Monday, September 05, 2005
In some ways, bluesman R.L. Burnside was more a character in some southern gothic novel than a living, breathing human being. Born in Harmontown Mississippi in 1926, Burnside drank hard, fathered 11 children, participated in welfare fraud and spent time (though not much) in jail for murder. The story goes that Burnside was released from his murder sentence after a plantation owner convinced a judge that Burnside's help was urgently required in the cotton fields. Burnside served three months and didn't seem particularly remorseful about his victim. "I didn't mean to kill nobody," he told the New Yorker in 2002. "I just meant to shoot the sonofabitch in the head. Him dying was between him and The Lord." RL had his own meeting with The Lord on Thursday. He died in a Memphis hospital at the age of 78. Burnside's life and death have me thinking a fair bit about concepts like "cred" and the importance of an artist's backstory. Musically there's no arguing Burnside's hill country blues are wonderful. These songs use the simplest of tools (a single guitar chord and a voice like a rusty door hinge) to evoke a distinctive time and place. They also roll with such insistent and incessant rhythm; it's nearly impossible to listen without tapping a toe or shaking a rump. It's a sound that millions of people around the world associate with the Deep South. Listen to Miss Maybelle Listen to Shake Em On Down (Go! Buy the Rekkids) And yet I can't help but wonder how MUCH of my interest in Burnside (or at least my initial interest, the interest that caused me and thousands of others to pick up his records in the first place) relies on the way we were first introduced to his music (for me, through his collaborations with the JSBX) and the "credibility" of his story as a bluesman. I wonder if, at first, I was more interested in the backstory sounding real than the music. Confused? No one could blame you. I feel like I'm writing in circles. Let's put it another way: Do you think you can actually hear Burnside's life experience - the poverty, violence and whiskey - in his music? If you can, does it follow that this music could NOT have been made by someone without those experiences? If someone - an actuary in the suburbs, say, or this guy - made a record in 1943 that sounded exactly like RL Burnside (or Robert Johnson, or Big Boy Crudup or Blind Lemon Jefferson) could it have been just as good? If it could, why are we still drawn to stories of bluesmen who did time, jazz players who did heroin and rappers who ran with gangs? In short, are we hung up on authenticity? How much does music being "real" matter? Is the actual music improved by authenticity? Is a lack of it fatal? Is Jay-Z more important a rapper because he used to hussle? Did Loretta Lynn's pipes improve because she grew up not being able to afford shoes? What is cred and how exactly do you earn it? Listen to Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues (Go1 Buy the Rekkids!) Your answer to those questions questions will, I think, go a long way towards dictating your reactions to popular music, if not all art, but they won't change the way I feel about RL Burnside. That man knew how to holler.