Friday, January 30, 2009

How I Learned To Sing The Blues

Drifting through the town
Drinking up the night

Trying not to drown...

- "The Ballad of Sad Young Men" by Frances Landesman

by Sonny Smith

The way I learned piano was that a kid I knew handed me a demo tape by John Allair who played on some Van Morrison records. On this homemade tape, Mr. Allair was playing old blues covers and something about how simple the renditions were made me give it a try myself. I was already into blues music and played guitar but something about this tape made me want to try singing and playing piano.

As I slowly failed out of my freshman year of college, so did I slowly learn the piano. I was living in a mountain town in Colorado. This was 1991. There wasn’t much culture. I met a very large woman with long hair parted in the middle named Robin at an AA meeting who played Saturday nights at a real chi-chi bourgeois ski-town hotel and bar place with dazzling copper all over the place and rich people in ski boots hobbling around like sunburned retards. She sat on a stool in the corner next to the gimpy little piano and played Eagles covers and Jackson Browne tunes on flute. She played quite well.

She explained to me after a meeting that she didn’t want her gig anymore cause it was tempting her to drink so I showed up on a snowy winters night at the club and told them I was there to take Robin's gig. I had to play three hours and I only knew about four songs: "Key to the Highway" (Memphis Slim), "Mellow Down Easy" (Jimmy Walters), "Bus Driver" (Muddy Waters), and "Corrina, Corinna," a spectacular version I learned from the Taj Mahal record Natch'l Blues.

I played these songs over and over again for three hours. I was horrible. A total farce. Days later the bartender slapped an old sounding blues nickname on me for the add in the local paper: ‘Sonnyland’ Smith it read, “plays and sings the blues every Friday and Saturday night”, and thus my new self was born. I was acutely aware of being white and singing blues songs (so badly)- I wasn’t, I felt, too far away from a minstrel in black face… on the other hand I was so excited by this new transformation into entertainer that I let it go. I severed the ‘land’ part and kept the name Sonny.

At this same time I went and got a radio show on the college station, the blues show on Sunday nights, and methodically stole about seven hundred blues records one backpack full at a time over the course of a year. The station's entire blues section on vinyl. I felt absolutely no guilt or hesitation, I don’t know why. I stole some stereo equipment from a condemned office building around this time so I guess I was dabbling in criminality anyway. Later I returned all the ones I didn’t want. About ninety five percent of them. The most important record I discovered from this dubious campaign was Jimmy Yancey.

A Chicago blues man, Yancey’s left hand is a wonderful display of blues minimalism, completely sparse and un-fancy yet totally driving. That left hand is incomparable. It’s impressive to me, like it has a no-nonsense job to do, like a well-oiled machine, yet it’s also full of grace and nuance and feel. It also liberates his right hand to be totally relaxed with the delivery of the melodies or the responses to the lyrics. He created an illusion for me that the right hand was like a character, a character who could take or leave the whole scene, but since we’re all here perhaps this character will tell you a little story. And then zing, the story is short, economical and marvelous. Mysteriously, every song ends in E flat.

Sometimes his wife sings and sometimes, like on Joseph Spence recordings, you can hear his wife chiming in on vocals from another room as if she’s doing something else (cooking or ironing I imagine…but who knows).

I began making trips into Denver every couple weeks all by myself to go buy records with my new gig money. I bought Jimmy Yancey, Memphis Slim, Sunnyland Slim, Otis Spann, Pinetop Perkins, all the greats. I had a really messed up face in those years, severe acne and other weird dermal issues that kept me totally anti-social and separated from joining any kind of group of people. I was an utter loner. I was so embarrassed by my physical appearance that I didn’t even allow my parents to take photographs around holiday visits and such. To add to this freakish feeling I became obsessed with this unhip music. No one I knew liked the blues. Old blues was kind of a drag to young folks. While they might have respected it, no one sat around and listened to it intently. I should make a distinction here between the sad laments and the barrelhouse boogie. I didn’t really give a shit about barrelhouse boogie and fast played blues. I just liked the really sparse simple sad ones.

