SINCE THE AGE OF 15, NEW YORK City native Rory Block has been obsessed with the gods and demons of blues. Literally. When her parents split and family life was in tatters back in 1964, she dropped out of tenth grade and set out to track down the living legends that had helped ignite her love of country blues—bluesmen such as Mississippi John Hurt, Reverend Gary Davis, and Son House. Her journey not only led her to those luminaries, it eventually led her to join their ranks. Today, she’s one of the world’s preeminent proponents of American roots music, as well as the humble holder of five Blues Music Awards, including one for her 2007 Robert Johnson tribute album, The Lady and Mr. Johnson.
Block’s 28th album, this year’s Blues Walkin’ Like a Man: A Tribute to Son House [Stony Plain], is something of a companion piece to Mr. Johnson in that it honors perhaps the most formative influence on the supposedly soulless King of the Delta Blues: the lesser known but equally significant Son House. The album brims with tasty slide playing and thumping strumming, but Block’s ability to vocally channel the haunting origins of this music is as moving as her guitar work.
How would you contrast Robert Johnson’s style with that of Son House?
Robert Johnson’s music is completely free, and his vocals are completely free on top of the music. But I can very much see how Son House’s playing was the foundation of Johnson’s playing. He told me in person that he taught Johnson how to play. But Johnson took the music and just ran with it. House’s singing was more locked in with the tempo of the guitar part—but he played slower than Johnson, and he was much more deliberate and driving. His playing was similar yet very different. It’s almost like doing a tongue twister—but with your hands. To play it, you have to be able to go in unnatural directions. Even if a House song sounds slower and simpler than a Johnson song, it takes more unexpected directions in its strumming and the placement of certain notes. It really was confounding at first.
Which song is a good illustration of that?
I would say “Jinx Blues,” because we think of blues as having a certain number of measures. But if you go back to the days before there was a lot of written music and widespread distribution of recordings, people weren’t confined by limitations such as thinking, “I have to go to the next chord now because I just finished four beats.” The original blues artists didn’t have the same preconceptions about timing, chords, tunings, or pitch. Today, you can’t imagine someone not tuning up to one uniform, recognizable pitch—like A440. But back then they had no electronic tuners, and it’s unlikely they even had tuning forks, so they tuned to whatever their voice told them to or they made up their tunings. It was very innovative. Because of that, House was not always going to the next chord when our preconceived notions tell us it should change. It’s complicated, and also highly sophisticated. Today, we think, “Oh, he left out a beat.” No, he did that on purpose. So, I had to completely change my context to get that right.
Did you put House’s early playing under a microscope to replicate each nuance, or did you feel it was better to put your own stamp on the songs?
When recording Mr. Johnson, I did it note for note, measure by measure. I was obsessed with getting everything in order and in the same tempo. But House didn’t record as many tracks when he was in his prime, which is too bad because he was just brilliant. He only left us a handful of masters from the ’30s. After he was rediscovered in the ’60s— which is when I met him, when he was 62 or 63—he had stopped playing for a while. His hands shook and he had a drinking problem, which made it much harder for him to play. And yet most of his recordings are from that period—and he played a lot of them extremely slowly. But I knew what he had done in his earlier recordings, so I tried to apply what I know about country blues to make the tracks slightly different. Not because his tracks are not ultimate and great—they are—but I’ve recorded some of them before and I didn’t want to do the same versions. I knew I wasn’t going to play some songs at the same tempo, because the only reference recordings were from after he was rediscovered. I took the flavor of them, but sped them up to where he might have played them in 1935.
How did you decide which tracks to include?
There wasn’t much rhyme or reason to the process other than I just love these songs. But I’ve been playing blues since 1964, so I recognize the songs that are the pillars of the music as it evolved. “Death Letter Blues” is a really important pinnacle on which so many songs are directly based. The rhythm and the chord progression—everything about it was absolutely pivotal. The Chicago style was certainly based on songs like “Walking Blues” and “Death Letter”—which is really the same guitar part as “Walking Blues.” You can hear rock bands today playing songs directly related to “Death Letter Blues,” “Walking Blues,” and “Jinx Blues.”
Which guitars did you record with?
I have four Martins. My road warrior is an OM-28V with herringbone around the edge. Then we designed a signature model, the OM-40 Rory Block. I have a prototype and serial numbers 1 and 2—and I really love those, too.
How do you decide which tuning to use for a specific song?
If I record a root track and decide I’m going to put on a second guitar part, then I search around for unusual tunings to juxtapose with the first—because I don’t want it to sound like two guitars in the same tuning. A lot of times I’ll go way up the neck, or I’ll mess around with, say, dropped D against open-G. It has to be a completely different tuning, and sometimes I want it to be in a completely different register so there’s contrast and space between the two parts. But they’ve got to be in a different frequency range so they don’t just become mush. With “Government Fleet Blues,” which has a really low guitar part that sounds like a bass, I just took one of the other guitars and tuned it down until I liked what was happening.
What was the most enjoyable aspect of recording Blues Walkin’ Like a Man?
There is a spirit that leads this music. That’s why the vocals are so much fun for me. Because that’s the point where I just get to be with the spirit, in terms of the flow of the music. With the guitar, the hardest thing is the basic part. Then, a lot of times, I put a second part on. And the overdub is pure joy. That’s where the excitement really starts and the country blues energy is happening. It’s like, “Oh, yeah!”
What do you think Son House would say about the album?
It’s impossible to say, but I know this: I loved him very much. I admired him. I respected him. I felt his spiritual presence with us when we were recording, and I hope that means he’s honored. Not necessarily that he liked everything I did, but that he was honored by the fact that I felt moved to make the album. Dick Waterman, who was his manager, said something that really touched my heart. He said he was proud of me—and I feel satisfied with that.
Rory Block’s husband, Rob Davis, is her sound engineer for both live performances and recording. Here, he details her electronic gear and recording techniques.
It sounds like there is a mix of piezo pickup and microphones on the Son House album.
Yes, exactly. Fishman came to us a couple of years ago with some choices, and the Acoustic Matrix Natural I gave me the best results for Rory’s style. She’s a very percussive player, and I don’t want any of that to distort. I also use CAD e100 and Shure KSM44/SL condenser mics, as well as an HHB Radius 40 preamp/ vocal processor. It has an instrument input and you can go pre- or postwith your EQ. It’s very subtle, but it really does nice things. People have offered me other, much more expensive units, but they don’t quite do what that does.
Where do you place the microphones?
We record in a very live room with a small, 2.5' x 2.5' acoustic isolation panel about 12 inches away from the guitar. The mics are fairly close— usually about ten to 12 inches away— and neither is aimed at the soundhole. The song and whatever percussive attributes I might need to enhance or deemphasize determine the exact placement.
Is there any other gear that is crucial?
We’ve been recording with Pro Tools LE 7, and I love the Waves plugins. They allow me to tailor things in subtle ways. I’m here to enhance things, not treat. We don’t need much, because Rory is such a fantastic player.