos. The sound quality is spot on too with every little nuance of voice and musical instrument being caught to perfection. You can also set the sound for whatever your system can handle, from plain stereo right through to DTS, which ensures the best quality for everyone.
Watching My Head Is Bald by Tail Dragger is an experience that shouldn't be missed by anyone who loves and adores the Blues. This is what it's really all about and what I've always thought the Blues should sound like.