I came late to the country blues. I knew the song “Crossroads” from its incarnation as a hit for the 60s supergroup Cream; I thought I knew what the blues were because I was a teenager and was sad a lot and had listened to a couple of albums by Tom Waits.
I was living in my first-ever apartment (this would have been the mid-1980s — I remember the rent: $165 / month! I had to share a bathroom with another unit in the house) in Bloomington, Indiana when a friend from downstairs loaned me a couple of LPs: a collection of tracks featuring bottleneck guitarist Tampa Red, and the seemingly-ubiquitous Robert Johnson album King of the Delta Blues Singers.
The first track on the latter, of course, was “Cross Road Blues,” but it was nearly impossible for me to recognize the song as being the same … thing … as the … thing … played by Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. What the hell even was this? Where, ha ha ha, were the guitar solos? The benighted me of the time, still infected with a teenage love of progressive rock, handed the albums back to my downstairs friend, puzzled.
But something stuck. And the next time I listened to Robert Johnson, it hit me hard, and I energetically started collecting more country blues music, and reading about it, and savoring it. It wasn’t too many years before I’d much prefer Skip James’s 1931 “I’m So Glad,” with its positively ferocious finger-picking, to the 1960s hit by — yep, Cream again (if nothing else, the lads had good taste in things to cover). If I had had the term at the time, I suppose I might have said that the country blues I’d started listening to had duende, whereas the 1960s versions, though pleasant, were really pastiches, and only occasionally savored of something with a gut-pleasingly-deep root.
This is all for now. I was prompted to write the preceding by having a line from “Kind Hearted Woman Blues” freighting through my head over and over:
“You break my heart / When you call Mr. So-and-So’s name” in Robert Johnson’s eerie falsetto.