Like many good Southern Negros born around a certain time, I experienced the blues in church. I never appreciated it and took the music for granted, mostly because I hated the three hour services and the non Biblical hoopla that came with the big hat wearing, Cadillac driving prosperity driven Black Church. I degress, but anyone who’s experienced it will know what I mean.
As I got older, my brushes with the blues would be mostly in the form of neatly packaged parody. The simplicity of the twelve-bar system was exaggerated in comedy stints on Saturday Night Live or In Living Color. The blues had become something of a amusement ride for suburban white people, while the core elements for having the blues were never discussed publicly.
Many blues artist labor over their music all their lives without any recognition beyond an appearance at a county fair or at a side job in a church of all places. That’s one of the things about R.L. Burnside that I find most fascinating. He had been playing a version of the electrified blues for well over 40 years by the time he was finally discovered. By then he had racked up many fascinating life experiences that Target shoppers only read about on tablets. His sad and sometimes tragic experiences spilled over to his music making it real and heart felt. Influenced by John Lee Hooker, he began playing guitar in his early 20s around 1948.
In many ways to hear Burnside singing was like hearing one of the church elders or deacons sing. Burnside’s colorful life had been punctuated by more than its share of tragedy and it came across like the passion of a church song on many occasions. He went to jail for mistakenly killing a man and had many lovers through the years, all adventures captured in various songs throughout his career.
Once he began to attract the attention of big city music critics in the ’90s, his record label was keen on introducing Burnside to a wider audience. In 1998 Burnside released Come on In. It was an attempt to update the blues with 21st century digital mixing and looping techniques. It was mildly successful and prompted a similar follow up in 2000 with Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down.
The title itself reminded me of old spituals sang by church elders who seemed obsessed with leaving this world. Despite the updated production styles from a team of producers, the album was firmly a blues project despite any postmodern accents. Some of the production wizardry comes across as a bit forced, but Burnsides simple illustrative writing made the songs very effective on many levels.
Much of what made Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down so effective was that the songs were sort of autobiographical. Burnside covers his shooting and killing a man in ‘Nothing Man’, while the death of various family members in Chicago is covered in ‘R.L.’s Story’. While there are no shortages of songs written about unfortunate circumstances, it was the playful and funny ‘Miss Maybelle’ that got airplay on many college radio stations.
The innocence in Burnsides voice is that of an old man who no longer engages in the adventures he sings about, but has some regrets that things turned out as they did. Its that kind of sadness that makes Burnside’s version of the blues all the more depressing considering that he would die just a few years later. I guess that’s why they call it the blues.
The majority of the songs were written by Burnside with the exception of Aretha Franklin’s ‘Chain of Fools’. It unfortunately was one of the least appealing tracks on the album due to an attempt to make it danceable for rave kids.
At 73, Burnside cold still make the kind of Mississippi hill country blues he was known for on songs like ‘See What My Buddy Done’. Wish Is Was in Heaven Sitting Down combines modern production with classic a blues sound. All the releases after were either remixed material or compilations from different periods of his career.