Thursday, January 26, 2012
Rebecca Davis (author of Blind Owl Blues, the only existing biography of Canned Heat founder Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson) interview
Aside from the fact that rock music originated from it, blues music is one genre of music that I must confess to neither having listened to very much nor having very much knowledge of. Please provide a very brief history of blues music.
Definitions of the blues vary. Some have attempted to define it on emotional terms insofar as it’s often been represented as an art form that is about suffering. However, there are also boastful or bragging blues songs (the Muddy Waters song “Hoochie Coochie Man” would be a good example). The subject of my book, Alan Wilson, preferred to define the blues on the basis of the pentatonic scale used in early blues forms. Others find the three-chord structure, the AAB verse pattern, and the 12 bar form to be useful in helping to define more contemporary blues sounds.
Historically, blues probably came into being shortly before the dawn of the 1900s. W.C. Handy provides the first written account of hearing blues in 1903. Early rural blues artists such as Charley Patton and Son House were recorded in the 1920s and 1930s. Robert Johnson is one of the best known blues artists from the 1930s, and with him comes a legend of selling one’s soul to the devil in exchange for musical talent. This legend actually predates Robert Johnson, and was earlier associated with the unrelated Tommy Johnson who was also known for drinking Sterno.
As African-Americans moved to urban centers, the blues went with them. In the 1940s and 1950s, electric blues by the likes of Muddy Waters became prominent. Related to the blues were R&B artists and early rock and rollers like Ruth Brown, Big Joe Turner, Chuck Berry, and so on.
In the 1960s, young white people took up the blues. This was, to a large extent, an outgrowth of the folk music revival that spawned artists like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Arlo Guthrie. It was also influenced by the beatnik scene which included a lot of jazz fans who were also appreciative of blues. The late 1960s would eventually be termed a “blues revival”.
During this era, older blues men who had survived the decades, such as legendary Paramount recording artist Son House, were tracked down by their new fans. Many had successful “rediscovery” careers in coffee houses and folk clubs. Other who were part of this trend included Mississippi John Hurt, Booker White, and Mississippi Fred McDowell. Some electric blues men, including John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, recorded acoustic “folk” albums in an effort to capture the young white audience.
White people have long been involved in blues – a listen to Jimmie Rodgers, the “singing brakeman”, will make this clear. In the 1960s, however, more white bluesmen came to prominence, and greater numbers of white artists – including the aforementioned Captain Beefheart – were influenced by hard-core blues sounds.
Since then, blues has increased in popularity among mainstream audiences. A more recent “blues revival” was marked by the success of Stevie Ray Vaughan in the 1980s, and the “crossover” success of albums like John Lee Hooker’s The Healer. This kind of thing continued throughout the 1990s. Today, the blues seems to be alive and well, and I’m happy to see kids in their teens listening to blues recordings going back to the 1920s.
What exactly is it about blues music in particular that you enjoy?
I think the blues speaks to people because it is authentic music. It was developed as a form of folk music; that is, it was not originally created with commercial interests in mind. It was originally played in cotton fields, on back porches, in back country juke joints. The recording and promotion of the music came a little (though not much!) later.
The blues also speaks of a common human experience. Everyone knows what it’s like to suffer, and everyone has been lonely at some time. The blues is filled with poetry about these kinds of situations. There’s also the human experience of falling in love, of feeling on top of the world and ready to be in your lover’s arms. The blues also sings of this. Sometimes the blues will have conflicting elements in the same songs – just as we, in this human experience, sometimes have such conflicting feelings of joy and despair, all at once.
The blues was also created by a people, African-Americans, who were oppressed by society, and who were suffering in various ways. Blues probably came into being after the end of slavery, but the effects of slavery – such as Jim Crow laws – continued to weigh down the lives of people in the community. Though I did not experience all of the same issues, I was always very different from everyone around me, and certainly did not fit in at school or in social circles. Therefore I felt that I could relate, on some level, to the oppression endured by African-Americans. This may have been a factor in my love of blues music.
Discuss your book, Blind Owl Blues.
Blind Owl Blues is the only existing biography of Canned Heat founder Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson. You can learn more about it and purchase your own copy through my website, BlindOwlBio.com.
