I bought ‘Come On In’ from a little record store in the American state of Georgia. I bought it simply because I liked the cover. I played it through Louisiana and Alabama.
A few years in Bristol in the mid 1980s had tuned my ears to the joys of ‘dub reggae’ and the whole notion of talking/toasting/rapping over live or sampled beats. ‘Electric Blues’ really. So I responded to the album immediately and still do.
Then I got ‘Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down’ and my Burnside affection was cemented. I liked the whole raw, rough and noisy vibe. It sounded hot and alive.
I generally listen to music that hisses, rumbles and sounds like it was recorded ‘live’. Not ‘lo-fi’ particularly, but just the sound of people playing music together in a room. I have nothing against technology at all. A musician can now record and circulate his or her work globally in a matter of hours, and sell it. That’s fantastic, but often the sound is aurally neutered.
I like R.L. Burnside, and particularly ‘Come On In’ for the same reasons I love ‘Blakroc’ – I can hear the valve amps humming and feel the heat. It’s organic, loose and funky as fuck.
R.L.Burnside was born in 1926, in a different age. Economic hardship would not have been a stranger to his family and employment opportunities would have been especially limited for a young Black man in Mississippi.
By the time ‘Come On In’ was released in 1998, he had been playing for a long time. He was initially inspired when he heard John Lee Hooker in 1948 and then learned to play by jamming with Mississippi Fred McDowell, who lived nearby.
Burnside earned a living initially as a sharecropper in and around Mississippi, before moving to Chicago in the hope of bettering himself, economically.
1950s Chicago had a desperate and violent side, and Burnside’s father, uncle and two brothers were murdered within a single year. The murders all went unsolved and no-one was held to account. He tells the story on his album Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down (2000) – on ‘Hard Time Killing Floor’ and ‘R.L’s Story’, which open and close the record. The performances are remarkable. They remind me of a tape I once had of Prince Far-I telling his story in a studio – very honest and brutal.
Burnside was certainly no saint. He had a hard side, which is required when you live a hard life. He killed a man during a dice game and was only spared a long sentence because he was an extremely skilled tractor driver and his boss was powerful, locally, and pulled some strings, justice-wise.
Burnside’s claim that he fired in self-defence was not reinforced by the fact that one of the shots was fired into the back of the man’s head.
Never-the-less, he served only six months in prison for the crime. Remorse seemed to elude him:
“I didn’t mean to kill nobody … I just meant to shoot the sonofabitch in the head and two times in the chest. Him dying was between him and the Lord.”
So, when he sings ‘Let My Baby Ride’, I would be inclined to let her.
Thanks to Fat Possum Records, and John Spencer Blues Explosion, with whom he recorded the superb sonic donkey-punch that is A Ass Pocket Of Whiskey, Burnside at least got some wider acknowledgement and some money before he passed away (often in envelopes of cash).
Ever the realist, when asked if he liked the Fat Possum album of remixes, ‘Come On In’, he commented:
‘At first I didn’t like them too much. Then I saw how much money they were making and I got to liking them pretty well.’
He seemed equally comfortable on acoustic or electric guitar. His albums ‘Mississippi Hill Country Blues’ and ‘First Recordings’ (1984, on Swingmaster and 2003, on Fat Possum respectively) are both acoustic ‘Delta blues’ records.
His voice was a powerful and expressive instrument. His timing was impeccable.
Guitar-wise, he used a Son House kind of rhythmic, droning approach to chord work and a searing, slide-enhanced lead style that was raw and economical. Players who know the most often tend to play the least.
His song ‘Bad Luck And Trouble’ from ‘Mississippi Hill Country Blues’ is a straight ‘blues’ classic and a particular favourite of mine.
I’m a big fan of dark humour and lines like
If it wasn’t for bad luck…people say I wouldn’t have no luck at all
Bad luck and trouble been finding me ever since I begin to crawl
really please me.
One of my most cherished Burnside songs is a live version of ‘Come On In’ (from the album of the same name).
It shows a direct bloodline to Blind Willie McTell, replicating the vocal line with his guitar, sometimes switching the two. Like Kurt Cobain used to do. Like The Black Keys still do.
Sadly, R.L. Burnside died in 2005.
If there’s a place called Heaven, and it has a porch, I imagine he’s rocking it. Asking the angels to pay in cash.
Photographs are copyright © James Finch. Used by kind permission.
All shots from NorthStar Bar Philadelphia Nov 11th 2000.
Words are © 2014 William Henry Prince