She has always had a strong affinity for the music of Robert Johnson, who came at the end of the country blues tradition and played an extreme music, with existential lyrics married to a hair-trigger rhythmic tension and dazzling slide-guitar explorations of blues pitch instability, that must sometimes have caused even African American audiences of the 1930s to wonder what he was doing. Few have mastered Johnson's style, but Block did. As with Johann Sebastian Bach, it was thought for a long time that Johnson had no living descendants, but in fact (again as with Bach) they're all over. Block recently went to Mississippi and sought them out after recording an album of Johnson classics like "Come On in My Kitchen," "Crossroad Blues," and "Hellhound on My Trail." The new album is called The Lady and Mr. Johnson. "When I hear Rory Block's music, it's as if my grandfather is here all over again," said Johnson's grandson Greg.
The trip took Block in new directions as she toured with a gospel choir from the Straightway Ministries Church to which Johnson's family belongs. Everybody ought to experience the presence of Rory Block at least once, but now, just as she has penetrated to the heart of the mystery, is probably an especially good time to do it. She comes to the Ark on Friday, January 18.
[Review published January 2008]