Classic Rock

John Lee Hooker

- Kris Needs

The Country Blues Of John Lee Hooker

Blues great’s unplugged quiet-storm shape shifter celebrates its 60th.

In April 1959, Billy Grauer from New York jazz label Riverside went to Detroit on a mission to get John Lee Hooker to record an album of Lead Belly songs. But the project was stifled before birth, as Hooker had hardly heard that venerable favourite with white folk-blues boomers. But Grauer still got his man.

Hooker was luckily between label contracts when he recorded his first specific long-playing album session for Grauer (and enough left over to form 1964’s Burning Hell). Never the itinerant bluesman of myth, he remembered songs he’d heard in his youth.

Hooker had never sounded like he does on Country Blues, guitar unplugged for pin-drop punctuatio­n, a dramatic accessory for his murmuring baritone now thrust into the spotlight. Expressive and intimate, this quieter storm establishe­d blues as a relevant modern medium, laying templates for folk-blues booms, Hendrix and blues rock.

While his previous label Vee-Jay responded by collating their electric singles on I’m John Lee Hooker, The Country Blues propelled Hooker from Detroit’s Hastings Street clubs on to the folk-blues circuit and previously denied events such as 1960’s Newport Folk Festival.

The ominous mood is set with Black Snake and How Long Blues, Hooker gouging

metronomic pulses from his strings to forge a mono-chord pulse-engine throb (a key influence on Keith Richards). After two up-tempo 12-bars, Hooker revisits primal blues roots by turning Charley Patton’s 1929 railroad-homaging Paramount single Pea Vine Blues into Pea Vine Special, before igniting the compelling dirt-slow sequence of Tupelo Blues, his semi-spoken account of the catastroph­ic 1927 Mississipp­i flood, rumbled over one bass-string chord and foot-tap to devastatin­g effect, followed by I’m Prison Bound, I Rowed A Little Boat (revisiting the flood from Patton’s High Water Everywhere), Water Boy’s chain-gang moan and Behind The Plow capturing blazing heat slog.

Each guitar note hits like the next drop in a low-down Chinese water torture that can knock the listener sideways, scrambling virtuoso runs unleashed on the tolling, Blind Lemon Jefferson-derived Church Bell Tone and the lascivious Good Morning Lil’ School Girl.

Even if Craft Records’s blurb for this record repeats that hoary myth that the songs on Country Blues came from travels that never happened, their quality replicatio­n in original sleeve makes a fine, genre-defining artefact.

Everything started here. ■■■■■■■■■■

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