“Let that boy boogie-woogie because it’s in him
and it got to come out.”
John Lee Hooker
This will be the last post in this series…
About thirty years ago, I heard a rumour that John Lee Hooker played along to the amplified sound of his own heartbeat. At the time and still to this day this rumour captures my imagination. To be so in tune with one’s music that your heart beats in perfect time, whilst you play the guitar and sing, wow! Maybe, just maybe, it’s true, although I haven’t ever found any kind of mention, let alone proof, of this legendary event taking place. Whether it’s true or not, is in some ways beside the point because the fact of the matter is that one could believe such a thing of John Lee Hooker due to his immense musical integrity and depth of feeling. There are many thousands of other musicians where such an improbable rumour would never even stand a chance of sticking. When he played, people listened. The hypnotic groove that he was able to conjure out of thin air held everyone spellbound as if it welled up and was released from his very core. There is something very physical and yet entrancing about blues he played.
The ideas that Nietzsche stirred regarding becoming and exemplars, in the last post, could find their cultural incarnation in many individuals. In music one could easily look to Frederick Hibbert, better known as Toots (and the Maytals), Bob Marley, Nina Simone, Leadbelly or Woody Guthrie to name a few, if the criteria were musical achievement and genre defining hero/heroine status. There is a difference between them and John Lee Hooker, however. Yes, he achieved the same level of musical impact as the others and was undoubtedly in their league, but he did something more. John Lee Hooker, at all times, was his own person with a distinct style that remained instantly recognisable as he explored the full spectrum of darkly distilled acoustic country blues right through to the rocked up boogies with Canned Heat. And, it’s in this constancy, with its unique style of vocal delivery and guitar playing, that we find Hooker the artist. He had honed his craft to the point of mastery. In any given situation he was always John Lee Hooker the musician, but also John Lee Hooker the person. The two were inseparable. Unlike so many who find their voice and have to stay within the bounds of a limited number of songs, always performed identically, Hooker’s style was not two-dimensional, he could adapt, evolve, go with the flow and create the flow. This meant that at every required time, John Lee Hooker the musician would perform, but also John Lee Hooker the person was present to enjoy and push the uniqueness of that occasion. And, by being present as a real person, rather than just a musical personae acting out the role of performer, he was always, in Nietzsche’s phrase, becoming. And, that my friends, means that John Lee Hooker is also an excellent exemplar. To keep moving, to keep playing, to keep developing, to keep challenging and attempting new ideas whilst retaining one’s inner core is why John Lee Hooker is an exemplary figure because by doing all of that he was always in a state of becoming.
Now, completely ashamedly, I’m going to refer throughout the rest of this post to Charles Shaar Murray’s epic biography of John Lee Hooker, Boogie Man: The Adventures of John Lee Hooker in the American Twentieth Century, because it gives the best insights available outside of listening directly to the music, which is obviously the best thing that one could possibly do. Early on, Murray sets forth a cornerstone of his thinking:
“The story of John Lee Hooker’s life is, essentially, the story of his resistance to any and all attempts to change him, to dilute an intrinsic sense of self which has successfully withstood all pressures, including those of institutionalized racism, family, church and the music business.”
As Murray swiftly points out, the resistance was essentially passive due to Hooker’s character being “polite, deferential, quiet-spoken and accommodating.” Confrontation, aggression or manipulation, were never attitudes adopted by Hooker. He was internally strong enough and sure of himself to leave aside such tactics of engagement. Instead, a policy of self-determination that focused upon his abilities and conduct, rather than casting a steely eye at the behaviour of others, was always his approach. The company of others was always something to be enjoyed and was never regarded as grist to a mill of misanthropy and bitterness. Hooker was life affirming. Negativity, fear, suspicion, anger and regrets were left to others to occupy themselves with. While there was breath in his lungs and movement in his hands, Hooker was going to sing, play and live life to the full.
As Murray writes:
“His gift to us is not so much his music – monumental though that music is – but the sensibility that created that music, a sensibility which gives us the ultimate gift: a new way to see ourselves, and to experience ourselves. A new way to understand and, finally, to live with ourselves.”
Born in 1917, near Clarksdale, Mississippi, one of ten children to Minnie Hooker and the Reverend William Hooker, John Lee grow up on the family farm, around one hundred acres large. Electricity and the telephone hadn’t arrived and life “revolved around, farm, church and school.” At church, as the son of a part-time preacher, John Lee had to sing from the age of nine or ten. A guitar entered his life around that time, due to the kindness of Tony Hollins who gave the young John Lee the instrument whilst courting took place of Alice, Hooker’s older sister. The Reverend Hooker took an instant dislike to his son’s guitar and only allowed him to keep it if it were never brought into the family home: “You can’t bring the Devil in this house.”
