Blues icon Rory Block to perform in York, PA April 21st

Rory smallRecognized as “a national treasure,” “a living landmark,” and “one of the greatest living acoustic blues artists,” Rory Block comes to Central Pennsylvania for an April 21, 2013, concert at 4 p.m. at Marketview Arts, 37 W. Philadelphia Street, York. The concert is sponsored by Susquehanna Folk Music Society in association with the Blues Society of Central Pennsylvania. Tickets are available here: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/303057 or at the door.

Rory Block has been interviewed so many times that she has elected to post interview questions and responses on her website. The below interview is just a small portion of a longer interview. To read the full interview go here: http://www.roryblock.com/Pages/HeaderLinks/Interview.htm

In the interview she talks about her beginnings living in Greenwich Village during the folk and blues revival of the 1960s. She also speaks about her memories of meeting and interacting with blues legends Son House, Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt and others.

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When were you born?

November 6th, 1949 in Princeton, New Jersey.

Where did you grow up?

For the first year of my life I lived in a tiny shack on a hillside in Neshanic, New Jersey. It was pretty crude, no plumbing, a well outside in the grass, an outhouse and all that. My parents were probably the world’s first “hippies.” I have tender memories of that house as we went back many times in later years and it looked tinier and tinier each time, the driveway more endless and overgrown, the woods denser and more remote.When I was a toddler we moved to New York City to a neighborhood known as “little Italy.” Back then it was almost like a small European city. Now the area is known as Soho, but in those days we didn’t have boutiques, fancy restaurants and stars walking the streets. Mostly kids on bicycles and nannies pushing strollers. There were men’s social clubs, Italian bakeries and ma and pa grocery stores.

Where do you live now?

Early on I knew I had to get out of the City. I had a three year old and felt I needed space and light and greenery to raise him. We moved to Upstate New York and have been there ever since.

Can you tell us about your first experiences with music and what inspired you to start playing the guitar?

When I was very young my mother sang to me at bedtime and my dad would often play the banjo or fiddle in the evening. I knew music was important and central to everything; most particularly it had a powerful healing value and created a sense of peace and security. This stood out to me as I always felt the world was precarious and dangerous, and music supplied those moments of real peace and safety.

At the age of ten I was suddenly inspired to play guitar, so I picked up my mother’s old Galiano and began figuring out “Froggy Went A Courtin’.” From that moment on the guitar was virtually welded to me – all I did was play. I have a picture of myself at summer camp when I was ten years old. My friends were all smiling at the camera, and I was looking down at my guitar.

Tell us about Greenwich Village in the 60’s and about your dad’s Sandal Shop on West 4th Street which became a meeting place for acoustic musicians from all over the city.

In the sixties Greenwich Village was a neighborhood with a small town atmosphere. Everyone knew everyone. You could count on the same old restaurants, stores, and pizzerias to be there year after year. The chef at the local breakfast place knew how you liked your eggs and coffee.. stuff like that. But of course it has changed and it is much more anonymous and crowded, just like everywhere.

The first big music scene started in Washington Square Park somewhere in the sixties. In those days everyone would get together and jam. It was a really fantastic period of time with an incredible amount of musical energy everywhere. That’s the period of time when Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and so many other great artists were getting established. I came into my dad’s store one day and saw a pale, artistic looking man sitting there with a small cap and long fingernails holding a guitar. After he left my dad told me he was a musician and a poet, but that he didn’t want any part of the pressures of the business and just wanted to be true to his art and his poetry. It was Bob Dylan. Later my dad told me he had seen a great singer in a small club in the Village who’s voice had the power to make you weep. He said, “You watch, this young woman is going to become very famous.” It was Joan Baez.

My dad would bring his fiddle to work and every day he’d put down his leather tools and start to play. Needless to say the sound of Appalachian fiddle music wafting into the streets on West 4th and Jones drew interest from people strolling down the street, and before long the word was out to bring your instrument and come on down. Saturday afternoon was the big day for gathering musicians, and there were frequently crowds jammed well out into the streets, craning their necks to get a glimpse of some of the finest live music you could hear anywhere for free. These were serious, real players. David Grisman, Maria Muldaur, Frank Wakefield, Eric Weissberg, Roger Sprung, John Herald, Jodie Stecker and many others were frequently present. I was about 12 or 13 years old at the time and I got in there with the others and wailed away on my guitar. My dad was often asked if he had to force me to practice. “How did she get so good?” he would be asked. But no one ever told me to practice, I just lived and breathed the guitar. I did most of my learning at this time and I have never equaled the intensity and focus of that period at any other time in my life.

When did you first become aware of blues?

I first heard Stefan Grossman playing ragtime guitar in Washington Square Park in 1964 when I was 14. He gave me a record called “Really The Country Blues” and that was the beginning of my love affair with the music.

It must have been profound meeting and playing music with blues masters such as  Do you think that led to your lifelong infatuation with country blues?

