Aside from Singer-Guitarist Rory Block turning out her own music, she has made a large part of her career, tributes and reinterpretations of some of the greats of the Blues. In the past she has released albums of the music of Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Robert Johnson, Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, and Skip James.
Recently Block has started a new series, one that has been percolating in her soul for many years, a look at the women pioneers of the blues. She calls the series, Power Women Of The Blues, and her first release, A Woman’s Soul, is a look at the great Bessie Smith.
Smith, also known as “The Empress of the Blues” was an extremely popular performer during the 1920’s and ‘30’s and a prolific recording artist prior to her untimely early death at the age of 43.
Block went all out on this recording, reworking all of Smith’s arrangements (originally more of an orchestral backing) into simplified works, and then played all guitar parts, bass, and percussion while supplying all of the vocals as well. This really is Rory Block’s passionate vision that we are experiencing on this album.
The album starts off strongly with Do Your Duty. The country style guitar perfectly backs Block’s vocals. She’s got that beautiful growl and her guitar work is absolutely stellar. She follows up with Kitchen Man, a purring celebration of the man that stirs things up and gets cooking in the kitchen. It’s a fun song, not as innocent as the music may suggest; just listen to the lyrics and smile knowingly to yourself.
Next is a song, Jazzbo Brown From Memphis Town, that I had had little exposure to but found myself liking very much. It’s a jazzy number with some fun rhythms and Block’s delivery is great. I can picture Block or Smith on a bandstand belting this one out in a crowded nightclub. Sweet number.
She then launches into the song that seems to be receiving the most airplay, Gimme A Pigfoot And A Bottle Of Beer. It’s a fun tune that’s been covered by a number of other artists, so there is a certain recognizability factor with it. Her voice turns inward and sounds small and far away. It’s a voice of innocence that turns to experience when she reaches the chorus. Another great nightclub number. Yeah, I’ll be playing this one on Time For The Blues.
Another well-known song from Smith is Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl, and by placing these two in consecutive order, Block delivers a little present to more casual blues fans. Of course, it’s a present that every listener can share. She’s jazzy with a sultry attitude. Smith was forthright and sexy in her delivery, very ahead of her time, and Block conveys that very well on this song.
You know a title like I’m Down In The Dumps is not going to be at all roses and sunshine. Great artists don’t necessarily need flowery language, they just cut to the chase and lay their emotions out for the world to see. That’s what happens here and it’s a strong track.
Block’s stripped down style of country blues perfectly suits Black Mountain. It’s not a sophisticated song and works off the same rhythms and rhyme schemes of Delta work songs. Still, her voice is haunting and the song is very effective. With lyrics like these, how could it be anything else?
Got the devil in my soul, and I'm full of bad booze
Got the devil in my soul, and I'm full of bad booze
I'm out here for trouble, I've got the Black Mountain blues
Following up with another well-known Smith recording, Weeping Willow Blues keeps the mood going. Block just opens up her emotions to recreate Smith’s approach and it’s another strong song. If at all possible, I would love to sample some of the original recordings on the show before playing Block’s versions. I think the compare and contrast style of play would give a deeper appreciation to both artists.
She picks up the tempo with the next song, On Revival Day, adding some gospel fervor to her delivery. So many blues artists were accused of playing the devil’s music, so they would stick one or two more religious numbers in their repertoire to keep on the good side of the God-fearing community. Also, so many got their start singing in church, so it was an easy transition to add a song for the audience. This is a good one and it’s hard to believe that it’s Block singing all the choir parts.
She closes the album with the longest song on the record, Empty Bed Blues. It’s also one of the most direct songs, no hiding its meaning from anyone, just the pure emotion of being alone. I love this song, and I will bet you that it will be appearing on the show very soon.
Rory Block is more than an interpreter of other artists’ songs. However, she should be commended for bringing these songs to new audiences. I’ve long maintained that a deeper knowledge of the music will enhance your appreciation of what’s coming out today. Block conveys more than the notes and inflections, she finds the soul that is deep within the music.
A Woman’s Soul is a great opening salvo for this series. So many women faced mistreatment in order to sing the devil’s music for crowds. It was tough enough for the men, the women had to be even tougher in order to survive. That’s one of the things that has always attracted me to women who sing the blues.
Don’t take my word for it, even though I absolutely loved this Stony Plain release. And by the way, thank you Stony Plain for your continued support of this style of blues. It’s good to know that you’re out there working hard to give these artists a place to release their music. Check out Rory Block at her website, listen to a couple of songs, and pick up her albums while you’re there.