John Lee Hooker: He Paid His Dues

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John Lee Hooker at home in 1997

"I said night time is the right time to be with the one you love..."

I can hear him in my head.

"You know when night come baby/God know, you're so far away..."

So I've got the blues today.

John Lee Hooker, blues master, is dead. I remember talking to Hooker just a few years back. I had called him up to interview him about his latest album. Even over the phone his voice had a sonorousness that had one reaching for nature metaphors in order to describe it: echoes in underground caverns, waves booming against shorelines, thunder rolling overhead. Hooker was 79 then, and his health was starting to fail. I asked if he planned to do any touring anytime soon. "I'll go out once in a while," Hooker told me. He added: "I've paid my dues."

I can still hear him singing.

"I didn't care what she didn't 'low/I would boogie anyhow..."

So I've got the blues today.

Like the sea, like the sky, like a pair of Levi's, like that Miles Davis song, Hooker was all blues. In fact, Miles once said that Hooker was so infused with the sound of the Delta that he described the bluesman as "buried up to his neck in mud." Hooker wasn't all blues all by himself: there was Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charley Patton before him, B.B. King and Muddy Waters right there with him, and many, many performers after him. Early in their careers, the Rolling Stones opened for Hooker. Early in his career, Bob Dylan shared the bill with Hooker. Bruce Springsteen, Ry Cooder and others have all paid tribute to Hooker, in songs, in print, in spirit. The poet Langston Hughes once lamented that "they've taken my blues and gone." Not with Hooker. He played duets with Van Morrison, with Bonnie Raitt, with Keith Richards, with Los Lobos and Santana. He made sure to be seen alongside the new, more popular artists who had borrowed from his work. If you wanted to take Hooker's blues, you had to take Hooker with you.

"Well I see you every day/Well I see you every day/You my babe, I got my eyes on you..."

Hooker was born in 1917 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, a town where the soil was richer than many of the residents. He came from sharecropping folk, the kind that worked hard and prayed harder — his father was also a minister. Hooker's parents split up when he was young and his mother moved in with William Moore, who became Hooker's stepfather. God's agents had their chance, and now it was time for the Devil's music. Moore taught the young sharecropper's son how to do something else with his hands other than harvest crops — he taught him how to play guitar.

When Hooker was a teen he headed north, part of the great migration of black folks looking for jobs, and he started to make his name as a performer. Several names, in fact — Hooker played under a variety of nicknames and pseudonyms, including John Lee Booker and Johnny Lee and Texas Slim and Boogie Man. He also played all sorts of venues, from juke joints and dive bars to festivals and fish fries. He lived in Detroit for a time, and he worked in an auto plant by day and churned out the blues by night.

The night job was the one that really paid off. The young performer, perhaps moving to the industrial beat of the factories around him, helped loose the lightning-charged sound that would power American music — blues, rock and even hip-hop — for the remainder of the century. Hooker, like Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Elmore James, took the Mississippi Delta blues and shocked it into modernity, revitalizing the still-youthful music with electric guitars. Hooker's songs were desperate and desolate but enlivened with boogie-woogie energy. His instrumental skills matched his vocal prowess; his guitar playing was spare, sharp and menacing, like a broken beer bottle brandished in a bar fight.

One of Hooker's most significant accomplishments was that he took an essentially rural form of music, Delta blues, and made it tough enough for the city, strong enough to support all the rock and roll that would come after it. Hooker once said "the blues is a pick-up. It's not a letdown." Although he sang sad songs like "Hobo Blues" and "My First Wife Left Me" and "It Serves Me Right (To Suffer)", Hooker was searching for catharsis, not pathos; he was looking to chase pain away, not to simply revel in it. "What do music do? It keeps the world turning," Hooker once said. "If there wasn't no music, this world would be a sad place to live."

So I can still hear Hooker singing.

"Talk that talk..."

So I've got the blues today.

"Walk that walk..."

With any luck, I'll still have the blues tomorrow.