By Alan Harper
(University of Illinois Press)
For many people, like me, who grew up in the 1960s and ’70s, our introduction to the great U.S. blues musicians was via their younger British imitators. Alan Harper was no different. But while we were content to add a few John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters albums to our collections of John Mayall, Cream, Yardbirds, etc, Harper felt a much deeper tug.
It would send the young Scotsman into his university library (Exeter?) “not out of a fascination for the eighteen-century novel or the poetry of George Crabbe but because it had the best audio blues archive in the country”. And then it would pull him towards Chicago, which is where Harper spent substantial periods in the 1980s.
So many books about the blues, like those about jazz, are heavily factual – “he played at this club on this night” – or heavily academic – “the underlying tropes of the black experience” – and there’s nothing wrong with the facts or the analysis, but too often the writer is not present in the words. Harper manages both considerable factual reportage and offers astute insights not only into the music but also the politics, the society, the times and this specific city. But he does more than that – he tells his own story as well.
And it’s that last named aspect of this book that makes it such a good read – Harper invites us in to join him as he props up the bar in the blues clubs, talks to the musicians and club owners, hitches a ride here, sleeps on a sofa there. What this gives him is the extensive knowledge and first-hand experience not only to describe those times in Chicago, but also to make sense of the relationship between the original blues players, the British invasion, and the U.S. players who came afterwards – the effects they all had on each other.
Here’s part of a paragraph about the “just laughing” Johnny Dollar: “His playing had a polished competence and reminded me of those shining little Buddy Guy vignettes that punctuated the Folk Festival Of The Blues album, recorded at Big Bill Hill’s club. I came to feel that Johnny Dollar would have fit right in with Guy’s band of young gunslingers in 1963, because back then the future of the Chicago blues looked bright modern and funky. But then came the British invasion, which made an evolutionary blind alley of that particular musical path, and Johnny Dollar and many like him were left stranded.”
There’s an elegaic note ringing throughout, but Harper avoids soggy nostalgia in favour of telling it like it is. The difficulties down in Blues Alley might change, but there were always difficulties. And there was determined resolve and joyful excitement, too.
The title hints at a kind of Samuel Becket meets detective story and there are those elements. “You could wait a long time for Buddy Guy,” Harper writes, and the meat of the book is what he experiences while waiting – so many characterful players, so many stories. Does he finally get to meet Buddy? Well, you’ll have to read the book to find out.
- Alan Harper also has a fine website devoted to Waiting For Buddy Guy. It’s HERE.
Categories: Book review