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Charles Shaar Murray on John Lee Hooker



Boogie Man: The adventures of John Lee Hooker in the American Twentieth Century

By Charles Shaar Murray


Chapter 12: Interlude – Dark Room

The way he works is just like a preacher. Preachin' the

blues...

Charlie Musselwhite, interview with the author, 1991

You know what? If you ever listen to him in that song "Boogie

With The Hook" at his closing act, do it to you kinda sound

like he's preachin' in there?

Rev. Robert Hooker, interview with the author, 1994

The only one who could ever move me... was the son of a

preacher man.

Hurley & Wilkins on behalf of Dusty Springfield and

(subsequently) Aretha Franklin, "Son Of A Preacher Man"

"Forget your troubles and dance,

Forget your weakness and dance..."

Bob Marley, "Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)"


John Lee Hooker was born and raised in the church. Indeed, his earliest and most formative musical, cultural and spiritual experiences came from the church, and from the preaching of his father, the Rev. William Hooker. He is, as it happens, not only the Son Of A Preacher Man, but also the brother of another, and the father of another still.

As John Lee's second son, the Rev. Robert Hooker, and their former flatmate, harp virtuoso Charlie Musselwhite, observe above... the climax of Hooker's stage act irresistibly evokes the transcendent fervour of charismatic Southern Baptism, wherein preacher and congregation alike are caught up in the ecstatic whirlwind of the descending spirit. In conventional Western religious services, the congregation are there to worship under the direction of their pastor, but the African-American ceremony goes further. It is rooted in the tradition of a fundamental, primal encounter with the powers that drive the universe, in which the participants invite transcendence, offering themselves up to the spirit they invoke in the knowledge that their offer will be, at least for the duration, accepted. It is about more than merely worshipping: it is about becoming, and about temporarily ceasing to be. It is the shamanic principle in action.

Who is the shaman? By way of introduction, our old friend The Concise Oxford Dictionary gives us "priest or witch-doctor of class claiming to have sole contact with Gods etc." whilst The Penguin English Dictionary offers "priest-magician in primitive cultures". Elsewhere, the shaman is variously described as priest and sorcerer, visionary and healer, and the shaman is indeed all of these; but, as far as most anthropological sources are concerned, the shaman's

defining attribute is the ability to free his or her (and at the dawn of humanity it was almost always "her") soul from the tethers of mundane existence.

Through study, sacrifice and ordeal, the shaman is one who has earned sufficient strength and wisdom to part the veils separating realities, to travel between this and other planes of existence, to contact the spirits and to return with them – ay, and what then? The shaman thus becomes, literally, a human gate or bridge between different realms of consciousness, if not different realms of existence. However, Mircea Eliade, the author of the magisterial Shamanism And Archaic Techniques Of Ecstasy, emphasizes that, "The specific element of shamanism is not the incorporation of spirits by the shaman, but the ecstasy provoked by the ascension to the sky or by the descent to hell: the incorporation of spirits and possession by them are universally distributed phenomena, but they do not belong necessarily to shamanism in the strict sense." "First you lose control," incanted Patti Smith in her visionary "Horses", "then you take control". The art of the shaman is the cultivated development of such virtuosic mastery of both the highest and most fundamental levels of individual consciousness that direct, deliberate control of the surface of consciousness can then be abandoned. The shaman loses one "self" in order to contact and assume another, higher, self. Both possessed and possessing, yielding and summoning: the shaman is thus empowered to transform the experience of others, to transcend and to induce transcendence.

For most Westerners, the primary association evoked by the word "shaman" is of an African or Native American (or Haitian, or Aboriginal) tribal mystic; but contemporary usage (and abuse) of that term actually originated with Russian anthropologists studying the Tungus people of Siberia, in whose language "saman" means "one who knows". It may be instructive at this point to consider... S. M. Shirokogoroff's account of a Tungus shaman's seance: "The rhythmic music and singing, and later the dancing of the shaman, gradually involve every participant more and more in a collective action... the tempo of the actions increases... when the shaman feels that the audience is with him and follows him he becomes still more active and this effect is transmitted to his audience. After shamanizing, the audience recollects various moments of the performance, their great psychophysiological emotion and the great hallucinations of sight and hearing they have experienced. They then have a deep satisfaction – much greater than that from emotions produced by theatrical and musical performance, literature and general artistic phenomena of the European complex, because in shamanizing the audience at the same time acts and participates."

...or, indeed, Hooker's own analysis of his performances, drawn from a mid-'70s interview:

"I watch them, then I feel their mood with them. I move with them. I get them up and get to rocking with them, and after I get them going, I keep them going – higher and higher; I just don't let them down. I take them in complete command... and, when one or two of the crowd start moving, I start moving with them. And, when they see me moving, they start to move. When I get into it, I feel good all over – higher and higher and higher; there's no limit."

Hooker works on precisely these shamanic levels, to precisely these shamanic ends. His music is simultaneously repetitive and unpredictable, his voice moving freely as his guitar stays where it is. Performing a Delta staple like "Rollin' And Tumblin'", he starkly illustrates this method by singing a melody which implies a standard three-chord change whilst the guitar riff obstinately remains on the "one" chord. This trance-inducing effect is the staple resource of modern dance music from James Brown onwards: melodic variation atop harmonic and rhythmic repetition. Dance music of this nature may use Western instruments and vocabulary, but it operates according to an African grammar. African music, from the most traditional folk forms to the most lushly sophisticated urban pop, will operate like this: a groove will be set up, either on one chord or on a circular, infinitely repeatable riff, and the resources of that riff will be fully explored through improvisation before another riff is introduced and the musicians then move on to do the same for another section of the piece.

