Death Bell Blues

Just read that R.L. Burnside ( died yesterday, after an extended stay in a hospital in Memphis. He recorded several blues albums for Fat Possum(one of the few record labels that I am conscious of, and partial to), and is to me one of the greatest bluesmen. His style of playing far removed from the strict 12-bar blues canon. Unlike many modern blues artists, his work was not a stale, immaculate preservation of the blues of a particular period of time, but rather, the blues incarnate, alive, raw, and kicking really, really hard.

R.L. Burnside was one of the first blues artists I paid close attention to, because Fat Possum was releasing hip hop and electronic remixes of Burnside’s music. Before Burnside, I knew nothing about the blues, thinking it an old and outdated form of music. But hearing how easily the blues blended with modern styles got me wondering.

Fat Possum’s gamble– to try to draw new listeners by mixing blues with popular styles– paid off, at least as far as I’m concerned. Soon I was submerged in the blues, and eschewing the remixed versions of Burnside’s songs for the originals because by being combined with modern music, as powerful as they were, they lost so much.

The remix albums are a good start, a smoother transition into a music that is so raw, powerful and personal. But by far his better work is that without drum machines and digital distortion. My current favorites are “Too Bad Jim” and the live album “Burnside on Burnside,” which is nothing short of phenomenal. It is worlds away from the “inside a glass case” museum-style blues which stems from the 60’s revival, and proof positive that the blues can be vibrant, current and relevant.

After all, like R.L. said himself, “the blues ain’t nothin’ but dance music.”