Dark Blues: Celebrating John Lee Hooker’s 96th Birthday
Besides birthing six-string boogie and being among the first generation of rural Mississippi musicians to take the blues up Electric Avenue, John Lee Hooker — who played a series of Gibsons including Gold Tops and thin hollow bodies, and Epiphone Sheratons, during his long career — had a flair for portraying the deep, dark complexities of stormy emotions and shadowy existential entanglement in his songs that was far beyond the reach of most early blues songwriters. As a result, he remains the very epitome of what Muddy Waters called “deep blues” to many fans of the genre.
Sure, the late, great pioneer who was born on a farm outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi on August 22, 1917 is best known for romping, stomping, oft-covered classics like “Boogie Chillen,” “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” and “Boom Boom,” but he was supremely adept at wrestling with such topics as depression, death, domestic violence, the existence of God, sacred retribution and wanton criminality.
Here’s a list of 10 of Hooker’s finest dark and stormy performances:
• “Dark Room”: Hooker’s definitive take on depression is a harrowing, a portrait of a man in the throes of abject loss. His solo version on the absolute must-have album Alone, recorded at New York’s Hunter College in 1976, induces shivers while stripping the emotional language of blues guitar to the bone. His gutbucket picking sounds like a call from the beyond. Hooker knew how profound this performance was. When it concludes, there is absolute silence until he leans into the microphone and intones, rhetorically, “How deep and how low do it get?”
• “I’m Bad Like Jesse James”: This song is literally a prolonged death threat to a friend who’s spreading rumors about its protagonist’s wife, and one of his darkest spoken word pieces. “I got three boys who do my dirty work,” Hooker intones. “I’m the big boss. You won’t see me. They might cut you. They might shoot you.” The song ends with Hooker imitating the gurgling sounds of a man drowning. The definitive version is especially tasty thanks to the support of the Muddy Waters Band, on the Live At the Café Au Go-Go recording from 1967.
• “Crawlin’ King Snake”: This was Hooker’s breakthrough hit from 1949, which reached number one on the R&B charts. It was a template for his boogie style as well as a swaggering piece of male braggadocio with a hint of threat. “I’m a crawlin’ king snake,” Hooker resonates, “And I rules my den.” Hooker recorded many versions of this tune during his lifetime, in addition to the original single on Modern Records.
• “When My First Wife Quit Me”: Another early Hooker single, from 1948, this song explains a hobo’s life of wandering, citing his partner’s departure as what “put me out on the road.” Hooker had a gift for giving voice to the emotions and patterns of the destitute in his compositions, although he always held a day job or derived a steady income from his music. Fans of R.L. Burnside might be familiar with Burnside’s version of this song. Burnside cited Hooker, Water and Fred McDowell as his three primary influences.
• “Burning Hell”: This single’s message, questioning the existence of God, was too risky for record labels when Hooker recorded the song in 1959. It finally surfaced for the first time in 1992. Even today, with the country on a wave of cultural recidivism, only the most daring, nonconformists would dare record and attempt to release such a tune. As it is, the song is one of Hooker’s heaviest blues and is still a piece of work to be reckoned with on every level.
• “I Cover the Waterfront”: This song is a jazz standard that Hooker recorded several variations on over the decades, including a pairing with Van Morrison. It was inspired by a lurid pulp novel about smuggling, written in 1932. Hooker sings from the point of view of the detective, eschewing the role of bad guy for a change. Delivered in an unusually plaintive voice, Hooker cut his definitive version during his late ’50s/early ’60s tenure with Chess Records.
• “Tupelo”: Another talking blues, Hooker’s “ Tupelo,” also know as “Tupelo Blues,” recounts the story of the lives lost during the 1936 flood of the Mississippi Delta and, in particular, the city of “Tupelo,” which was devastated. The accompanying tornado killed 230 people and was ranked as the fourth deadliest in American history — exactly the kind of dark, unhinged event that would attract Hooker’s brooding imagination. And by the way, Hooker was actually illiterate. He wrote and carried all of his material exclusively in memory.
• “Mad Man Blues”: This is also one of Hooker’s earliest Chess sides and brims with violence. Its brutality contrasts its good-time boogie beat, chipped out by Hooker’s guitar and foot stomping accompaniment. He threatens to take his cheating woman down by the river to hang her in the dead of night, and punctuates the promise with a desperate, nagging two-note solo that’s pure deranged passion.
• “I’ll Never Get Out of These Blues Alive”: “I’ll be doomed to the blues/And have the blues till the day I die,” Hooker sings, proclaiming a life of solitary loneliness and insomnia. Although the song dates back to Hooker’s Chess and Modern era, there’s a deep, dark version on Alone that’s definitive.
• “Trick Bag (Shoppin’ For My Tombstone)”: “Life ain’t no good with she’s gone,” Hooker sings at the start of this improvisational blues fueled by his lean vocals and hot-wired single-note licks. It’s another of his many essays in devastated heartbreak, and yet another testimonial to the emotional potency of his art.