Thursday, February 25, 2010

February 25: John Lee Hooker, "Tupelo"

Artist: John Lee Hooker
Song: "Tupelo"
Album: Folk Lore Of John Lee Hooker
Year: 1961


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While there is no question that an amazingly complex song is easily one of the most impressive things in music, there is certainly a similar greatness that can be found within the most basic and stripped down sounds. Even though in modern times, the blues have found ways to become just as complex as any other genre, there is still something that is truly perfect about a simple, "talking" blues. Over the decades, countless artists have made their careers out of this style of blues, and yet one of the most stunning moments in this form comes from a man who made his name as the King of the boogie-blues, John Lee Hooker. As one of the most important figures in all of music history, Hooker is one of the keys to turning blues into rock and roll, as his more upbeat, yet still musically stripped down sound remains unrivaled decades later. Responsible for a massive number of "classic" blues tunes, John Lee Hooker has one of the most instantly recognizable and truly irresistible sounds ever, and yet it may very well be one of his most little known and sonically different sounds that stands as his finest moment. Whilst performing at the 1960 Newport Folk Festival, John Lee Hooker stepped away from his boogie-blues for a moment, and sang with little more than some sparse guitar playing and his foot tapping the ground. Recalling the 1936 flood of Tupelo, Mississippi, Hooker completely silences the audience and unknowingly recorded one of the most stunning moments in music history with his performance of the aptly titled, "Tupelo."

Looking through music history, the story of the Tupelo flood has been used by countless artists, and the town has been the setting for songs by everyone from The Grateful Dead to Nick Cave to Steve Poltz. Yet it is in these early, blues-based recountings of the tragedy where the finest performances are found. In many ways, this recording perfectly captures everything it means to be a "true" bluesman, as John Lee Hooker is doing little more than telling a sorrowful tale over the most basic of instrumentation. Though for this performance, he did have his backing band alongside him, this track features only Hooker on guitar and bassist Bill Lee. The music is so quiet, and the crowd clearly completely entranced, that the one can easily hear Hooker's foot hitting the ground in rhythm, and in many ways, it is this silent, yet live sound that makes the song so amazing. In fact, things are so quiet, that one can hear random background noise, from a passing car horn to strange sounds that almost sound like moaning, to the microphone feeding back; and this in many ways makes the recording and performance all the more authentic. Truth be told, live blues rarely gets better than this performance of "Tupelo," and the fact that this was not John Lee Hooker's main style of blues makes it all the more impressive.

In a similar fashion to the musical arrangement, the lyrics and singing on "Tupelo" are as basic as one will find anywhere. However, as is often the case, it is the manner in which John Lee Hooker sings these lyrics that make the song move beyond anything else in blues history. With his deep, gruff, and truly distinctive voice, Hooker delivers the lyrics in a relaxed, yet attention grabbing style. Completely hypnotizing the audience as well as listeners of the recording, Hooker quickly pulls everyone into the story, and the imagery is amazingly vivid, and even people who had never heard of the incident are quickly taken there via the song. The lyrics are simple, recounting the tragic flood, and this straightforward lyrical approach results in one of the most chilling and unforgettable moments in music history. From Hooker's rhetorical question of, "...who can we turn to now, but you?" to the sounds of screaming that come to mind as Hooker sings, the pain of the townspeople is felt by anyone who experiences the song. It is the combination of these amazingly captivating lyrics, along with the wonderfully unique atmosphere that makes this recording so special, and though he recorded it a number of other times, there is simply no other blues recording that compares. John Lee Hooker's final words in "Tupelo" are about as accurate as one will find anywhere as he perfectly sums up the impact of the song by stating, "...I'll never forget it and I know you won't either."

When one strips music all the way down to its most basic elements, the fact of the matter is, it can be just as powerful and musically stunning as the most complex arrangements. One can even make the case that it can be due to NOT having as much going on that the listener is more able to concentrate and appreciate the true elements of great music. This idea is often no better shown than through early musical forms like folk and blues, and few examples are as undeniable as one finds in John Lee Hooker's 1960 performance of "Tupelo." Perfectly encapsulating everything that makes for a great blues tune, Hooker uses the most minimal instrumental approach of his career, proving that his skills were not limited to his amazing boogie style. Presenting one of the most simple, yet absolutely mesmerizing, circular guitar riffs, backed only by a light bass, "Tupelo" is one of the most intimate live performances ever captured, as in many ways, it almost seems like it is simply Hooker sitting in a quiet room, telling the tale to a handful of people. Though in many cases, the random background noises would ruin a performance such as this, for some strange reason, they only add to the overall atmosphere of the song, and there is simply no other recording in history that has a similar mood. With an amazing piece of blank-verse poetry style lyrics, and a stripped down sound that is truly perfect, listeners will find themselves much like the live audience at the performance: completely enthralled by John Lee Hooker's phenomenal performance of his 1960 song, "Tupelo."

1 comment:

Tyee Bridge said...

RE: "... a song about the flooding of Tupelo, Mississippi, in April 1936."
I'm not aware of one and can't find evidence of one. Tupelo is very far from the Mississippi and the Tupelo flood of 1936 referenced here does not appear to exist but to be repeated from similar assertions on the web. There was a major tornado in Tupelo in 1936... but I don't believe there was a flood. The major flood of the Mississippi of 1927 would not, I don't believe, have reached that far. Did Hooker use Tupelo as a stand-in for Galveston Texas, with its horrendous flood in 1900, about which "Sin-Killer" Griffin (allegedly) wrote a song with some similar lyrics to "Tupelo" -- see here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wasn%27t_That_a_Mighty_Storm
Or maybe he was writing about the 1927 Mississippi flood. But it doesn't seem right that that would have impacted Tupelo.
Note this entry discusses a flood, but the actual flooding in 1936 in this case was not in Tupelo.
http://dublinlaurenscountygeorgia.blogspot.ca/2011/04/great-flood-of-1936.html
"The year 1936 was one of extremes. Eleven states had all time record highs in the hottest year since 1869. The previous winter was one of the coldest in the nation's history. With the extreme temperatures, massive and deadly storms were bound to occur. The apocalypse began on April 6 when multiple tornados slammed into Gainesville, Georgia. The storm has already reeked devastation on Tupelo, Mississippi, killing 213 people just two days before. When the cyclone was over, 203 people were dead and more than 1600 were hurting. The thirteen-million dollar cost included more than 750 damaged or destroyed homes. The cyclone was the fifth deadliest single-day killer in our country's history, just behind the Tupelo tempest."