Maybe it was a lift on the tailboard of a wagon, or on a cotton cart going to gin. Or if you were lucky, it was a Greyhound bus flying up Highway 51 out of New Orleans, on to Memphis and Cairo, then Chicago or Detroit. But more frequently it was the treacherous freight train that took a rounder like John Lee Hooker from his home in Clarksdale, Mississippi to his eventual destination in Detroit.
You can hear nearly all of this in Hooker's "Hobo Blues," recorded in 1949: Running through the tall, slippery grass toward the shadow of the slowing train, squatting to hide your movements from the dreaded switchman and his nightstick. Your cracked hands slam on to the icy couplets while your legs dangle perilously; you hope to swing them into a blind baggage car with no side door and a warm corner. Now safely out of reach of the brakeman's club, you slither across the steel brake rods that run from car to car. There is no room for error. It is, as are most acts of violent desperation, without a second act. But you know what waits back home for you—Jim Crow, work and death. You’ve gotta keep heading north. So lonely, so scared, so far from home. From this a young man's blues are born.
Hooker's early life in Clarksdale was not merciless, just confining. His father was a minister, his mother in the choir. Hooker first learned "the boogie"--his signature one chord guitar vamp--from his stepfather, Will Moore. Moore was often visited by noted bluesmen. Charley Patton, Blind Blake and Blind Lemon Jefferson were regulars. Young John Lee took it all in and split for a bluesman's life at age 14.
After 16 years of rootless wandering, he settled in Detroit in late 1942. Hooker first worked as a hospital orderly, then as an hourly grunt at the Conco Steel Factory and, later, at Dodge Main, a gilded abyss if ever there was one. He was a part of this century's Southern black diaspora; by 1943, more than 200,000 blacks had arrived in Detroit from the South, ready to take advantage of an average hourly wage of 55 cents an hour.
At his best Hooker was wildly emotive. He took the country blues (originally 8 and 16 bar forms) and the modern urban blues (12 bar stanzas of three lines each with the first line repeated) and fashioned a model wholly dependent on the transference of his own emotion and his own notion of universal truth. His allegiance was to feeling, and less to form or tradition. His guitar style was pure blues anarchy: sometimes his songs carry a verse 12 bars, sometimes 14, sometimes 10 and 1/2. Other times they just hang on the root chord for 64 bars and fade.
"I write songs on the basis of life and people," Hooker said to me in an interview before he passed away. "I like to do songs with meaning."
Delivered with a brooding intensity and often a scary wordless humming, his "songs with meaning" are barely removed from the field hollers of the Mississippi Delta. Hooker's half-spoken, half-sung style and extemporaneously broken rhythms make him the most "African" of the latter day bluesmen. By using observation and street experience as his basis for knowing and understanding, Hooker gave rock and roll its sense of realism. Everyone always talks about Woodie Guthrie, Ramblin Jack and Little Richard when it comes to Bob Dylan’s influences. To me, he’s always sounded like nothing but a Hooker disciple.
Hooker's blues aren't one long song of dystopia. It’s still the blues in sound and spirit, and make no mistake that his was a hard story, but it's not a hard luck story. John Lee Hooker knew success.
The first record he ever recorded--1948's "Boogie Chillun"--reached No. 1 on the Billboard R&B charts. So if Hooker is the referential post-war bluesman, and the first to be commercially successful, then where did his blues come from? And where will they continue to go? On with our story.
--Crawling King Snake
Having little conception of Northern urban life, Southern blacks migrated up to Detroit on the promise of Henry Ford's pledge of $5 a day, often risking all to escape their conditions and join a cousin or an aunt who had made it up and found work in the North.
Hooker's boyhood visitor Blind Blake recorded "Detroit Bound Blues" in 1928, singing, "I'm going to get me a job, up there in Mr. Ford's place, stop these eatless days from starin' me in the face." Of all the later bluesmen, Hooker had the greatest knack for riffin’ from memory and assimilating all of his disparate sources. He would rework standards--"I Left My Heart In San Francisco," Glenn Miller's "I'm In The Mood," "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer"--and call them his own.
He never forgot his train trip North. "Crawling King Snake" itself was a remake of Tony Hollins' 1941 recording, done in typically irreverent style by Hooker. The song is clearly informed by Hooker's hobo days: Hoboes hated the "snakes"--railroad switchmen adorned with an "S" shaped lapel button. A "Crawling King Snake" was the meanest switchman, a real bad ass. The Devil Incarnate.
