Rory Block on the struggles and triumphs that happen When a Woman Gets the Blues
Rory Block (due April 21st at Rock and Soul Cafe in Boulder and on April 22nd at Swallow Hill in Denver) was fortunate to be at the epicenter of the roots music explosion of the late '50s and early '60s as a child in Greenwich Village. Block rubbed shoulders not just with Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, but also the still-living blues masters of the day, including Son House, Reverend Gary Davis and "Mississippi" Fred McDowell.
Some of that blues soul was obviously infused into Block's own spirit at a young age, because she went on to be one of the most talented blues musicians of her generation. But rather than go the rock route, as so many did, Block stuck to the original art form and -- in so many ways -- she has held on to her integrity as a true modern master of that music.
In 2006, Block got an unexpected stamp of approval from the surviving members of Robert Johnson's family; one couldn't hope for a more coveted endorsement. We spoke with the charming and gracious Block before she ventured forth on one of her many tours, chatting about her struggles, her triumphs, her art and her new autobiography, When a Woman Gets the Blues.
Westword: On that interview section of your website, you mentioned how you drew Reverend Gary Davis. Did you do a lot of drawing when you were younger, and do you continue to do visual art for yourself today?
Rory Block: I absolutely spent quality time with him where Stefan Grossman was taking lessons. But he also came to an apartment we had on St. Mark's Place in the West Village. I write about this in a chapter in my new book, When a Woman Gets the Blues. He was sitting in the living room and smoking his cigar, and Stefan used to reach over and flick the ash off and sort of take care of things. I just drew him when he was sitting there. I have two drawings of Reverend Gary Davis. One was when he was at the house and it was from life, just looking at him and drawing him. The other was from a photo of him at a festival, and I've long since lost track of the original photo. I hope somebody will recognize it at some point and identify it, but I don't recall anymore.
I haven't done much in the way of artwork for quite a while, but I still do a little bit from time to time. I don't seem to have much time for it right now. Maybe sometime I'll get back to it. It's a very peaceful pursuit, and I kind of miss that.
Why was baseball the activity of choice during stops on tour rather than another activity?
I always liked baseball growing up, so it was something I was fairly good at it. Plus, a bicycle takes a bicycle, and if you think about it, almost all sports activities require something in terms of equipment. And a bat and balls and mitts don't take up a lot of space, so they're kind of perfect in that sense. You don't have to carry a kayak on top of the bus or anything like that [laughs]. They seem like easy things to fit in storage bins under the bus.
You've written that audiences give you the gift of feeling valued, but that you never felt valuable. Considering everything you've done, that sentiment comes as a surprise. Do you still feel that way?
Thank you for saying that. That's very kind of you. I have always been on the shy, insecure side, in my own way. I think that -- not trying to say, "go to the book" -- the first third of the book is about my childhood, and it details all kinds of memories and the things that happened to me that made me who I am. There was a lot of insecurity there. If you think about it, the field of music that I loved the most was not at all mainstream. In addition to feeling insecure as a child, and kind of very much an outsider, everything that I was interested in was always totally different than the things my peers were interested in. So I was an unusual personality to begin with.
My choice of music was very eclectic and, as far as I was concerned, it was the best music on earth. But it wasn't at all mainstream, so it made it that much harder to get established doing that form of music when everyone was saying, "Why don't you just sing rock and roll? Why don't you just do this? Why don't you do that?" I guess I always felt like I was on the outside looking in, and it has taken me forever to feel a little bit more secure in what I do and the fact that I have won some awards -- the nice things that have happened, all a surprise to me, quite frankly. You could almost say I'm more grateful for it because I never expected it.
People nowadays all seem to think the blues is really mainstream, but when you were starting out? Not at all.
Exactly. I was advised not to even consider making a career out of singing blues. So I was discouraged by a lot of people that it was something you could never make a career out of, but over time it slowly came together.
How was it you came into contact with Claud Johnson, and did he share any memories of his father with you that stand out clearly in your mind?
Yes. Again, I write about it in the book in more detail. But I was making the Robert Johnson tribute album and I still -- at that point in approximately 2006 -- had no idea that Robert Johnson had living relatives. In the '60s, we didn't know. We used to always think Robert Johnson died a young man without a child, without a family, without someone to carry on his legacy, and that seemed so sad. I had always accepted that tragic story. While I was making the tribute album, I got a call from a friend who said, "I just got off the phone with Robert Johnson's grandson, and he wants to talk to you." I was blown away! What grandson? What family? It was emotionally really vulnerable. The feeling was like meeting long-lost kin.
I dialed the phone and I was just flushing. My hands were shaking and my heart was beating in my mouth. This beautiful voice answered in Crystal Springs, Mississippi, and the hair stood up on the back of my neck and I thought, "This is Robert Johnson's grandson!" It was speaking to me from another dimension like Robert Johnson had come back. We really hit it, and we were totally on the same wavelength about the legacy of Robert Johnson. All the myth and lore about Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil -- Steven Johnson is a preacher, and he doesn't believe in that myth at all, and I don't, either.
So we were talking about blues, and I said, "Well, you know, blues is anointed, spirit-filled music, it's not the music of the devil." That's the stigma, and particularly in Robert Johnson's day, it was really a powerful stigma. Reverend Gary Davis used to talk about that. When his wife came in the room, he wouldn't sing the blues anymore, because she disapproved. So we knew about that stigma. But he said, "You know, grandpa sang gospel. Listen to the words that he sang." He would relate some of the verses from Robert Johnson songs and I said, "Wow, I see your point." We just got into this really deep conversation.
