Little G Weevil, |
A thick fog of romantic mist surrounds the blues, emanating outward from a core of racial essentialism. Widespread belief holds that the blues comprise the musical -- and much of the emotional -- core of the African-American experience. Like it or not, that belief affects just about anybody who plays or listens to the genre. Historians of our native vernacular sounds have both constructed the notion and, latterly, torn it down.
To the extent that it is recoverable, the history appears to be that inchoate versions of something eventually to be known as blues showed up in the rural South after the Civil War. By the turn of the last century, blues could be heard in New Orleans and on other big-city streets. No one disputes that black people created it, though the form was shaped in good part from a range of co-existing folk styles, including ones learned from white neighbors. In the 1920s, as the commercial recording industry picked up on the sales possibilities of grassroots music, African-Americans cut a host of blues records. So did a fair number of white musicians.
What ended up in the marketplace did not necessarily reflect organic developments in the field. Record-company artist-and-repertory men (yes, they were overwhelmingly men) had found that black consumers liked something called "blues" -- thus, they insisted that the artists they signed meet that perceived demand by cutting more blues recordings, even though in truth African-American folk music did not begin and end there. Eventually, however, blues crowded out other, commercially unfavored styles.
Blues' moment as a leading form of black popular music is long gone. Today, blues survives as a marginal music in the way of other revival genres. Mostly, it's white people who keep it alive. If there was ever any true racial essentialism, it is reflected only in a distant mirror. Which brings us to Little G Weevil.
Nobody was ever born such, obviously. The "Weevil" owes its derivation to the boll weevil, subject of the eponymous black ballad familiar to all who know their traditional American music. "Little" sits in front of lots of old-time bluesmen's nicknames. The cover art of Moving is splashed in noirish blue. It is impossible, therefore, to judge whether the suitcase-toting guy depicted in two photographs is white or black. This cannot be unintentional. If it isn't a cynical marketing ploy, it's a wry comment on the color of contemporary blues.
In his mid-30s the pseudonymous Little G is -- one should not be surprised at this -- a white man. Not only that, he commenced his blues education in his far-away native Budapest, Hungary, where he marveled at records by John Lee Hooker and other American blues stars. Later, he emigrated to the United States and to Memphis, there to launch a career as bluesman. Can this story be anything other than a curiosity?
Things grow even curiouser when one puts the CD on and hears someone who sings uncannily -- and I let me stress that uncannily -- like such deep-Mississippi legends as Son House and Bukka White, with sharply written, seemingly authentic songs to match. (One, by the way, strays from the form; "Advice," adapted from the melody of the Appalachian "Waterbound," affords the impression of being played on a fretless banjo, though the actual instrument is, we read, a "St. Blues cigar box guitar.") Good as all this undoubtedly is, is this just rank impersonation? Or can it be the voice, literal and figurative, of an unusually gifted musician to whom this is -- to borrow a phrase from the late Mississippi Fred McDowell -- the straight and natural blues? And, moreover, the blues straight and natural to him?
If indulged too long, this kind of thinking can easily drive you nuts. Or you can just enjoy the music, which is wonderful.
music review by
14 September 2013
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