What is it about the Europeans and their fascination with the Blues? Some of the best American Blues artists today are making their living playing concerts and recording albums in Europe, and making occasional forays back into the United States to tour.
The Blues in its purest form has never really caught on here on mainstream radio. Oh sure, there have been brief upsurges in awareness when people like Dan Akroyd and John Belushi briefly popularized Chicago style electric Blues with their "Blues Brothers" personae. There have been other musicians who have managed to get air play and popularity playing the blues too, but to say it ever achieved its rightful place on the charts and in the hearts of North Americans would be wrong.
Initially there was the race problem, as Blues was primarily performed by black musicians and in the fifties and early sixties segregation in North America was much more pronounced than it is today. But even with white artists performing the music now, and a sizeable moneyed black audience with disposable income, neither population still seems inclined to give the music the support other forms of popular music receive.
Perhaps it's because in some ways Europe has more of a history of blues music as part of its mainstream culture than we have over here. That may sound odd to hear, but if you think about it for a bit it makes sense. In the 1920's all the nightclubs in Paris featured black American artists playing jazz and blues music. In those days, in the United States and Canada, there was as much chance of black bands playing outside of black bars as a Klan Grand Wizard being asked to sit in with George Clinton today.
After the six-year hiatus that was World War Two, the music scene picked up right where it left off and it's been chugging along ever since. Today one of the better Blues record labels is based out of Germany, Ruf records, and they produce some of the best Blues music from around the world. The impact of performances and recordings has been so great a whole generation of new Blues musicians has sprung up in Europe, with such "traditional" Blues hotbeds as Finland and the former Yugoslavia both producing young guitar players.
Mick Jaggar talked about how listening to the music of people like Lightening Hopkins and others helped shape the direction the Rolling Stones would take as a band. But these new players are not interested in simply being influenced, they want to be the sound of those guitars and sing those songs.
Now, as usual, I'm getting ahead of myself – but not too much. You see, in spite of the fact that the events took place in 1953; the recordings are just now being released to the public. On February 26th and 28th Big Bill Broonzy performed concerts in Amsterdam. These concerts had been recorded at the time, using the best sound equipment available, but the tapes had never been mastered let alone pressed into record.
What makes the quality of these tapes that much more superior than any equivalent live concert was the fact the man who recorded the concerts was a movie sound recorder, and later Dutch film producer and director Louis Van Gasteren. He used his film equipment. I have never heard a live recording from that time period where the sound is so impeccable. You can hear everything in perfect proportion down to the coughs and shuffles in the audience.
Each disc of Amsterdam Live Concerts 1953 is one of the two nights, and either Bill changed his program night to night or they've edited it to be this way, but there are no repeats from one night to the next. (Although he does forget what he played at the beginning of the night and repeats himself, but that seems to be more an influence of the gin that he was paid in for letting his music be recorded.) Contained within his set lists are a basic primer of some of the most important and famous blues, folk, and spiritual music of the first half of the twentieth century and the last half of the nineteenth.
In between songs he proves himself to be a raconteur of the highest quality as well. The sets are sprinkled with anecdotes relating to music, songs, the blues lifestyle, and life in the South and being a black person. He opens the first disc by talking about the songs he's going to sing and what he has to call them. He says because somebody has decided the music he plays is folk music, spirituals, or the blues that's what they have to be called. He'd just call them songs if he was able to, but others have ideas on what they are supposed to be.
That should give you a general idea of Bill's gentle, almost sly humour. It's tempting to call it folksy, but considering his attitude towards labels I'll just shy away from that. Most of his little talks are introductions to his songs and they are like mini histories for each of them. It can be what he knows about the history of the song, who wrote it etc., the historical events the song is based on ("Back-Water Blues" is about the 1920's flooding of the Gulf Coast Mississippi towns during a storm where 1200 hundred black people lost their lives. The back-water of the title refers to what happened when the Levees of Louisiana were closed which forced all the water to "back" up and flooded out the poor black coastal communities further down the river)
In some ways listening to these concerts Bill gave is to take part in an oral history class of the South from a black person's perspective at that time. You learn more from listening to him and his songs than you would ever learn from a textbook covering the same period. What makes him so good is he just makes observations, he's never overtly political, critical, or anything at all like that. He simply points out things he sees and lets the audience formulate their own opinions from the implications of what he has described.
He has a wonderful voice; I suppose it would be a baritone, which serves him well on any of the songs he sings. It has a richness and fullness I more associate with a singer like Paul Robeson than other Blues singers. I'm tempted to use the word relaxed to describe his singing style, but that implies he lacks intensity, which is definitely not the case.
Perhaps it's more that unlike his contemporaries he doesn't have to push his voice to get it to do what he wants it to do. He just opens up his mouth and the music pours out unimpeded and smooth.
As well as the two discs, the package Amsterdam Live Concerts 1953 includes an extensive booklet with both background on the history of the recordings, and first hand recollections of the people who knew Bill when he was in Holland and Europe for those years, including those of his second wife, a Dutch woman named Pim van Isveldt. But Bill never really got to enjoy his second marriage because he died of cancer of the vocal chords in 1958. It seems a sad irony that a man with such a smooth sounding voice should have died losing his voice, and for the last year of his life talking was problematic and he couldn't sing a note.
This double disc set is set up in half book form so the nearly fifty-page booklet is full sized with nice sized pictures and print that is actually legible. Without a doubt it has to be one of the best put-together packages of its kind I've ever seen. Amsterdam Live Concerts 1953 is a fitting memorial to a singer and performer of the highest quality. If you have no other recordings of Big Bill Boonzy then these should be the ones you seriously consider purchasing, both for the quality of the music and the wealth of information offered.