Tuesday, July 18, 2006

You need more Memphis Slim in your life

These days, I’ve been enjoying the music of Memphis Slim. You should too. Because, of all the great musicians to come out of the American South, Memphis Slim is one of the very best. Sure, there are blues singers who are more well-known, like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. And there are blues singers who hew more closely to the folk roots of the form, like Bukka White and Memphis Minnie. Charley Patton and Robert Johnson are more “historically significant”, if that’s a criterion by which you judge music. Junior Kimbrough and John Lee Hooker are more raw and scary-sounding, if authenticity is your thing. But Memphis Slim, in my book, tops them all. Why? It’s simple, really: Memphis Slim is his own man, making his own music.

Here’s the deal. Too often, the blues comes across as a static, limited form. You’ve got your hard-luck lyrics and your keening guitars, thumping drums and ringing piano, sometimes a screeching harmonica and sometimes a moaning sax. To someone not completely in love with the genre, it ends up all sounding pretty much the same. At it’s best, it sounds like down-low and soulful background music. At it’s worst, it’s like one long beer-commercial. Memphis Slim, however, is unique. He had more of a song-writing sense than most of his contemporaries, and more of an arranger’s ear. As a result, even his material sounds fresh even decades after it was recorded. It cannot be mistaken for “generic blues”, even though it employs all of the usual tools of the form. In Memphis Slim’s hands, those tools are just the beginning, not an end in themselves. So, while all those artists I listed in the previous paragraph are certainly great and important musicians, I find I cannot listen to a whole album of their work without getting antsy. Not so with Memphis Slim. I could listen to him for hours and hours on end.

But maybe I shouldn’t be so theoretical. Any appreciation of Memphis Slim that ignores his tremendous piano abilities and his beautiful, booming voice is missing the point. Sometimes his hands create delicate little trills, other times they thunder like nobody’s business. Sometimes he croons, other times he hollers. Sometimes he’s funny, other times he’s lovestruck and lonesome. It doesn’t matter what he does, it all sounds good to me.

He was a complete and generous artist, one of mid-century America’s finest. Which is why it bears mentioning that all his native country offered him was obscurity, penury and racial terrorism. The United States of that era was cruel and ignorant, and so he decamped to Paris in 1962 There he held court as one of the foremost overseas ambassadors of black music, eventually becoming a Commander in the French Order of Arts and Letters. He died in 1988, at the age of 72.