You know you are listening to something special when you
hear the first screaming notes from the Howlin’ Wolf song “Louise” on Live at Rooster’s Lounge, the latest CD
by Tail Dragger, aka James Y Jones. This is deep blues Chicago style circa 1958-1965 characterized
by the interplay of wailing full tone harp and slashing electric guitars. The
world and music has changed a lot since those glory days of the postwar Chicago blues, but Tail
Dragger has not. And that is a good thing. This album and the one he released
before it, 2005’s My Head is Bald – Live
at Vern’s Friendly Lounge are brilliant and authentic examples of the music
that rocked the world. What’s more, the music is just as fresh and vibrant now
as it was back then.
blues was the music of the great black diaspora from the American south to the
cities of the north that started during World War II. Tail Dragger, born in
1940, didn’t settle in Chicago
for good until 1966. Like millions who arrived before him, he was working class.
He made his living as a mechanic. But he also dug music and began hanging
around in the small neighborhood bars and nightclubs on the African American
West Side of the city. It was there that he met his musical mentor, the great
Howlin’ Wolf, who gave him his nickname. In those days, even as younger blacks
were gravitating to Motown and James Brown, the audience in the West Side bars
was the same color as the musicians, unlike today when what remains of the Chicago blues is played
for white audiences, often consisting of a lot of tourists, by black musicians in
decidedly safe parts of town.
But back in the glory day there were dozens of little dive
bars in the South and West Side of Chicago with names like Theresa’s and
Stella’s Lounge, places adorned with Christmas tree lights 12 months a year.
And you could probably find a pistol somewhere near or in the cash box. Demark,
which helped create the Chicago blues by issuing
arguably the first blues LP, Junior Wells and Buddy Guy’s Hoodoo Man Blues, made the brilliant decision to record Tail
Dragger in two of the few remaining West Side
blues bars. With the destruction of the American working class and downsizing
of jobs overseas, what were once vibrant working class communities are now
often neglected and bombed out neighborhoods with streets meaner now than there
were half century ago. And in recording Tail Dragger, they recorded not only his
music, but his talking to the audience between songs. In the glory days,
performers in these clubs were not on a stage; they were often part of the
audience and they would stray into the crowds, talking to folks, and even taking
their music out into the streets at times. They’d go wherever the mike cord
would let them.
The result is that Live
at Rooster’s Lounge has the feel of a historic recording but it was made
just last year. On it, Tail Dragger covers two songs by Wolf, two by Little
Walter, one each by Sonny boy Williamson, Big Joe Williams and John Lee Hooker,
along with four of his own originals. And make no mistake this is the uncompromising
blues. On his own song, the slow burning, “She’s Worryin’ Me”, he sings in his
gravelly voice: “Rocks in my pillow. Cold ground is my bed. Highway is my home.
And I might as well be dead. I’m worried. And I don’t have nowhere to go. This
woman is worryin’ me. And I don’t know the reason why.”
Tail Dragger is the real deal. And if you want an education
on what the Chicago
blues is, you will not go wrong with Live
at Rooster’s Lounge or My Head is
Bald. Great job by both Tail Dragger and Delmark is keeping alive a crucial
part of the blues tradition.
DOWNLOAD: “Louise” “She’s
Worryin’ Me” “Wander” TOM