Rory Block was a precocious teenager when country blues first swept Greenwich Village as part of the folk boom in the late ’50s and early ’60s. She was smitten then by the earthy, uncompromising sound of Robert Johnson and others, and she still is. Though nowadays she writes some of her own material and strays a bit from the classic sound, country blues remains the basis for everything she does.
After releasing a tribute to Johnson in 2006, she decided to cut similar albums of the bluesmen she met and learned from in her early days. She calls it the Mentor Series, and so far it includes tributes to Son House, the Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi Fred McDowell and, most recently, Mississippi John Hurt. She has a couple more in mind — though she’s not yet ready to name names — and when the series is finished she plans to put them all together into a box set. Here’s the story so far.
What inspired the Mentor Series?
I just wanted to do a tribute to the country blues masters. Many of them were rediscovered during the ’60s and brought to New York, where I was growing up. There was an in-crowd of blues players and collectors who got to meet them, and one of them was my boyfriend Stefan Grossman. I was in the right place at the right time. Many years later I did a Robert Johnson tribute, and after that it made sense to do Son House; unlike Johnson, he’d survived and was still playing in the ’60s. The Mentor Series was born with Son House; these are tributes to the country bluesmen I actually met and had the amazing good fortune to play with.
Why’d Son House seem the logical one to start with?
He was probably most influential to me. I’d always considered Robert Johnson to be the top of the tower. But Son was playing the same material, he’d mentored Robert Johnson, so he was very powerful as a direct inspiration.
And the other three?
Fred McDowell was slightly younger. He came to a house in Berkeley where Stefan and I were staying when I ran away from home. Fred was still very energetic, at the top of his game; he had a great groove, you could put drums to his music, where earlier country bluesmen often used irregular measures. Reverend Gary Davis, Stefan and I had been to his house in the Bronx on multiple occasions. He had a very strong sense of who he was, and he represented the gospel side of blues. Mississippi John Hurt, Stefan and I went to see him play in a theater and went into the backstage; Stefan knew everyone in the blues revival and I was just tagging along. We later went to his house in Washington, D.C., and played music together. These were powerful times, powerful influences. Mississippi John Hurt was hard-driving fingerpicking, he took fingerpicking to a new level. He was laid back, but his guitar playing wasn’t.
Do these four have anything in common that was especially attractive to you?
That’s a tough question, not something I can say intellectually. Country blues is a very unique acoustic style unto itself, with many different players within the style. I pretty much loved ‘em all; there was something mystical, something powerful, about them and their music that resonated in my heart. To me country blues said everything, and I had no choice but to follow.
How do you make these albums in a way that leaves some of yourself in them?
I start by getting the exact arrangement, note for note, measure for measure, to the best of my ability. That’s the hard part, the scholastic part. Then I put on overdubs, and that’s when it gets fun. So on the Reverend Gary Davis album, as an example, if you took off the overdubs you’d hear his exact arrangement. But for the first overdub I use a different tuning, put the capo in a different place, and just start playing on top of the Reverend Gary Davis tracks. It’s still country blues, which is all I’ve ever played, and it’s from the same time period, and that’s why it works. Put Tommy Johnson on top of Reverend Gary Davis and it really cooks. Then for the next overdub, I put on a slide style and that really fills the track out.
What would you say to someone who’s maybe intrigued by country blues but doesn’t know anything and doesn’t know where to start?
Go back and listen to the original recordings. That’s where the spirit is, where the mysticism resides. When I play a song in concert I always say who wrote it and tell people to go back and hear that. We have access to so much of the original music today. When I was starting out we didn’t have that; we were listening to tapes somebody had of the original 78s. Now music of all kinds is reissued. You can not only hear the music pretty easily, you can look stuff up and educate yourself about this music and Appalachian music and almost anything else.