Chris Smither – Killing The Blues on Desolation Row

‘Somebody said they saw me, swinging the world by the tail,
Bouncing over a white cloud – killing the blues’. (Roly Salley)

‘I been left for dead before – but I still fight on
Don’t wait up – Leave the light on, I’ll be home soon’. (Chris Smither)

In the late 1950s and early 1960s groups of earnest, intense young men in the great academic institutions of America began to develop what can only be called an obsession with Afro-American blues music which had been recorded in the pre war period.

Names like Son House, Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James began to take on a hallowed and mythical status.

As they endlessly played the few records they could find of these mystery figures from the 1920s and 1930s (to the despair of their room and dorm mates) they wondered: could it be that some 30 or more years after these wondrous sides had been made that these legendary musicians might still be alive and just waiting to be discovered by enterprising young blues scholars?

Scouring record sleeves and song lyrics for clues it occurred to Dick Spottswood and Tom Hoskins that Mississippi John Hurt’s, ‘Avalon Blues’ from his epochal 1928 sessions must surely refer to Avalon Mississippi.

Maybe Mississippi John was still living there!

Entirely oblivious to the esteem he was held in by highly educated white men young enough to be his grandsons.

And, miraculously John Hurt was still living in Avalon and though he had long left the life of a professional musician behind he was delighted to be, ‘Re- Discovered’ and given the chance to bring, ‘Frankie’ and, ‘Candyman’ to life again in coffee houses, the gleaming halls of Harvard and festival stages where the riveting gentleness of his songs, his guitar playing, his vocals and his personality won him tens of thousands of devout new admirers.

An LP of his 1963 Newport performance was issued and this record along with others like Lightning Hopkins, ‘Blues In The Bottle’ became sacred texts for aspiring white bluesmen who practiced the guitar stylings until their fingers bled.

Some of these blues apprentices were able to produce note for note recreations of their heroes great works. However, it soon became clear to the acute among them that just being able to play all the right notes in the right order at the right tempo did not make you a Bluesman.

No, really being able to play the Blues called for a cultural immersion, a sacramental devotion; a process of virtually religious formation that was beyond the desire, the will and the capability of almost all those who imagined that they could walk the walk, talk the talk and play the guitar like those old men had done and it seemed in many cases could still do.

However, there are always exceptions to every rule and always some acolytes who indeed have heard a true call, who have a vocation they are willing and eager to commit themselves to no matter how difficult the path.

The artist celebrated on The Jukebox today, Chris Smither, over a 45 year long career has proved that the call he heard as a teenager in New Orleans was indeed inviting him into a new baptism as an authentic musician who can play the blues or any blues related music with complete authority.

Here he is with his take on Mississippi John’s ‘Frankie and Albert’. The visuals of this live version are shaky but the sound is fine.

It’s charming that Chris starts this virtuoso performance by parodying the stumbling steps of a novice setting out to follow the footsteps of a master.

As you listen it’s clear that Chris Smither has now attained master status himself as he marries thumb, fingers and stamping foot to attain and maintain a grove, the Groove, which will win and hold the attention of the audience as the eternal tale of faithless love and its terrible consequences unwinds.

Chris Smither’s first instrument was the Ukelele and perhaps that goes some way to explain his fleet fingers and fluid touch as he plays the guitar. Add in his bedrock bass lines provided by a calloused thumb and the accents provided by his Italian loafers (thin soled, heavy heeled) stomping on a wooden board and you have a one man orchestra!

As, ‘Frankie’ progresses I hear a Super Chief locomotive speeding through the waving prairies sending light and sound streaming into our eyes, our ears and our hearts.

Chris Smither a fine songwriter himself with a wry, laconic style has throughout his career taken songs from his contemporaries and illuminated their depths through the scrupulous attention he brings to their strengths and a commitment to finding his own key to the heart of a song in his guitar style, choice of tempo and vocal tone.