Many music fans will be familiar with Canned Heat’s biggest hit, “Going Up the Country”, which is often used in movies and cultural references to the Woodstock era of the 1960s. Canned Heat is known for their appearance at Woodstock and their success during that time. Another of their hits is “On the Road Again”, not to be confused with the Willie Nelson song of the same name. Their last major hit, sung by Canned Heat vocalist Bob Hite and featuring Alan and Harvey Mandel on guitar, is “Let’s Work Together”.
I began writing Alan’s biography when I was 19 years old, and spent much of my early 20s doing research into Alan’s life and interviews of those who had known him. This would have been in the late 1990s. In 2007, I published my work as Blind Owl Blues. I’m pleased to say that it’s been successful both among my originally envisioned audience (baby boomers) and younger listeners who are discovering the music of Canned Heat for themselves.
In terms of Alan Wilson, he’s a fascinating personality, which is why I chose to dedicate so much of my life to chronicling his. He was quite simply a musical genius, endowed with perfect pitch and able to play pretty much any instrument he picked up. He served as Canned Heat’s rhythm and slide guitarist, harmonica player, occasional singer and “musical director” from their formation in 1966 until his death in 1970.
Alan was something of a tormented genius, and suffered from depression as well as some social issues which are thought by a few acquaintances, in hindsight, to have been indicative of Asperger Syndrome. Until publication of my findings, his death was often misrepresented as a suicide in the popular press. However, it was ruled as accidental by the attending coroner, a conclusion that’s backed up by the other evidence I’ve presented in my book.
Another intriguing thing about Alan is that he was one of the first popular musicians to take up the environment as a cause. In addition to music, he had a passion for plants and botany. Prior to his death, he had been attempting to establish a charity foundation with the goal of preserving the coast redwoods of California. Recently, I’ve been involved with a tribute website established by his family, who are making efforts to continue and further this goal of his. Readers can visit this website at AlanWilsonCannedHeat.com.
As a writer, who/what are some of your influences and why?
Henry David Thoreau is a very profound influence on me, both as a writer and as a human. His biographer, Walter Harding, is inspirational to me as a chronicler of Alan Wilson’s life and music. Other writers I enjoy include Tom Wolfe, Edward Abbey, and Robert Heinlein. I’m not sure if their influence is discernible in my writing per se, but they have certainly affected me over the years.
As to why these particular authors have influenced me, it’s hard to say. I guess that is just part of who I am. Upon reflection, I consider that some might find a common thread among these, consisting of a rejection of the mainstream.
In terms of musicological writers, I’d recommend that those who are interested in the blues check out Robert Palmer’s book Deep Blues. It’s a good introduction to the music. For those who would delve deeper, Dr. David Evans has written Big Road Blues, a thoughtful study of tradition and creativity in rural blues. Evans is a professor of ethnomusicology as well as a working musician in the jug band tradition.
Discuss your experiences (positive and/or negative) being a woman in the music world.
I don’t know what it’s like to be a man, so I’m not sure how to answer this question. I have little point of reference for comparison. There are some funny stories I could tell, however, such as the time when the guitarist John Fahey asked me to marry him. He said that the spirit of Alan Wilson meant for us to be together. I was a little offended by this suggestion and elected not to marry Fahey. I doubt he would have proposed to me if I’d been male, so this might be the kind of thing you’re thinking of.
I think that when I started researching Alan’s life and music, my gender combined with my age (I was 19 when I began this work) was a little surprising to some people. When I met interviewees, their first question was usually either “Why are you so interested in Alan Wilson?” or “How old are you?” To be honest I found that people tended to have preconceived notions of me more on the basis of age than on the basis of gender. However, again I have not known what it’s like to be a man, so it’s hard to provide any exterior frame of reference.
Discuss your career as a public radio show host.
The first public radio shows I did were as a guest at KVNF in Paonia, Colorado, discussing Alan’s career and blues music in general. That would have been circa 1998. In 2000, I got training at another station, KAFM in Grand Junction, Colorado, to host my own shows. On the air, I’ve featured a variety of genres including blues, rock, and world music. Once I even offered a two-hour special punk and metal show, though I’m sorry to say that it was not very well received by KAFM listeners, who tend to like things that are a little mellower on their ears.