I liked to walk around Denver in the old skid row district after my gigs and go to weird bars. I was into the beat writers and I imagined this was where Neal Cassidy or Allen Ginsburg came up (along with the blues I was obsessed with beat writers). Looking back, I can now see, I was more or less a teenage drunk. (Actually I just turned twenty-one by the time I got to Denver.) I got wasted at these shows, and I got into a few fights around town. I guess I was a rather dark young man. Songs like "Mother Earth" by Memphis Slim were really beautiful gothic songs. I suppose they fit my temperament.

Yes, the music was dark and eerie, but it was also funny music to me for some reason. It made me laugh. Professor Longhair, Sunnyland Slim, Cow Cow Davenport, and Yancey with their songs like "Lean Bacon" or "Everlasting Blues." It’s a kind of art that is funny and sad, earthy and elegant at the same time, which is my favorite kind of art. Above all blues is about purging. At least if it’s done right. It's about emotion. You've got to have guts to get the poison out of you. It can be a cathartic transformation if there is some personal truth being bloodletted ("Crossroads" by Robert Johnson) or it can be just stupid pandering bullshit if nothing personal is risked ("Crossroads" by Eric Clapton). Anyhow, for whatever reasons, rock ‘n’ roll didn’t even affect me back then. I didn’t even consider it. I didn’t even register that it existed, while old slow blues songs became a private back room to adjourn to.

Well, pretty soon I moved to Denver and found a couple weekly stints around town playing blues piano. I got a lot better and didn’t feel like such a fake. For no completely conscious reason I stopped drinking too much. I started riding my bike a lot. I took a few classical piano lessons from an eccentric Hungarian pianist. I went to a dermatologist who sold me some super duper high-powered drugs that cleared up my face. I came out of my shell a bit and acquired a girlfriend. It didn’t last, but it changed some things. I made some friends. A neighbor turned me onto Leonard Cohen. After a year or two I began writing my own songs which didn’t come out as blues songs at all, just weird folky fragments full of unripened lyrics.

And presto, after a while I really began to discover music in its entirety, and verily I left that small corner I was living in, the slow dark emotional blues, and ventured into the giant breathing cosmos of music with it’s infinite amount of mysterious solar systems floating inside.


"I Received A Letter" mp3
by Jimmy Yancey, 1940.
available on Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 1 (1939-1940)

"Mother Earth" mp3
by Memphis Slim, 1950.
out of print

"Slim's Blues" mp3
by Memphis Slim, 1950.
out of print

"Thinking Blues" mp3
by Bessie Smith, 1928.
available on Empress Of The Blues Volume 2

"The Ballad of Sad Young Men" mp3
by Rickie Lee Jones, 1991.
available on Pop Pop

"Corrina, Corinna" mp3
by Bob Dylan, 1963.
available on The Freewheelin Bob Dylan Outtakes

"This Is My Story, This Is My Song" mp3
by Sonny Smith, 2002.
available on This Is My Story, This Is My Song

photo: © David Fenton


Anonymous said...

nice job

patsystone said...

Great story, from another piano player!

Mark said...

Funny and sad, earthy and elegant. Right on, bro.

Anonymous said...

"or it can be just stupid pandering bullshit if nothing personal is risked ("Crossroads" by Eric Clapton)"

stupid pandering bullshit???

Who the fuck do you think you are, kid?

You're not fit to scrape the mud off Eric's boots.

CJS said...

Beautiful story, beautifully eloquently told. This music really can "bring you to your senses" (Joe Cooley), can't it.

Oh, and, Rocky Frisco? Just back the fuck up, unless and until you write (or play, or sing) anything half as honest. The only thing about art that matters is whether it speaks to you. If Clapton speaks to you, but not to Sonny, then just back the fuck up, right? There's no "right" or "wrong" there.

Thanks, Sonny.

HowMarvellous said...

great post, and fine music too.