Listen to him here take on one of Bob Dylan’s most extravagant masterpieces, ‘Desolation Row’ and make it his own with this gorgeously sardonic, rheumy eyed version.

Desolation Row might be described as a tour d’horizon of the madness of America in the mid 1960s or a glimpse into the head full of ideas surging through Bob Dylan’s brain at the time (lots of room for overlap there!).

Chris Smither strips away the bravura of Bob’ s performance and sings the song like a long time resident on Desolation Row who knows Cinderella well, has suffered the nightsticks of the riot squad and is used to the sounds of the ambulances echoing in the night.

Chris Smither is a troubadour who lives his life on the road travelling light from town to town bringing a treasury of song in his knapsack.

He’s a great live performer because he is able to surrender himself to the songs he plays trusting that all the hours of living with the material and his instrument will allow him to just play and let the work flow.

Watching Chris Smither play amounts to a seminar in the psychological concept of flow. The emotional heart of the songs he plays are channeled and directed, released in all their vibrant energy to touch his audience.

Time seems to be suspended, speeded up or slowed down according to the demands of the song in hand. Meanwhile his hands, thumb and fingers go where they are meant to go, where they must go, without any seeming effort or glances in the mirror.

The sorrow, the joy, the wisdom and the rapture locked in great songs are released to bloom in our imaginations.

Below, you’ll find yourself holding your breath as Chris suspends time as he performs Peter Case’s wonderful song, ‘Cold Trail Blues’.

I love the way Chris begins the song at the slowest possible ambulant tempo. The whole songs proceeds like a dream like serenade where the everyday rules of time no longer apply.

The guitar lines and the vocal seems to be like smoke drifting into the sky towards a bright but cold and distant moon. The very act of playing the song seems to be a demonstration of that hope against hope that all hope is not lost.

Perhaps, just perhaps, the chances of love and a life worth living again have not been absolutely left too far, too far behind.

Chris Smither has had his struggles with life. For much of the 1970s he was mired in alcoholism and is thus no stranger to the physical and emotional ditches by the side of the broad highway of life.

Returning, chastened, to that highway he has written songs imbued with hard won, though never bitter wisdom. Many of his songs are honest, measured reports from the emotional battlefields we all visit from time to time.

In, ‘Leave The Light On’ he hymns the lure of home as only a man who has spent half his lifetime absent from home can.

The song offers reassurance that we can learn from the defeats and the self inflicted wounds of this bruising life and find a kind of blessed peace if we pay attention.

Perhaps this last song, Roly Salley’s ‘Killing The Blues’ most aptly demonstrates Chris Smither’s ability to play a song in its platonic perfection.

This is surely one of those songs handed to its writer directly from the heavenly home of the songwriting muse. How else to explain a song so immediately a truthful discovery as well as a reminder of a truth we have all always known.

There have been many fine version of this song song but none anywhere near Chris Smither here. The song in this performance flows sweetly and surely like an an ancient river to the endlessly welcoming sea.

Chris Smither casts spells and enchants us. One of the great tasks of a musician using rhythm, melody and line is to take us out of our everyday world and take us to a place, a still space, where we can realign our hearts and minds and find again our true direction. That’s a task Chris Smither has carried out with devotion and distinction.

Finally to show the measure of Chris Smither’s vocation as a musician here’s his answer to the question, ‘Do you remember learning (Mississippi John Hurt’s) Candyman?

‘I’m still learning it!’

Recommended Recordings:

There are enormous pleasures contained in every record Chris Smither has ever made. My personal favourites are:

‘Another Way to Find You’ (Live)
‘Live As I’ll Ever Be’ (Live!)
‘It Ain’t Easy’
‘Small Revelations’

There is an excellent tribute album to Chris, ‘Link Of Chain’ featuring Mary Gauthier and Dave Alvin among many other roots music luminaries.

Chris Smither is well represented on YouTube and I especially like the ‘Extended Play’ clip.

25 thoughts on “Chris Smither – Killing The Blues on Desolation Row

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