With B.B King passing four years ago, and Buddy Guy heading for the 83 it is no wonder the Blues genre is not the first on our radar anymore. Still, this genre managed to lay down the foundations for pretty much every single song of our popular music. The moody cries of the guitar are easy to recognize, even in your afternoon episode of Friends. But a certain mythos spins around, what used to be known as ‘devil’s music’.
So, do you have to sell your soul to the devil, plow a cotton field from sunup to sundown, or get cheated on by your significant other and drown your sorrows in Southern Comfort to have the Blues? No. Even though the Blues has become a rather abstract concept in the 21st century, the genre still has loyal torch-carriers. They keep the tradition alive but also forge a whole new kind of Blues. NBHAP met Atlanta blues duo Larkin Poe to unravel the mystery around the Blues and to chat about the importance of the genre in the past, as well as today.
The duo Larkin Poe is made up of the sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell (descendants of writer Edgar Allan Poe, hence the name) who grew up in Atlanta with strong ties to the roots American music. ‘Our grandfather played in a bluegrass band and our father is a huge southern rock enthusiast. So we got into roots music from a young age. He played a lot of songs from Thin Lizzy and The Allman Brothers. That was where we heard the slide guitar first.’ The slide guitar effect often achieved with a bottleneck plays a great part in the Blues music. Especially in the Delta circles, where the instrumentation was more stripped back, the moody slides quickly became a trademark of the genre.
From the cotton fields to big city streets
The Blues was not born overnight, as no musical genre is. What started out as field hollers and work songs of the African American slaves at the turn of the 19th century, grew to become very influential. When slavery was abolished, many former slaves moved to the cities of the North hoping for a better life there. Especially in Chicago and Memphis female Blues performers soon gathered audiences. But the genre was branded as ‘race music’ – created by, and for African Americans. The push towards the North established two musical styles. The artists who remained in the rural south in the Mississippi Delta based stuck to the traditional Blues – the Delta Blues – with the acoustic guitar and vocals (artists Son House, Skip James, Robert Johnson). The more urban sound of the city became known as Chicago Blues (Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker).
Sweet Home Chicago
While the music of the Delta did not undergo as much change as its upstate cousin, the Chicago Blues musicians quickly elaborated on their Delta origins. It got a makeover when former Mississippi statesman Muddy Waters got acquainted with the electric guitar and the amplifier. Quickly the guitar expressive solos became one of the main parts of the genre. Even though the Chicago Blues artists did have their regular gigs to play, it wasn’t until the 50s that Blues became popular among the white crowds, too.
With a sleek curl of hair and tight pants, lady charmer Elvis Presley gave the blues a new twist. It went from the moody expression of misery and oppression to swing-your-hips kind of Rock n Roll. The British market adopted it and groups of young Blues fans formed bands on the other side of the planet. Following the British invasion of The Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds, many of the, by then, elderly Blues musicians were rediscovered in the 60s. The Stones were followed by Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, and co. and the rest is history. The Blues had gone from the socially confined music of black America to a genre that belongs to everybody.
Dragging the Blues into the 21st century
‘We were lucky that our parents shared our passion for music. After having heard the music of the old Blues musicians, we put down the classical violin to pick up the guitar. Megan started playing the lap-steel, that cemented our musical focus.’ Yes, if you are lucky enough to be confronted with the Blues in the right way, and not as part of a sitcom or a beer commercial, it is hard not to fall in love with the genre. The first Blues song Larkin Poe learned, as sisters, was the Robert Johnson classic Come On in My Kitchen. Makes sense, as it includes a whole lot of slide guitar. ‘We did the record out of nostalgia and appreciation for Robert Johnson. It is really a timeless song.’ the sisters say about their choice of cover.
The name Robert Johnson might ring a bell for a few out there. The Delta blues musician died at a young age and only gained an audience during the 60s revival of the blues. His life and death remain a mystery, but the tale of how he acquired his impeccable guitar skills has survived. Johnson ought to have sold his soul to the devil at a crossroad. In return for it he became the best guitarist of all time. Echoing into the future, the story found a spot on the latest record by Larkin Poe called Venom & Faith. As reply to the question whether they believed in the tale they croon on Mississippi the Duo laughs but admits they ‘do believe that something happened to this guy, whether it involves a deal with the devil or not.’
