by James M. Manheim
There's only a modest audience today for the white performers of the 1960s who made pilgrimages to learn the southern black acoustic guitar music known as the country blues. But several of them are still around, and, as with many of the original black practitioners, the music has aged them well. Among the ones who've developed the initial blues impulse in especially interesting ways is Aurora "Rory" Block, who grew up in New York's Little Italy, encountered the roots of American music in Washington Square Park, and heard the 1964 compilation album Really the Country Blues "and from that moment on my life was dedicated to learning how to play blues."
Block delved deep into the music of Robert Johnson and that of the surviving major country bluesmen Son House (who claimed to have taught Johnson), the Reverend Gary Davis, Skip James. And she met many of them. "This time period seemed to last forever," she writes. "I thought everyone knew these incredible men, these blues geniuses who wrote the book. I later realized how fleeting it was, and how even more precious." She became an interpreter of pure traditional styles but stood outside them in one fundamental way: she is female. Onstage, a tall, slender woman with strawberry blond hair turning white, Block conveys a bluesman's sense of disconnection from the established order of things; her performances are intense, punctuated by flashes of dark humor.
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]