I was already infatuated with country blues before I met any of the masters, but there’s no doubt that meeting in the flesh was an incalculable inspiration and helped to cement my knowledge of and passion for the music.

At the time I was friends with a group of musicians and scholars who were involved in “rediscovering” the old blues masters, going door to door asking for any word of their whereabouts. In this way, quite a few of the old players were found and brought up North for concerts. During this time I was lucky enough to meet Son House, Bukka White, Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell, Skip James, Reverend Gary Davis and others. Here are a few of my recollections:

Reverend Gary Davis: I met Reverend Gary Davis at his house in the Bronx. Stefan had known him for some time and used to lead him onstage for his performances. The Reverend was a guitar genius who also had a razor sharp and insightful mind. His sense of humor was shattering, and he kept Stefan on his toes with what amounted to a non-stop back and forth roast session. He told Stefan he had robbed the cradle as I was 15 and must have seemed like a complete baby. But keep in mind that Stefan was only 19 himself at the time. It was over my head and I just sat there watching him play. His teaching style never involved taking apart licks or explaining anything, he just played at you and you had to run like the wind to follow along. He also visited our apartment in the city, and I had the occasion to draw him as he sat with his characteristic slump and his cigar burning slowly down. Stefan’s hand was always outstretched catching the ashes.

Skip James: Stefan and I visited Skip James in the hospital when he had cancer, and I never saw a greater manifestation of quiet sorrow. I got chills in his presence as his mood and personality matched the raw emotion in his music. Reverend Gary Davis’ old version of “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” came to mind.

Mississippi John Hurt: We stopped in on Mississippi John Hurt at his home in Washington, DC, where he welcomed us with typical Southern hospitality. His demeanor was incredibly shy and sweet and he was in every way a gentleman. When we played “Frankie & Albert” together I was blown away by the strong, simple beauty of his playing – my dad always said music was not about speed and flash but about feeling and the power of the individual notes – and Mississippi John embodied this lesson as he rocked back and forth, moving his shoulders from left to right with the rhythm. He also had a sly sense of humor and was always offering us Maxwell House coffee. He’d say “Good to the last drop!” with a mischevious smile.

Son House: Sitting in the same room with Son House was deeply moving and inspiring. He was the most influential blues master to me. I would say I learned more about delivery and how to express passion from Son House than anyone else. He did not have Reverend Gary Davis’s humor and was a far more serious presence. To know I was sitting in a room with a man who hung out with Robert Johnson, that was goose pimple material. I played Willie Brown’s “Future Blues” for him and he kept asking where I had learned to play like that.

Fred McDowell: I spent a fair amount of time with Fred McDowell when he stayed at our house in Berkeley, California. He was a real character and seemed quite a bit younger than Son, The Reverend, Mississippi John and Skip. We performed together one night at an open mike gathering, and that’s when someone jumped up and shouted, “She plays like a man!” I was dumbfounded.. what did they mean? Why were women not expected to play this way? I didn’t get it.

Bukka White: I met Bukka White at a little jazz club in New York. He was broad and powerful and really slammed the guitar. Oddly enough I didn’t fully appreciate his style until recently, when I was listening to an old compilation CD and mistook him for Blind Willie Johnson. Suddenly I noticed his powerful growl and incredible slide playing. He was the master of playing, singing and talking all at the same time.

I don’t think these older bluesmen who had lived with the worst kind of racism and separatism all their lives could really understand why white people were all of a sudden interested in their music. I always felt that Son, Mississippi John, and Skip James were somewhat shell shocked by the whole thing, like they’d pinch themselves and wake up.

People have repeatedly asked you the same question: “Why did a young white girl from New York City play 1930’s era black blues from the rural South?” and you have answered “It’s not your skin, it’s your soul.” But I still have to point out that most girls your age were listening to the Beatles and The Rolling Stones, not crackly old 78’s of Willie Brown. What do you think drew you to the music?

I always make an analogy to falling in love. It’s a mystery. Who knows why we are drawn to things or why they resonate with us? That’s the mystery of why we are who we are. I can only say that it sounded like the most hauntingly beautiful music I had ever heard and that it spoke to what was in my heart. I could list off various life events and experiences I have had in an effort to convince you that I have “the right to sing the blues,” but in the end that explains nothing. It’s a deeper matter, and it does come down to the soul. We are all one seed, and inspiration is not limited by skin color.

 

You have received rave reviews for your live shows and many people say you are better in person than on record. What is it about performing live that inspires you?

I get massive amounts of energy from the audience, and no matter what mood I may be in, I always connect with them within a song or two and from there the sense of being among friends actually overtakes me and I open up. I never have a set list and each show is as different as it can be as a result. There is a sense of suspense, of the unknown. I use the audience as a guide, I feel their mood and take the cues. This is one reason why I hate playing in one place for two nights, because it robs me of this particular need for spontaneity. I become really stale if I know what to expect.

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