From that moment, the young John Lee would practise and play his guitar in the woods, even when he was meant to be at school. For him, as Murray records, a choice had to be made between gaining a good education and staying in Mississippi with the prospect of being a farmer or becoming a musician. Illiteracy was chosen and the rest is history. The journey to that history, however, would be a constant affirmation of the choice to be a musician and continual hard work:
“I know I had the music. I know I had the talent. I know I was good. I knew it, but I knew I had to work up to find someone to open that door for me to come in.”
A few years after getting his guitar, John Lee’s mother left her husband for Will Moore, a local share-cropper and guitar player. Whereas all his siblings chose to stay with their father, John Lee went with his mother, to be with the guitar playing Will Moore. This decision, at fourteen, meant that John Lee was living with a fellow musician who played alongside the blues greats, such as Charlie Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson, whenever they visited Mississippi. Will Moore gave John Lee two very important gifts, a new guitar and he taught his stepson the boogie. Both were vital, but the latter was defining, as Hooker recounts:
“He is my roots because he is the man that caused me who I am today. I understudied under him, Will Moore. He made me what I am with his style. He give it to me, like you got a piece of bread and I ain’t got none, and he said, “Here’s a piece of my bread.” He gave me a piece of his music. What I’m doin’ today, that’s him.”
Will Moore was John Lee Hooker’s musical exemplar, he showed him his way of playing the blues, and some fifteen or so years later, in 1948, he gave John Lee his first hit. Boogie Chillen was a colossal statement of intent that defied the traditional arrangement of most blues songs at the time. The eight or twelve bar blues chord progression was shunned for a pared down dedication to pure rhythm, which drives, like my legendary heartbeat rumour, from the start right through until the end. As Murray writes, “Its galvanic, hypnotic boogie groove was pure unreconstructed Will Moore.”
Hooker acknowledged this debt completely:
“I got that from my stepdad… That was his tune, that was his beat. I never thought I would make nothin’ out of it, and he didn’t either. But I come out with it and it just happened.”
Coming out with that tune after practising and honing his craft for over half his life, by the age of thirty-one, meant that John Lee Hooker knew exactly who he was, what he would sing about and how he would play right at the start of his public career. And, having studied and perfected his sound and style, for longer than most PhDs, before getting their first foot on the career ladder, meant he knew exactly what worked for him. Trials and errors, dead-ends and dry patches would have all been worked through in the preceding fifteen years. Confidence, stability and a solid foundation were all set by the time of that first break-through hit, Boogie Chillen. The next fifty years, in some ways could be said to be a footnote to where Hooker had got to musically by 1948.
Before moving on to discuss the merit or not in my footnote theory, there is a lyrical component to Boogie Chillen, which must be highlighted. The words, as with nearly all Hooker’s songs, are sparse, evocative, non-rhyming and biographical:
“One night I was layin’ down,
I heard mama, papa talkin’.
I heard papa tell mama
‘Let that boy boogie-woogie
Because it’s in him
And it got to come out’.
And I felt so good.
Went on boogyin’ just the same…
Unlike his actual father, who thought about guitar music as the Devil’s music, Hooker’s stepfather is forever inscribed into John Lee Hooker’s canon as being understanding of John Lee’s compulsion to play the boogie: “… it’s in him and it got to come out.” With its beguiling honesty, simplicity and accuracy this little statement, contained within Boogie Chiilen, is obviously how Hooker felt about himself and it is also the immortalised bearer of a debt back to Will Moore, but it is something else, too. It is the announcement, by one who knows, that we all have possibilities inside of us. Possibilities, which if fed, nourished and worked at can ‘come out’ and produce something unique, beautiful and exemplary.
The innocence of John Lee Hooker’s illiteracy and lyrical content is cast into a sharp relief of wisdom that few literate musicians, poets, and writers ever achieve. Maybe, it’s this self-understanding that drove Hooker and gave him the inner strength and confidence to perpetually allow himself the freedom to create anew every time he played any of his songs?
If everything beyond 1948 could be said to be a footnote, as far as John Lee Hooker’s music is concerned, what can never be reduced to such a status is the way he approached making that music. Aside from learning from Will Moore, Hooker cultivated his individual approach to the blues in an irrepressible fashion. Always shunning uniformity or copying others, Hooker walked his own road.