Such music creates joy and transcendence for some people and unparalleled fear and loathing in others because it's an utter affront to the basic tenets of Western rationalism: in other words, it disengages the body from the mind and the intelligence from the intellect. It stops you thinking, and starts you feeling. It creates an irrational ecstasy.

Hooker has long been acknowledged as the most African of all major blues singers. Nevertheless, he is unwilling to address or discuss the African aspects of either his music or its purposes: at least, with white boys he is, and certainly with this white boy. Asked if the Rev. William Hooker and the "respectable" religious members of his community disapproved of the blues because they may have associated the music with the traditional African spiritual beliefs to which the Christianity of the time was unequivocally opposed, his

response is disdainful. "Africans were a totally different type of people than the people from around here," he replies. "African people don't speak good English; I suppose you know that. They didn't consider theyselves part of us, the black people of Africa, they had no association with us in that way. Although they was black people, they was like Jews and Germans: they all white, but they different. Part from it come from Africa, but we sung different from them."

If his questioner is sufficiently foolhardy to pursue the point beyond this rejection, he responds with crushing finality. "Well, I think you goin' beyond my recognition. Maybe you read about it, but I can't explain it to you." Quite understandably, though, he is far less inhibited in the company of those he considers part of a more authentic peer group. "He'd talk about it with me," harpist/entrepreneur Chicago Beau once told this writer. "He'll sit with me and say, 'Sure, we African men'." Quite understandably, Marcus Garvey and W. E. B. DuBois notwithstanding, African-Americans of Hooker's generation and background were not encouraged to cherish the "African" in themselves. Indeed, the reverse held true: African culture and history were misrepresented, disdained and denied. In Western popular art from Tintin to Tarzan, it was the "Dark Continent": depicted as a place of cannibalism, grass skirts, bones-through-noses and living in trees. For African-Americans, it was precisely that "African" which impeded their full participation as "Americans", which held them back, which was cited by white racists as the root of the "inferiority" which justified their unjustifiable treatment. Thus African religious and spiritual values and rituals were mere primitive superstitions; light skin was superior to dark; "good" hair was lank, fine, soft, Caucasian, whilst "bad" hair was rough, coarse, nappy, African. Blonde was beautiful. African was ugly. To call someone an African was dangerously close to an insult.

As far as the Malian singer/guitarist Ali Farka Touré, at least, is concerned, the African-ness, the negritude, of Hooker's music is so apparent as to be barely worth discussing, as is Hooker's wariness of him in its discussion. "It's a complex," Touré shrugs. "When met I invited him come to Mali to see the source of what he does. I'm not running away; I'm in complete agreement that John Lee Hooker was the first, I'm very proud of what I do, but up 'til now I still have a lot to learn. I only know a little bit, but if we are together we are going to discover. He will show me the truth. I invited him to Mali, to come and see his source, which would be good for him. I don't want him to die before he comes to Timbuktu. If he comes, he will find his history and his strength. I told him he must come to Africa. He laughed and waved it off, but then I got quite insistent that it's necessary that he goes, that he has to go... and then he really started listening. If he went there he would never regret it. I also told him how well-known he is in my village, which really quite surprised him. I told him, 'We all listen to your music'. I thought he was Malian because of what I heard. It was one hundred per cent our music. Musically, it's African, but the words are in American. When you take music such as John Lee Hooker does, you're going to find what we have at home; the greenery, the savannah where you have water. It's poetic, truly poetic, very poetic. All that was missing was for him to speak our language to complete the truth. Everything he does, without exception... he can give you the A to Z original resource of the roots of this music."

From such music comes trance. From trance comes ecstasy, and – in the shamanic world – from ecstasy comes healing. In the record which marked his return to the centre of the blues stage, and to an honoured place in the popular culture of the world, Hooker asserted this truth about as clearly as it is possible to assert anything. "Blues is the healer," he sang over Carlos Santana's hypnotic music, and with that lyric he redefined not only himself and his career but the hidden history and purpose of the art form to which he had dedicated his life. Blues is the healer indeed, but Hooker himself is The Healer: with capital letters. That extraordinary cover photo – Hooker's looming figure in silhouette, hands raised and spread – simply sets the visual seal on his assumption of that iconic shamanic role.

"The blues healed me, it can heal you": Hooker acknowledges his own wounds, and his own pain. No one can heal who has not himself been wounded. The Healer is the one who can come with you into your Dark Room. And even if he cannot lead you out, even if his message is that you yourself are the only one who can bring you forth into the light, he can nevertheless be there with you, telling you that the sun will rise again, comforting and strengthening you with his presence until the coming of that new dawn.

That's what I been doin'. That's what the Healer do. I take

your pain, and I put it on my shoulders, and I carry it along.


John Lee Hooker, interview with the author, 1994



This is an extract from Boogie Man: Adventures of John Lee Hooker in the American 20th Century (Canongate Books). Other books by the same author are Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and Post-War Pop (Canongate Books) and Shots From The Hip (Aaaargh! Press)

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