Craft Recordings Re-issues John Lee Hooker’s Historic ‘The Country Blues of John Lee Hooker’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

The Country Blues of John Lee Hooker from 1959 was long before “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer, “Boogie Chillun” and ”Dimples” but the groundwork for such fare is here from this re-issue from Craft Recordings. In fact, much of the phraseology you’ve been accustomed to in blues songs is right here. “Black Snake” gave way to “Crawlin’ Kingsnake,” “She’s Long, She’s Tall, She Weeps Like a Willow Tree” is echoed constantly in various songs as is “ Behind the Plow.” “Bundle Up and Go” gave way to “Bottle Up and Go.”

John Lee’s folk-country one chord sound is at turns mesmerizing and trance-like. Here he is alone with his acoustic guitar. Eventually, he took up the electric. Listen closely because although his basic sound doesn’t vary much, these are deep Delta blues, moans, the start of boogies, a field holler, and even a bit of hokum. He didn’t write all these tunes. “How Long” is from Leroy Carr in 1928 and “Good Mornin’ Little School Girl” is originally from Sonny Boy Williamson in 1937, among others. They were all cut from the original master tapes by Kevin Gray at Cohearnet Audio and pressed on 180-gram vinyl. It’s a nuanced recording.

John Lee Hooker may well be the earthiest of post-war blues figures and this may be truest to his Mississippi roots. Some are autobiographical, others are his interpretations of blues standards, but all have his signature haunting quality. His baritone voice is still one the blues most enduring voices.  Besides its hypnotic quality, it brought a sinister, scary element too. 

Born near Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1917, the man who would become known as the “King Of The Boogie” credited his stepfather, a blues singer, for his unique guitar style. As a young man, Hooker worked his way from the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia down to the Gulf of Mexico and across Texas. All the while, his mission stayed constant: play and sing the blues. Twenty or so years later John Lee found himself in Detroit working at a club called the Monte Carlo where he was discovered by a local record label, Riverside Records, for which this was his first record.

This LP stems directly from Hooker’s troubadour-like travels and his interpretations of the people and places he saw on the road. The time-honored tradition of wandering the earth is unique to the blues musician; letting places, faces, stories, varying styles of music all imbue one’s own interpretation of the blues. Hooker’s voice also is considerably deeper than other rhythm and blues artists. The enduring power of the album’s gritty authenticity creates a time capsule of the people Hooker interacted with on his travels. The blues retain their impact through these personal stories.

History already bestows John Lee as one of the “coolest” musicians in the past century. His work is widely recognized for its impact on modern music—his simple, yet deeply effective songs transcend borders and languages around the globe. Each decade of Hooker’s long career brought a new generation of fans and fresh opportunities for the ever-evolving artist. He never slowed down either: As John Lee Hooker entered his 70s, he suddenly found himself in the most successful era of his career—reinvented yet again, and energized as ever, touring and recording up until his passing in 2001. In the latter part of his career, he recorded with Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison, and Los Lobos, among others. 

Hooker’s The Real Folk Blues from Chess in 1966 is mistakenly credited by many as the original John Lee Hooker sound but this one takes us back, more authentically, to his origins on Riverside in 1959. Pour a shot – be it bourbon, or scotch, or a glass of beer. Settle in and enjoy.

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