Musical connections continue: Hooker's "Crawling King Snake" is virtually identical to Peetie Wheatstraw's "Road Tramp Blues," cut in 1938. Victoria Spivey, regarded as the greatest blues singer of the ‘20s and ‘30s, also employed “snake” imagery. She recorded "Black Snake Blues" as well as "Garter Snake Blues" with her long time partner Lonnie Johnson, and Johnson also played guitar on Peetie Wheatstraw's "Road Tramp Blues."
And in 1929, Blind Lemon Jefferson, another of Hooker’s boyhood house guests, cut "That Crawling Baby Blues," moving the theme closer to Hooker's adulterous interpretation: "Some women rocks the cradle, I declare she rules the home/ Married man rocks some other man's babe, fool thinks he's rockin' his own."
But it was Jefferson's serpentine imagery, in the 1926 recording of "That Black Snake Moan," and "Black Snake Dream Blues" a year later, that may have stayed with Hooker the most. Whether he actually heard any of these recordings is ultimately not totally knowable; the point is that the entire blues idiom is a small world, a conversation informed by a wonderful remark and the timelessness of the boogie.
--The Hastings Street Opera
By the late 1940s, Hastings Street was to Detroit what Beale Street was to Memphis--a boisterous, musical, tough strip of real life in the black community. A part of the Black Bottom section, Hastings Street was lined with clubs bearing names like Club Paradise, Club 666, The Band Box and Brown's Bar. The most famous chronicle of this period is in a record called "Hastings Street Opera, Parts I & II," recorded in Detroit by one Bob White, aka the Detroit Count. Hooker was very much a part of this musical community, as were Eddie Kirkland, Eddie Burns, Sippie Wallace, Baby Boy Warren, Cow Cow Davenport, Tampa Red and a young Yusaf Lateef.
Hooker worked up his brilliant signature "Boogie Chillun'" at Henry's Swing Club with Big Maceo Merriwhether, a popular boogie woogie piano player known for his song, "Detroit Jump." Another Merriwhether hit, "Maceo's 32-20," served as a snapshot of the Black Bottom area: "I walked all night with my 32-20 in my hand, looking for my woman, well, I found her with another man...when I catch a man with my woman I usually tear his playhouse down." The song is evil, mean, funny--and true.
Hooker cut nearly 300 sides between 1948-52. Among them was "John L's House Rent Boogie,” which used a Rent Party as a colorful device for overcoming dire financial situations. In reality, underclass blacks lived in unsanitary squalor. Attempts to move elsewhere were met with active hostility by the both the white populace and resettled blacks. The Northern dream was, to many, now a nightmare. Unfaithful husbands and wayward fathers, low wages, high rents and a shattered morality. In the mid-fifties, Hastings Street and the entire Black Bottom section was razed to clear a path for the Chrysler Freeway.
Hooker's career picked up late in his life, the result of 1988's The Healer and 1993's Mr. Lucky. Though they largely dilute the essence of Hooker's early gifts, the records feature modern recording and superstar guests that once again highlight the extent of his influence.
His duet with Van Morrison on "I Cover The Waterfront," Hooker's most ambitious and sentimental “reworking” of a standard, shows the disciple equal to the deity. The record's ghostly anguish in fact recalls much of Morrison's own work, particularly "Into The Mystic." In both songs, the ship the singer sees off the coast of the harbor is alternately a symbol of salvation and escape. Both songs suggest our natural state of isolation and helplessness in this universe, tempered only by brief respites of joy.
Morrison is more than an occasional duet partner; he's Hooker's practical and spiritual heir. He first recorded with Hooker in 1972, singing the standard "Never get Out Of These Blues Alive" on a now deleted ABC LP. Hooker returned the favor on his excellent 1977 live LP, The Cream, on which he broods through a chilling version of Morrison's nightmarish "T.B. Sheets."
Though we've passed over Hooker's days in the college, his version of "T.B. Sheets" and his relationship with Morrison brings our story full circle: Hooker, a black, American, pre-war blues artist, and Morrison, a white Irish, post-war rock and soul singer, represent an entire musical movement. One man is a symbol of America's primary musical innovation and the other Europe's embrace and development of that model.
"Yes I run around for months and months, from gin mill to gin mill to honky tonk, Now it's too late, just look at what I've done--Now I've got the dirty T.B."
How long song titles. impassioned ideas or a blues riff lingers on the wind, flowing out of a black man's clapboard house or on to a train in the deep South, then into the heart of a tough young kid in Belfast, is never easy to know. We'll also never know how an itinerant force of nature named John Lee Hooker came to embody an entire cultural tradition and even make it inclusive of his oppressors’ lives and desires. Let's just call it the enduring relevance of the blues, Hooker style.