Twelve-Bar Brood: Another Guilt-Ridden CD Purchase

By Ken Chang
May 2006

On April 7, I stepped into the Newbury Comics in Back Bay and plunked down $10.49 (tax included) for Street Talkin’, a Muse Records CD reissue of seven Elmore James tunes and seven Eddie Taylor tunes. The Elmore sides (including “12 Year Old Boy” and “Knocking at Your Door”) are from his late ’50s sessions for Chief Records; the Taylor sides (including “Bad Boy” and “Ride ’Em on Down”) are a good sampling of his Vee-Jay sessions—although Jimmy Reed flubs his harp part badly in the third verse of “Do You Want Me to Cry?”

I guess you could call it a good find. Although the Muse catalog was later picked up by 32 Records, Street Talkin’ is not among the many remasters of old Muse LPs that 32 has released on CD so far. And I doubt the album will ever earn a re-release, considering how many Elmore James reissues are currently in circulation. (There are a lot. I know because I’m hoarding most of them.)

So, really, what was the point of my buying this CD? I already have all the songs on it. The Elmore tracks, I have spread out over anthology albums on Rhino Records and Charly Records; the Taylor tracks, I’ve got on a few different Vee-Jay compilations.

Did I pay ten bucks for Pete Welding’s liner notes? For the spooky album cover portrait that looks absolutely nothing like Elmore James? For the satisfaction of owning an out-of-print CD that’s currently selling on eBay for $9.99? If not, then for what, exactly?

As I continue this pattern of addictive behavior—squandering money on reissues that I don’t need—I wonder if I’m turning into some kind of Blues Judas hiding behind the façade of fandom. I remember interviewing Ann Rabson a few years ago, how I sympathized with her when she lamented that music was becoming less and less of a live experience for the average listener. I remember listening to Bill McQuaid talk about how much work goes into performing just one country blues song. I seem to be betraying these people with my reckless buying habits. Wouldn’t that $10.49 be better spent on a few beers at Toad, or a cover charge at Johnny D’s or Club Passim? Or perhaps on a blues CD released by someone with a pulse?

I feel like I should know better than to succumb to another impulse buy like Street Talkin’.

Fellow blues reissue addicts, I ask you: Are we putting honest working blues bands out of business? Instead of spending our money on more Elmore James or Eddie Taylor, would we be doing more good in this world by choosing Paul Geremia, Corey Harris, or Harry Manx? In effect, these guys suffer because of us. Shouldn’t we be trying harder to keep the living blues musicians onstage, instead of hoarding more music by dead guys?

I bring up these neurotic questions of guilt because I hear a lot of blues fans preach about the righteousness of their fandom. If someone writes a negative customer review of, say, the new Buddy Guy album on Amazon.com, there’s an immediate online chorus of “Shame!” Blues societies (including the one that publishes this magazine) are constantly urging people to support the blues, but we really have no idea how much the average working blues band will benefit from our efforts in the long run. Are we helping these bands attract younger listeners? Are we actively expanding the types of venues that feature live blues music? Probably not (or at least not yet). But here we sit, as blues society members, seeing the same people at the same gigs, not so much keeping the blues alive as we are hoping that the blues stays alive.

Right now, blues fans are paranoid about preserving what they have left. And rightfully so—the record market is in decline, clubs are closing left and right, and it’s getting harder to catch a gig out there. Good bands are scrounging for fewer slots at fewer venues. These same good bands are also losinggigs to lousy bands who work cheap. With the scene so fragile, so marginalized, and so desperate, the fans will take what they can get. Our judgment becomes clouded…and the next thing you know, we’re getting all hypersensitive whenever Buddy releases a subpar album. Oops, I wasn’t supposed to write that—as all proper dues-paying blues fans know, Buddy Guy does not release subpar albums.

In the meantime, the blues community has no strategy to gain back the ground it’s lost. Instead, we’re waiting around and hoping for a new blues savior—someone who can cross over to the mainstream audience and help replenish our ranks. Maybe it’ll be a hip-hop artist who samples Papa Lightfoot. Or a Norah Jones-ish waif who plays boogie-woogie. Or maybe Paul Allen of the Experience Music Project can bribe Simon Cowell into putting together a blues boy band. (Actually, I’m still holding out for Rick Holmstrom. I predict that the Oracle will one day pronounce Rick to be The One.)

If the next blues messiah turns out to be a no-show, then all we’ve got left to fall back on is our collective “KBA conscience.” As you probably know, each year the Blues Foundation presents Keeping the Blues Alive (KBA) awards to people or organizations that contribute to the blues. It’s sort of like recognizing the doctors who manage to keep an ailing, 100-year-old patient alive (and if possible, kicking). Since 1980, the KBA awards have gone to musicians, producers, agents, club owners, writers, record labels, radio broadcasters, educators, promoters, and filmmakers.

I am not a KBA role model. Unlike David Lynch (1991 KBA winner), I have never cast Koko Taylor in a movie. But lately my KBA conscience has been nagging me. I haven’t been going to as many gigs as I used to. My CD collection feels more dead than alive. I can no longer play the first break of “Wabash Rag” on my guitar. Mary Flower, Duke Robillard, Guy Davis all have new albums out, but I’m buying stuff like Street Talkin’—not just blues by dead people, but redundant blues by dead people.

If only I could just temper my reissue addiction a little, enough to better support the living, working blues musicians out there.

Okay, okay. So maybe I can do it after all. Let me gather some strength here. I hereby vow to stop buying Elmore James reissues. Instead, I will invest this money in the blues of the living. Think of it as one man’s infinitesimally small contribution to ensuring the future of blues.

No offense, Virgin Records, Rhino, Charly, Capricorn, Collectables, Ace, and BMG, but your reissued Elmo wares will tempt me no more. That goes for you, too, Blue Note Records, with your deceptively packaged Best of the Modern Years. Shame on you for leading me astray! Shame!

I wonder if I threw out that Newbury Comics receipt.

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