My work as a volunteer show host led to other work with the radio station and eventually a place on the staff of KAFM Community Radio. There, I did a variety of things including management of public service announcements, show scheduling, volunteer wrangling, production of on-air promos, and FCC compliance. I also managed a small concert venue operated by the radio station, which has gone on to be a very successful home for live music in Western Colorado.
I left my staff position at KAFM in 2006 so I’d have more time to focus on finishing Blind Owl Blues, which was published in 2007. However, I continued to have a volunteer and contractual relationship with KAFM until moving away from Colorado earlier this year. In the future, I hope for the opportunity to develop relationships with public radio stations in the New England area.
As a public radio show host, who/what are some of your influences and why?
To be honest I am not a frequent listener of National Public Radio, so I can’t cite any of those influences that might be familiar to readers on a national basis. I don’t really enjoy hearing people talk. This may be because I am more of a visual learner; I prefer to read the written word, and to write things, than to deal with the spoken word. This is why I don’t really listen to NPR.
Ergo, most of my radio influences are DJs specializing in the music I love best: blues. One of the people who trained me to do radio was Jabeaux, sometimes known these days as the Groovemaster. Hailing from the Deep South, this gentleman rocks out with some of the finest blues, swamp music, and boogie you’ll hear anywhere. In recent years, he’s done shows on a variety of stations in Colorado and elsewhere around the US.
Another big influence on me is Jimmy Rabbitt, whose career dates back to the 1960s. His early years were spent in Texas and California, and he’s been active as a songwriter and musician as well as a DJ. Some may be familiar with the song “Long-Haired Redneck”, which he co-wrote with David Allen Coe. I’ve been privileged to host a number of shows in conjunction with Jimmy during public radio fund drives, and he became a good friend.
Both of these men have unswerving dedication to blues and to good music in general. That, along with their good natures and the friendship they have shown me over the years, has made them influential to me.
For somebody like me who has never listened to a Canned Heat record, which one(s) would you recommend that I listen to first and why?
That’s a hard question because all of Canned Heat’s records are so good! Today, in the digital era, it’s also noteworthy that the marketplace makes it easier to purchase individual songs, so it’s not even necessary to commit to buying an entire album. If you wanted to just check out Alan Wilson-sung items, for instance, you can buy those items on their own.
In terms of the original album releases, I’d suggest Boogie With Canned Heat as a good place to start. It’s their second album and was released in 1968. You can find it, along with other items from the “classic” era of the band featuring Alan Wilson, available to purchase as downloads through AlanWilsonCannedHeat.com. The site is operated by some of Alan’s family members and serves as a fine tribute to him, as well as a convenient source for fans to get the essential music.
Discuss your crafting business, Runes By Rebecca.
I have been creating hand crafted items since I was a teenager. For about a decade, I’ve been offering Rune sets and talismans through New Age stores and other metaphysical type venues. The Runes are a method of divination, or an oracle as some might call it. I prefer to think of them as a tool to help the querent get to know him- or herself better and to explore various options for life empowerment. It’s not a means of fortune-telling, but more about personal insight. Historically, the Runes are rooted in Norse mythology and associated with Gods like Odin and Thor.
More recently, I’ve also been creating quartz crystal pendants and other jewelry crafted from minerals. These along with my Runic items are available through my website, RunesByRebecca.info. I list items as I create them, so you won’t necessarily see everything I do on the website at any given time. Each item is unique and limited in availability.
I’ve also been a professional psychic/divinatory reader for almost 15 years. I offer Rune readings along with Tarot and other oracle types. Back in the 1990s, I did this by phone, but nowadays I prefer doing online readings. In-person readings are available on a local basis. I’ve also given a number of very successful classes on Runes, for those who would like to use this tool for themselves. Like music, it’s something that almost anyone can do if they have the desire and put their energy wholeheartedly into the effort. For the future, I’m working on a Rune manual which, if all goes well, will be released in both print and e-book format sometime next year.