In 1959, Bill Grauer, of the Riverside label in New York, wanted to record Hooker playing an acoustic set of Leadbelly numbers. Hooker, it quickly transpired, had barely heard of Leadbelly, which to some might speak of a lack of respect for musical ‘forefather’, however, it speaks volumes in another direction. Rather than devote himself to studying the life and music of others forerunners, Hooker understood that his strength was not in the musical mimicry and recreation of past heroes, but rather in emulating their attitudes. As we saw in the last post from Nietzsche: “‘One repays a teacher badly if one remains only a pupil.” Consequently, the Riverside album is John Lee playing acoustic versions of his own songs, not Leadbellys.
Back in 1947 or 1948, depending on which archive or oral history is adhered to, although it really doesn’t matter, John Lee Hooker began recording his first sessions. Bernard Besman had just established his label, Sensation, after the Second World War and was endeavouring to gain commercial success by recording artists and selling records. Before World War II, Besman had been in the music industry, making records, booking bands and was also from a musical family with a decent piano playing ability that paid his college fees. Jazz was Besman’s comfort zone, but keen to reap financial rewards where he could, he started to diversify with urbane blues musicians who rigidly followed the chord progressions of traditional blues arrangements. Hooker’s approach was not like this at all, as Murray notes:
“Hooker’s music, by contrast, played by rules so utterly different from the rhythm-and-blues norm that Besman didn’t recognize them as rules at all.”
Sometimes ten, sometimes eleven, or even thirteen bar blues were delivered by Hooker depending on how he felt at the moment of playing: an issue, of course, for anyone accompanying him. For Besman this was a problem. Here was a talented musician, but one who refused to play by the rules, in this case the twelve bar blues rules. Hooker didn’t stop there, though, with his particular kind of anarchy.
“For Hooker, no ‘song’ was ever actually completed, finished, engraved into marble, rendered definitive. Rather, it was different each time it was performed. Each piece was a platform for improvisation, a loose framework of lyrical and instrumental motifs into which he poured the emotions of the moment. Ask him to perform the same song a year later, a month later, a week later, a night later, an hour later, or even five minutes later, and the piece would have changed sometimes beyond recognition.”
For Besman this was another problem, but fortunately he trusted the prospect of success and put out Hooker’s songs to the public. For us, though, there is a fantastic lesson. Hooker obviously prioritised the feelings of the song and tapped into the spirit of the tune each time he performed it rather than trotting it out ‘just one more time’. The lesson being, can we ever get ourselves to a pitch of ability and confidence, on any subject that we would like to excel at, to just let go and improvise right there and then? The risks are high, but the rewards equally so. When discussing this further and describing what he sees as Hooker’s shamanic-like qualities, Murray perceptively states:
“Such music creates joy and transcendence for some and unparalleled fear and loathing in others because it’s an utter affront to the basic tenets of Western rationalism: in others, it disengages the body from the mind and the intelligence from the intellect. It stops you thinking, and starts you feeling. It creates an irrational ecstasy.”
Much can be said in this vein, however, I’m conscious that we need to finish our thoughts and more tightly bind to becoming.
In May 1970, at the age of fifty-three, Hooker teamed up with Canned Heat to deliver “the best” album of his early career, Hooker ‘n’ Heat. (The Healer, recorded in 1989 when well into his seventies, was actually the beginning of his financial success). A double album resulted of seventeen songs: six were solos of Hooker’s, a further six were ‘duets’ with Alan Wilson accompanying on a different instrument for each song, and the remaining five brought out the other members of Canned Heat to join with John Lee and Alan.
The album sees Hooker at the pinnacle of his ability and strength, with the Canned Heat crew accompanying to perfection, under the genius hand of Alan Wilson. The songs flow from depth and intensity to unrestrained energetic vitality, that thankfully everyone understood should not be contained within the standard three minute format. The resulting Peavine and Boogie Chillen No. 2 are five and eleven and a half minutes long respectively. In each, the groove is struck and mined with vigor, imagination and dedication. Hooker, with those half his age, delivered something completely unique in his career, but absolutely authentic. Musically, a pinnacle, but personally a testament to an attitude carved out across the whole fifty years of performing and recording that never shirked from giving absolutely everything to the moment and to the music being created in that moment.
A true exemplary figure. Thank you, Mr John Lee Hooker and thank you, dear readers.
These are my personal views on ethics and they are not intended to represent the views of Conway Hall Ethical Society.
Dr. Jim Walsh