Passing down traditions
Like the fathers, like the sons, like the mothers like the daughters. Like Robert Johnson, like Eric Clapton, and like Larkin Poe. Passing down the folk songs and spiritual chants to the next generation has been, and still is, an important part of the Blues. Often times several musicians were singing the traditional songs at a time, without anyone claiming the ‘right version’ of the song. ‘Everybody is borrowing off everybody. That is the ethos of the genre and it creates great freedom’. Larkin Poe, who started their career by covering old Blues tunes, are grateful for the open-minded spirit of the genre.
‘We usually cover songs that have a special meaning to us. Like songs we listened to a lot in our childhood. It is great that there is no pressure to play them exactly the way the old artists did. We like new music and modern technology. It feels like we are doing what the blues artists at the turn of the century were doing.We take old songs and give them a fresh twist.’
In Atlanta, being surrounded by the city’s Hip Hop circle, the duo developed a strong interest in the techniques of the genre. Rebecca started out creating samples for Venom & Faith on Garage Band using electronic drums borrowed from the Hip Hop genre and organic sounds like foot stomps and door-slams. Like this Larkin Poe turned classics like Ruthie Foster’s Death Came Knocking and Bessie Jones’ Sometimes into their very own version of the tracks. Yet they managed to stay true to the essence of stripped back sounds and vocal focus.
‘It is still a challenge for us, not to over-produce with all of the amazing tools we have in the studio. The hardest part is keeping up the spontaneity and rawness of the Blues genre when we now have the chance to produce perfect songs enhanced with auto tunes etc. We have to unlearn making everything perfect and to leave humanity and nature in the songs.’
‘You can be anyone and fall in love with the Blues’
The Larkin Poe sisters appear to have been born in the wrong age for their music. Emotive lap-steel slides and howled vocals breaking out raw emotional force, licks that take you back to the 70s. At a Larkin Poe gig you will probably come across a few ZZ Top or Robert Plant look-a-likes. ‘One of the biggest problems of the Blues in the 21st century is, that a lot of times it is presented in a very time capsule way,’ the sisters explain. ‘It is the responsibility of our generation to carry on the musical tradition, whose dues have been paid by so many previous generations. We have to keep making it relevant.’ Recently the power duo has been attracting a younger crowd as well. ‘It is refreshing to see that young people are starting to crave a more substantial and raw kind of music again.’
A step towards keeping the Blues alive Larkin Poe see in the push of females into the industry. Samantha Fish, Susan Tedeschi and, of course, the duo themselves, have paved the way for other young females to access the genre. ‘So many different people have played the Blues . The beauty of the genre really is that it welcomes everybody with open arms. You can be anyone and fall in love with the Blues.’
Getting the Blues
It isn’t necessarily the big disasters that give you the Blues, but the small aches of life everybody experiences. Rebecca Lovell agrees ‘the small things that give you the Blues. For me, it is being very judgmental. I make my life miserable at sometimes when I have every reason to be grateful and happy. I just spiral towards the dark side of the blues – the upsets of being human.
The Blues is an outlet for utterly personal aches. Growling howls give the struggles room to breathe. Sharing them with others does take off a little bit of the burden. This is the job of the blues: sharing and relieving the troubled spirits. To Megan, it is ‘the most human-sounding kind of music. The Blues is like a universal language everyone can understand. It speaks a lot about the questions we ask ourselves about the soul, what we are here for and god. Its importance lies partly in the ability to ask timeless questions. Even if it is not providing an answer for them, it unites the people.’
Returning to the roots
In 2019 we have the luxury of being able to access a huge library of music from decades ago. No matter in which direction it evolved, the Blues is still all around us. The shape-shifting genre laid down the foundations for jazz, soul, rock, and everything that these intern inspired as well. You listened to The Black Keys before discovering Led Zeppelin, hyped The Rolling Stones before finding out about Muddy Waters. You listened to Muddy Waters before Son House.
Now, in times when we talk more to our Smartphones than to each other, auto-tune is considered music, and the heritage of 12th century churches fades to ashes, it is time to return to the roots, to carry on the tradition while we still can and to preserve the rawness and reality of the Blues for the future generation. With the fading of the original Blues artists from back in the day, the responsibility of keeping this genre alive and of cherishing its uniting power lies in our hands. Let us keep the Blues alive, for its moving power, for its raw expression of emotions, for its moody chords progressions and crying guitar solos.
One thing is for sure, as long as musicians like Larkin Poe, Eric Clapton, and Buddy Guy are around the Blues won’t go anywhere.
Larkin Poe’s latest album Venom & Faith is out now via Tricky Woo Records / H’Art.
All Photos by Liv Toerkell