Back to the Crossroads: Michael Roach on blues, blacks and bounty

‘Back To The Crossroads’ is a one part blues concert, one part cultural history and many, many parts of time-proven joy. Guitar-slinging bearer of the blues baton, Michael Roach, who is also a blues singer and lecturer, explains why.

First appeared in the Cape Argus “Good Weekend” of 2012/ 02/12.

Back to the Crossroads: Michael Roach on blues, blacks and bounty

“When I’m in America, they treat me like I’m English; when I’m in England, they treat me like I’m an American,” says Michael Roach from his adopted home of Gloucestershire. He says it with a laugh, but also in a way that gives one to understand that he’s the kind of man who always sees the context of things – the “why” and not only the “what”. Roach grew up in Washington D.C., is an internationally acclaimed country blues artist and historian and, when he’s not singing the old songs or playing his finger-pick guitar, he’s the Director of the Gloucestershire-based European Blues Association and Archive of African American Music. He’s played across Europe, America and the Middle East, founded “Blues Week” at Northampton University in 2000 and has done educational work on the blues for the BBC and the Smithsonian Institute, amongst others.
“Back To The Crossroads”, though, is very much a live show designed to engage and enthral audiences even as it enriches them.  The band features a collective of singers backed by a blues-steeped team of expert show musicians. It’s a time capsule even while it succeeds as a contemporary show that’s toured widely to both critical and audience acclaim – their next stop after Johannesburg and Cape Town is the Dubai Jazz Festival, and the dates in Nottinghamshire. It is dubbed “a musical journey through the history of the Blues movement with stories and music from the guys and gals that were there”.
“I feel very fortunate to be playing with the Crossroads Blues Band,” says Roach. “These are musicians who have backed up very well known visiting blues players, a host of British blues artists – and even some rock artists. The guys are sensitive and can hear subtlety, which very few modern musicians really understand. If you hear a blues legend like Howlin’ Wolf play guitar or harmonica, on a technical level, you’d say, ‘Why do people think this guy is good?’ But if you listen to it in context, done the right way, it sounds awesome. He’s playing a tradition, and a style, and you need people who understand how to play behind that style today. “
Discussion leads to the history of the recorded blues – did it start with the “talking blues” of Chris Bouchillon in 1926, the instrumental versions of “Memphis Blues” before that, the first black vocal recordings of Mamie Smith in the early ’20s, and how to credit, in the history of blues music, the 1923 recording of a bottleneck solo by Sylvester Weaver, the field recordings of Appalachian musicians like Fiddlin’ John Carson, and the recordings by Blind Lemon Jefferson.
“Hey, dig this!” Roach suddenly exclaims, “In the ’20s, blues saw the heyday of the Vaudevillian singers. When the people who made records saw that audiences wanted a woman singing, they went out and got anyone who could sing – these were the circus people and the travelling performers. They got jazz musicians in as the backing bands – people like Fletcher Henderson. Later, even Louis Armstrong backed Jimmie Rodgers, the yodelling country singer. But back to the female singers – they had some of the best songs. You always hear the bluesmen singing about how the woman done him wrong, but you had these old lyrics, sung by women, like, ‘You been a good ol’ wagon, daddy, but you done broke down’.”
“Even if you don’t like the historical aspect of blues music, there’s something everyone has to like about the poetry of it,” he continues, “It’s only in the blues that you get lines like, ‘I been so down it seems like down is up to me,’ and, ‘If I didn’t have bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.’ There’s a way that the music lets the story be out front, and that is wonderful poetry. I never learned the blues growing up; it was only later that I met these old timers that were playing the guitar, and really making it talk. I started looking back, because black music in America in the early 1980s was all about Luther Vandross, but what happened to Al Green, and Sam Cooke? You keep looking further back and there’s Louis Jordan from the ’40s, and Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. There was Ethel Waters from the 1920s, and Blind Boy Fuller.”
Roach freely admits that he approaches playing the blues from a cultural and historical context. “I have to play these old blues songs acoustically, to keep them alive,” he says. “Very few African Americans are interested in a style of music associated with the stereotypes and negativity that blacks have tried to move on from. Blues has been appropriated by white musicians into a new form of rock that is mainly industry driven. Where is blues going now? It’s hard to say. You get people that say they ‘Like the old music’ and for them that means they don’t want to hear anything more modern than from before the Second World War. Other people like the post-war blues, but don’t like where rock got involved in it. Personally, I welcome it all. If it’s being played to celebrate the music and it turns people on then, if they like it, they can connect with the origins. Find the music that inspired Eric Clapton or the Rolling Stones, or even where that name came from, or why Pink Floyd named themselves after a South Carolina blues player called Pink Anderson.”
First appeared in the Cape Argus “Good Weekend” of 2012/ 02/12.
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