By David McGee
PROVE IT ON ME
Back in 2012, in a Deep Roots interview with your faithful friend and narrator concerning her then-new album, …First Came Memphis Minnie, a tribute to blues titan Memphis Minnie featuring Muldaur and an aggregate she terms her “Sisters in Music” (Bonnie Raitt, Rory Block, Phoebe Snow, Ruthie Foster and Koko Taylor), Maria Muldaur recounted a day in 1963 that set her on a course she has followed ever since. On the day in question, Ms. Muldaur was introduced to a truly great lady of the blues, Victoria Spivey, who was then in her 70s and, like Muldaur, living in Greenwich Village, where she ran her own record label. Taking young Maria under her wing, Ms. Spivey proceeded to educate her acolyte in the ways of the blues, playing her old 78s “looking for songs that would be suitable for my voice,” Muldaur recalled. “Of the amazing tunes she played for me, the one that made the deepest impression was an old scratchy 78 of a haunting, soulful tune called ‘Tricks Ain’t Walkin’,’ by Memphis Minnie. From that moment to this, Memphis Minnie, and the example she set for me, has remained a profound influence in my life and my music.”
‘I Shall Wear a Crown,’ originally recorded by Arizona Dranes, featured on Rory Block’s Prove It Me
By the time she released …First Came Minnie, Maria Muldaur’s credentials as a blue singer were impeccable, as was her championing of the female blues greats of ages past, starting in 2001 with her tribute to Memphis Minnie and Bessie and Mamie Smith on Richland Woman Blues; and continuing in 2005 and 2007 with two tributes to the distaff side of classic blues vocalizing, Sweet Lovin’ Ol’ Soul and Naughty, Bawdy and Blue, respectively. On the first-mentioned of these, Rory Block served up a smoldering, bold come-on performance of “When You Love Me” that was as remarkable for her seductive vocalizing as it was for the emotional expressiveness of her fingerpicked slide guitar work. Her appearance on Ms. Muldaur’s project came in the midst of an ambitious run of albums she was recording to honor some towering blues men that were more than mere influences—she also knew and studied with them, called each one a friend: Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Bukka White. These long-players comprise her “Mentor Series,” and there’s nary a false note to be found anywhere on those albums. Then, two years ago, she turned her attention back Muldaur’s way, in a sense, by launching a new project aimed at honoring “Power Women of the Blues,” the first being the justly 2018’s acclaimed A Woman’s Soul: A Tribute to Bessie Smith. In toto, these albums comprise what Block calls her “lifetime retrospective” portfolio. The newest installment, Prove It on Me, brings her back briefly to Memphis Minnie (on “In My Girlish Days,” featuring a worldly-wise confession of a vocal and that piercing slide work—more about this below), but also to Ma Rainey (the title track, a swaggering celebration of her lesbianism at a time—1928–when such things simply were not on heard on record, least of all from an artist as prominent in her field as Ma was in the blues world) and on to a host of names she has singlehandedly rescued from total or near-obscurity and thereby given listeners a very good reason to search out the work of these gifted women and explore it further.
‘Wayward Girl,’ originally recorded by Lottie Kimbrough (in 1928), as featured on Rory Block’s Prove It On Me
‘Motherless Child,’ Elvis Thomas (recorded in 1930), as featured on Rory Block’s Prove It On Me
If a listener detects a theme, or sub-theme, emerging in the work of the female artists represented here, affirmation comes from Ms. Block herself. In her liner notes (consistently among the most insightful and warm-hearted liner notes published), she refers to this “distinctly repeating theme” as “mother-loss.” As the liners point out, despite the strength and undaunted spirits these women exhibit in their performances, the lyrics of Memphis Minnie’s “In My Girlish Days” (a frank, unexpurgated chronicle of shattering mistakes in judgment made in her youth when “I didn’t know no better”); Lottie Kimbrough’s searing “Wayward Girl Blues” (“I got the blues from my mother/and I know she got the blues from me”); and Elvis Thomas’s heartbreaking “Motherless Child” (the original 1930 recording begins with almost a minute of Thomas repeating, “my mother told me/just before she died…” until it becomes an incantation that needs no further explanation for a listener to understand the full magnitude of this cataclysmic event in the artist’s life), these artists suffered both “a unique sorrow” and “sang their songs for a reason.” Ms. Block dignifies this unique sorrow in her own readings of these tunes, while at the same time adding a subtext of tenderness, of understanding, in her phrasing, as if to say, “I’ve been there.” Indeed, as her only original song for this project, the autobiographical “Eagles,” makes clear in its first verse, she knows whereof she sings; you hear it in the weight she bears, and bares, on the key lyrics, “I been a million miles/seen the state of the world/mighty long journey for a lonely girl…” It is, at once, a triumphant assertion and an aching lament.
‘Eagles,’ Rory Block’s original song, featured on Prove It On Me
Thus the complexity Rory has brought to her lifetime retrospectives. You have to love the subtlety of her approach to Ma’s “Prove It On Me,” singing Rainey’s unabashed affection for women (“I went out last night with a crowd of my friends/it must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men”) so matter of factly, much as Ma did, that it takes a moment to register what you just heard. Other delights here include her swinging rendition of Helen Humes’s “He May Be Your Man,” a gem from 1945 Humes recorded for the Philo label as a jump blues with the Bill Doggett Octet (the same Bill Doggett who gave rock ‘n’ roll one of its first great instrumental hits with his 1956 double-sided smash for the King label, “Honky Tonk [Parts 1 and 2]). With its lively walking bass line, sprightly fingerpicked guitar and moaning slide, this enthusiastic embrace of sensuality and salaciousness (“…if that’s your man, girl, you better tie him to your thigh/’cause if he flags my train/I’m sure gonna let him ride…”) preceding Madlyn Davis’s thinly disguised homage to her “red hot pepper, shakin’ all the time” in “It’s Red Hot” (not to be confused with Robert Johnson’s “They’re Red Hot,” though Johnson’s 1936 tune does bear some thematic semblance, if you will, to Davis’s 1928 workout) get the album off to a rollicking start. Should the listener need a balance after those two simmering tracks, try the rousing ragtime take on blind Texas-born gospel singer-pianist Arizona Dranes’s “I Shall Wear a Crown,” complete with a multitude of Block voices serving as the soothing gospel backing chorus. Dranes, a pioneering female gospel singer classically trained on piano, who recorded only between 1926 and 1928 (for the OKeh label), has been cited as a formidable influence by both Clara Ward and Roberta Martin, whose rhythmically charged piano playing echoes Dranes’s style, and Sister Roberta Tharpe, who picked up more than a few tips about rhythm listening to Dranes’s work. And those instrumental keystones mentioned above? The “Rory Block Band” backing the artist is the artist herself on guitars and drums (and bass-played-on-guitar), to further underscore the tour de force nature of Prove It On Me.
‘Prove It On Me,’ Ma Rainey’s unabashed affirmation of her lesbianism (recorded in 1928), as featured on Rory Block’s Prove It On Me
These artists, along with Rosetta Howard (“You’re a Viper”) and Merline Johnson (he Yas-Yas Girl, with “Milk Man”), more than deserve the tribute paid to their artistry herein. In the case of the female artists represented here, and the male artists in the “Mentor Series,” necessary perspective is provided in the opening paragraph of Ms. Block’s liner notes. Let her have the last word:
“I just can’t let us forget. These were artists on the cutting, edge, who created new and extraordinary styles, changed the face of music forever, and who fought to carve out a space for themselves in a hostile world. This is what has meant the most to me from the beginning: saying an artist’s name again, as many times as possible, in the public arena.”
Sing it, sister. They’re all listening.