The blues rose out of the churches and the fields of African slaves in America. Both the work songs and the church music had roots that disappeared into tribal rhythms from their former homes. With each new generation born in the new world, Africa moved further into the past and the slave's music started to adapt features of the other cultures they came into contact with. For the majority this meant the Anglo-Saxon heritage of their masters, for a few it was French or Spanish influence, and even in some places, Native American.
So, depending on the region of the country the music developed differently. Who knows what the exact set of circumstances were that brought Robert Johnson to the crossroads that day to sell his soul for the gift of music, but we do know it was down in Mississippi where the delta blues rose out of the mud flats like steam from puddles after a thunder storm on a hot summer's day. Instead of singing about the power of God, it sang about the cares of men. The bars became the blues singer's pulpit where they could sing about life on earth and not the here-after.
It was when the descendants of the Scotch/Irish white settlers started to combine the music they had brought over from England, with the blues their former slaves were singing, that we got rock and roll. Since the time that Elvis started recording songs he had heard people like Big Moma Thornton perform, the blues and rock music have been continually cross-pollinating, and now they share many of the same characteristics.
When you listen to the music of a modern electric blues player you mainly hear rock and roll's influence in the guitar playing, especially the leads employed by some of the more exuberant players. Listening to Iron Man, Michael Burkes' most recent release on Alligator Records, gives you a perfect example of someone who has taken the power of rock and roll's electric guitar solos and wrapped it in the soul of the blues.
With so much of rock and roll being blues based to begin with, it's kind of hard sometimes to differentiate between a guy playing electric blues and just another hard rocker. It's when you listen to someone like Michael Burks that you can really hear the difference between the two. For, while he can tear up the guitar with the best of them, it doesn't prevent him from maintaining his blues sensibilities. You can hear it in the way he sings, in the material he writes or chooses to sing, and the over all feel of his music, that deep in his heart he will always be a blues musician.
The opening track of the disc, "Love Disease" is a great example of this as he's written a song that contains all the elements of a blues number and rips off some great screaming guitar solos. The song is about pretty much what you'd think it's about based on the title, infected by the desire for love he's at a loss as to what he should do. Calling his doctor doesn't do him any good, of course, so he's just going to have to figure it out on his own.
Pretty standard stuff I know, but with the blues it doesn't matter as much what you sing, but how you sing it. Burks takes these lyrics and turns them into a searing blues number. In the breaks, his guitar is so hot that it sounds like it could melt the paint on the walls of any bar that he's playing in, yet his soulful voice gives the lyrics a strength of passion that you're not likely to hear in a rock and roll song.
Of course it doesn't hurt that he's got a really tight band backing him up and holding it all together. Wayne Sharp on organ and piano, Don Garrett on bass, and Chuck "Popcorn" Louden on drums provide a solid foundation for Burks to build on. When Burks takes off on one of his solo flights, they stay back on the ground keeping the sound firmly rooted in the blues. Music like this is a group effort and these guys work really well together to make sure that everything sounds like its supposed to.
As the blues has influenced other music over the years it has also drawn upon the music its inspired to ensure that it continues to grow and evolve. Michael Burks' brand of the blues has taken its lead from the rock and roll it gave birth to by interlacing hard edged guitar solos with the soul of the original to create his version. Iron Man is good solid electric blues with a little extra soul added on top for its own special flavour.