Blues Poetry: Rough-And-Raw, by Michael H. Price
Fort Worth, Texas’ Wesley Race is a businessman in much the same way that the Chicago blues singer Little Walter Jacobs once proclaimed himself a businessman: “I’m a business man,” Jacobs growls on a 1964 recording called (what else?) “I’m a Business Man,” allowing songwriter Willie Dixon’s lyric to leave the nature of the business open to suggestion but permitting no doubt of a businesslike attitude.
Walter Jacobs had died, a casualty of a busy sideline in street-fighting, a year before Wes Race’s arrival in 1969 on Chicago’s blues-club scene in search of raw emotive authenticity. Jacobs, among such others as the singer-guitarists Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, had embodied the urbanized and electrified Deep Blues style that had drawn Race to Chicago – perhaps less for the raucous nightlife, than for the poetic ferocity that Race had long perceived in the blues.
Race’s path, winding but decisive, has led to the release this month of a début CD-album of his original poetry, recited with real-time spontaneity against a blues-rooted musical backdrop. The recording, Cryptic Whalin’ (Cool Groove Records), is a production of the guitarist and engineer Jim Colegrove, with instrumental contributions from such additional mainstays of Fort Worth’s roots-music scene as saxophonists Johnny Reno and René Ozuna, guitarists Sumter Bruton and James Hinkle, drummers Steve Springer and Larry Reynolds, steel guitarist David McMillan and keyboard artists Jeff Gutcheon and Ruf Rufner.
I fell in with the project two years ago as pianist and organist on a few selections – yeah, the usual full disclosure – in light of a lengthy affiliation with Colegrove and Bruton, and a cordial acquaintanceship with Wes Race.
Many enthusiasts over the long term, from the dramatist and poet Leroi Jones to the seminal cultural historian Samuel Charters, have sensed what Charters called “the poetry of the blues.” And America’s Beat-poetry movement of the last century had tapped decisively into the blues’ defiant attitude of “laughin’ to keep from cryin’,” often inspiring musical outpourings in response.
It is a temptation to characterize Race as an artistic descendant of such Beat figures as Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, but Race’s amused sense of wordplay and rhythmic lyricism suggest a distinct strain of blues-inspired verse. Race cites Nelson Algren’s 1956 novel of innocence-under-pressure, A Walk on the Wild Side, among early influences, and Race mentions a particular admiration for the poetic rock ’n’ roll ramblings of Don Van Vliet, a.k.a. Captain Beefheart.
“While growing up in Wichita, Kan.,” says Race, 60, “I had found myself captivated by jazz – started out as a Dixielander, then got into a correspondence back-and-forth with Bob Koester, there at the Jazz Record Mart in Chicago. And Bob steered me toward the Chicago-style blues artists, beginning with Muddy Waters.
“Seems funny to a lot of people to think of Wichita, Kan., as having any kind of a hipster scene – but that was very much the case, there. And in 1965 I started attending poetry readings … Somehow, the poets resonated with me, and so did this increasing interest in the blues as a means of poetic expression.
“Of course, I was bound and determined to get to Chicago, expecting to soak up all those older sounds that had appealed so strongly to me,” adds Race. “Visited in 1969 – moved there in 1970 – and of course it wasn’t 1953 any longer, and a lot of commercialization had crept in.”
The death of Little Walter Jacobs in 1968 represented a significant loss to an indigenous American musical form. This general period also found old-schoolers Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf under recording-company pressure to modernize their respective styles. Meanwhile, the guitarist Buddy Guy, formerly of Muddy Waters’ band, began dealing in less tradition-bound approaches to the blues, prompted in part by the crossover-to-pop success of James Brown and a broadening assimilation of blues elements into the psychedelic-rock movement.
“But a lot of more traditional developments were poised to happen, too,” says Race, “and my timing was such that I could take part.”
The blues guitarist Theodore “Hound Dog” Taylor (1915-1975) became an early beneficiary of Race’s interest. Largely unknown outside Chicago, Taylor and his band struck Race in 1970 as “the real thing, untouched by commercialism.”
“I approached Bob Koester [via the Delmark record label] about recording Hound Dog,” recalls Race. “Volunteered to put up $1,000 of my own money for that purpose, yes, I did. The idea went nowhere until Bruce Iglauer, who was working for Koester at the time, started thinking about it – and Bruce and I wound up taking on Hound Dog as a project of our own.”
The début recording, Hound Dog Taylor & the Houserockers (1971), launched Iglauer’s maverick Alligator Records as an influential label. Race cites his role as “mainly, that of just researching and codifying all the original instrumental compositions that Hound Dog had never bothered to assign titles to.” Race also traveled with Taylor as the band’s popular acclaim broadened; a tense account of a combative backstage situation appears as part of a digressive poetic monologue on Race’s new CD.
Race’s influence also extended to the signing of guitarist Frank “Son” Seals (1942-2004) with Alligator Records, in 1972. Race returned to Kansas in 1975, prompting a fondly remembered farewell from Chicago guitarist Louis Meyers: “That’s too bad. You’ve been a good blues spectator.”
More participant than spectator, probably. But the observational gifts of the devoted observer-of-humankind clearly have figured in Wes Race’s ability to transform seemingly mundane experiences into riveting poetic recitations of unabashed frankness. There is a kinship, here, with Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical American Splendor comics pieces, and with Charles Bukowski’s jagged-edge style of storytelling. Race’s poetry is sometimes harshly worded and confrontational, a timely study in First Amendment Absolutism – and sometimes nostalgic or colored with sentimental longing. The pieces tend to resolve themselves in a tone of jovial absurdity, often with the garnish of a punch-line or a non-sequitur.
In “Bright Boy’s Boogie” and “T–99,” Race tells of pub-crawling, thrill-hunting excursions that might tax anybody’s stamina. A backfired curse triggers the crisis of “Voodoo-ola.” “Ragmop Reality” recalls a job Race once held as a psychiatric nurse’s aide, in terms of the healing possibilities of music. He weaves a rhyming commercial slogan for Thunderbird Wine into a wild filibuster called “Shot Time.” His “Cryptic Cocktail Mix” lays out a floor plan for a museum enshrining the blues. And in “Madam Fufu’s Dream Book,” Race turns for inspiration to a self-help manual for superstitious small-time gamblers: “If those lucky-number ‘dream books’ aren’t poetry,” avers Race, “then I don’t know what is.”
Settled in Fort Worth since 1994, Race has operated his own Race Records label – the name plays off an old-time recording-industry term for black music, “race records” – notably with the late guitarist Robin Sylar’s Bust Out CD in 2000. Race addresses the workaday world as both a security guard and a relentlessly supportive participant in the city’s blues-and-jazz scene.
“I learned early on, as a youngster, to find constructive ways to entertain myself,” says Race. “The sheer joy of words has come in very handy, all along. And in the language of the blues, I found a way to communicate on levels ’way beyond pointless small talk.
“The language, of course, strikes some people as cryptic and inaccessible – but it really speaks to lots of other people,” he adds. “That’s where I’m comin’ from, anyhow, and this CD is something of a document of the way I’ve always interpreted the blues in its truer form. Pure, unaffected poetic expression.”
Prowler and Fishhead co-author Michael H. Price is responsible for the Forgotten Horrors series of movie-history books, from Baltimore’s Midnight Marquee Press at www.midmar.com, and has a hand or two in a series of CDs by Bruton & Price Swingmasters Revue (Aristokraft Records/Record Town: 817-926-1331). Price’s arts-scene commentaries can be found at www.fortworthbusinesspress.com, and in the Times Leader of Wilkes-Barre, Pa.