Eventually we went on tour together with his choir and came up with an idea to call it "Down at the Crossroads/Blues Meets Gospel." We booked some dates, which are on the website, and Steven would come out and introduce me, and I would do a set of Robert Johnson. For the second set, we would start with an a capella gospel song. During the song, the choir would quietly walk up on the stage behind me, and this energy would just build during the song. Then I would turn around and introduce them, and it would just explode into this gospel show.
Steven Johnson would be there preaching, doing his thing, and singing. And I sang with the choir, too. What an honor that was! So, after that tour, when we went down to Mississippi, I met Claud and Ernestine, Claud's wife, Robert Johnson's daughter-in-law. What a wonderful lady she is. We went to their house and saw that they built houses on a piece of property where their whole family is building in that area. We learned about a story that I'll leave for people who read the book, because it's a special story about Claud and his father and how the whole thing came about that nobody knew about it. The story I relate in the book is about how Claud was a little boy and being taken from his dad and the tragic situation that occurred for him.
You have an album called "Ain't I A Woman." I assume that's a reference to Sojourner Truth's famous speech [delivered at the Women's Convention in Akron, Ohio on May 29, 1851]. How was what she said and did an inspiration for that album, if it was, and to you personally?
It was from her speech. This is my recollection, and I know someone can look this up and find a more accurate version. From my hazy recollection, I think that what I read was that she was in a room where there was a speaker who said something about if there's a mud puddle in front of a woman, you should put your coat down and let the woman walk on it so she doesn't get any mud on her feet.
She then stood up, as this former slave, and she said, "I've done this, and I've done that and nobody's ever put down a coat for me to walk over, and ain't I a woman? I've raised thirteen children and every one of them has been taken away from me, and I received no special consideration whatsoever, and ain't I a woman?" She just made this list of indignities that had happened to her that had caused horrible suffering in her life, and not once was she given the treatment that this person was referring to that was due to a woman in his eyes. That's my vague recollection of that story. [there are various versions of the speech that have come down to us through the years - ed.] It just moved me, and sometimes when something hits me a certain way, I say, "Okay, I have to write a song."
On your website, your "Charities" section has that classic quote from Albert Schweitzer about the rights of all living creatures. What made animal rights and the environment such important issues for you?
They're totally connected. For one thing, we are taking over the entire surface of the earth for our own use without regard -- and I'm not going to say everybody -- for other species. Which is why, is it not, that every day, hundreds of species go extinct. You could find an exact number if you're a great Googler, which I am not. There's no space being left for animals.
We don't think about it that much because we're just so focused on what we're doing. We're racing down the highway in our vehicles, and I'm racing down the highway in my vehicle, and yet we see all kinds of animals, particularly deer -- it's so tragic -- that are always trying to cross the roads we've imposed in their environment, and we just aren't giving them the space to live, and they're just getting mowed down. I feel it is our job, and our obligation, to do everything we can for animals, because we are ruining their chance for survival. How can we survive if rabbits can't survive? If deer can't survive? What's going to be left? One gigantic endless mall for all of us to go broke shopping.
Certainly, you've lived enough of life to warrant an autobiography. Why did you feel this was the right time?
I don't know if felt so much that it was the right time. It just sort of happened. In a way, the bad economy has affected a lot of people and pushed them to do things they hadn't done and were on their to-do list. As we looked at the economy we thought, "Wow, record companies don't have big budgets to give you anymore to record a record." We're out there performing on the road, and thank god we can still do this. It's a tough time for people coming out to shows because they have less disposable income. Everybody's feeling, and I thought maybe this was the time to do things I've had on the back burner.
People have been telling me for many years to write a book. I suddenly said, "We need to plant all the seeds that we can plant." And I started writing, and it just felt so wonderful. It really started writing itself. It was kind of a no-brainer to write almost three hundred pages in two months. The hard part was putting it all together in a design with the exact spacing and what photo goes where and making the photos feng shui [laughs]. It's really gone on to a good year to a year and a half to the time it's going to be physically manufactured.
You've done so much over the course of your career and you clearly have an eye for what you wanted to do next, or at least took advantage of opportunities that came to you. What haven't you done yet with your music that you'd love to do?
I'm doing the Mentors series right now. I'm going to do a collection of tribute albums to the blues masters that I knew in person. It's going to be a pretty big project. We now have the Son House and Fred McDowell albums. Ultimately, I think there should be four to five CDs in a boxed set.
Beyond that, I think we'll keep making records. We're just making it for the joy of it. We'll be in Merle Fest in April and sing a couple of tunes with Peter Rowan. I also have bluegrass and country music on my dad's side, and it's very much in my spirit, and I would like to do more with that in the future. We have a farm in Kentucky now, and the music down there is awesome. It's straight from the hills. It's beautiful mountain music. It's bluegrass and old timey. So many superb singers there and the spirit of the music is so strong there, and I found a couple of people I want to sing with. I have a project I've been working on quietly that I've been working on in the background when I get a chance.
I'll probably make another children's album and another Christmas album. We figure I can slow down at some point, and we can make records and do things on the website, and so maybe we'll take care of animals more and not travel so much. But for now, the travel is still happening, and things are rocking and still good.