Thursday, September 29, 2005

A memoriam to bluesman R.L. Burnside, part 2

By DR. SYLVESTER OLIVER

(Part 2)
I first heard him and his family band, R.L. Burnside and The Sound Machine, perform in 1979 at Alve Jamison’s July 4th picnic here in the county. Prior to that time I had only heard him and his band on tracks folklorist David Evans had produced for the High Water label (1979). With his band Burnside performed a lot of standard blues songs and R & B tunes interspersed with his original material. His powerful singing, good-natured humor and mannerism kept the audience entertained for hours, even when the power to the instruments failed. He told the audience funny jokes while his sons worked to get the power back on.

Burnside’s “Sound Machine Band” consisted of his son Dewayne on lead guitar, a second son Danny on rhythm guitar, a third son Joseph on bass, and a son-in-law Calvin Jackson, on drums. Dewayne, Joseph and Calvin would later play with local bluesman Junior Kimbrough at house parties, festivals and club dates.

I recall in the 1980s booking Burnside and his band to play at the Knoxville and New Orleans World Fairs. Thereafter, they landed several gigs to play at festivals around the country, including the local Northeast Mississippi Blues and Gospel Festival at Rust College, the Chicago Blues Festival, the Davenport Blues Festival, the San Francisco Blues Festival, and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and others.

In 1980, R.L. or “Rural,” as most people called him, met his neighbor and close friend bluesman Junior Kimbrough. While Kimbrough enjoyed more local popularity, Burnside was better known as an international bluesman because he traveled and recorded more widely than Kimbrough.

However, the rise in popularity for both men began to happen simultaneously in the late 1980s and peaked with their deaths. Both men left their legacy of the blues heard in the music of their sons (Dwayne Burnside, David and Kenny Malone) who perform the “hill blues” tradition with their own brand of music.

Since the late 1980s, Burnside toured Europe more than 50 times as a solo, duo, and trio blues act playing blues clubs and festival dates. Sometimes labeled as a Delta blues singer, his music did sometimes rest on the enduring strength of the traditional ties binding the African-American farming class to the soil as found in the Mississippi Delta. And most of his African-American fans were from this class.

But he often chuckled when blues promoters especially overseas and some in this country would introduce him to audiences as a Delta blues musician. But privately he always acknowledged that his roots were in the hill blues tradition of northern Mississippi.

In the third period of Burnside’s musical life (1981-2005), he represented a rapidly diminishing breed of veteran Mississippi blues singers – “the old school,” those who grew up in hard times Mississippi during the segregated days when primarily African-Americans audiences enjoyed blues.

This inevitably changed as the racial climate in the country changed. In recent years, however, it was first the European blues fans followed by white American blues enthusiasts and fans who came to appreciate the music of R.L. Burnside. It was during this period he began to enjoy some of the financial fruits of his labor landing lucrative performing and recording contracts.

Over the years, several white musicians befriended Burnside, some even stayed with him to learn the blues craft from him. He planted the seed of friendship to those who valued him that opened the shoots of deeper friendship and appreciation for his music making.

One in particular was Jon Morris Nuremberg, a young harmonica player, blues enthusiast and fledgling playwright who was enthralled with Burnside’s blues playing. They regularly toured the west coast, Europe and the West Indies in the late 1980s. In 1988, they cut a record together in New York City titled Acoustic Stories for M.C. Records, released in 1997. In 1992, white guitarist Kenny Brown joined Burnside as a second guitarist as well as R.L.’s grandson, Cederic Burnside. They traveled and recorded with Burnside until his health failed in 1998.

The significance of R.L. Burnside is that he is the first Marshall County artist to have several songs simultaneously in the Top 20 Billboard Blues charts, for nearly a year.

Also, Burnside is the most internationally known blues artist from Marshall County – sorry Junior Kimbrough fans, these are the facts! His superb renderings of his own songs and the classic songs of several legendary bluesmen such as Fred McDowell, Bukka White, John Lee Hooker, Lightin’ Hopkins, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and others are heard on his recordings, which display his deep passion for historic preservation of American country blues.

Some of R.L Burnside’s recordings include: Plays and Sings The Mississippi Delta Blues (Swingmaster 1980); Mississippi Hill Country Blues (Swingmaster 1984); Bad Luck City (Fat Possum, 1991); Too Bad Jim (Fat Possum, 1994) with blues guitarist Kenny Brown; A Ass Pocket O‘ Whiskey (Matador, 1996) with Jon Spencer, a hipster rock artist; Mr. Wizard (Fat Possum/Epitaph, 1997; and Sound Machine Groove (Hightone/HMG, 1997); My Black Name A-Ringin’ (Fat Possum, 1999); Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down (Fat Possum, 2000); and Well Well Well (M.C. Records, 2001). In addition, R. L. Burnside has appeared in several documentaries, films, and TV shows, including “Deep Blues” (1992), “Big Bad Love,” and a soundtrack on the HBO series, The Sopranos.

R.L. Burnside was one of the brightest stars among the galaxy of unappreciated northern Mississippi hill blues singers. He was one of the greatest bluesmen of our time. In 2000 he won the Handy Award for Best Male Traditional Blues Artist.

He was a man who loved his family and his neighbors as himself. A man whose spirit is in the music he left for us to enjoy and ponder as a community and a nation that is part of our American musical heritage. I am listening now, and it is not too late for others to learn the profound truth and messages of the blues R. L. Burnside sang that speak to our hearts and make our feet move to his earthy rhythms that are indeed part of life. We are going to miss the man who is somewhere in blues heaven looking down on us and saying with a big infectious smile, his favorite phrase: “Well, well, well, All right!”


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