Making a Scene presents an Interview with Indie Blues Artist Rory Block
I was born in Princeton NJ in 1949 and spent the beginning of my life in a small wood house with no plumbing, hidden deep in the woods on a hillside in Neshanic. At the time, nothing but endless farms stretched across the land as far as the eye could see. Penniless but idealistic, my parents toughed it out, boiling diapers on the stove and hauling water from the old hand well in the yard. At the age of 18, Eleanor Jean Keller married Allan Block, a young intellectual who, after winning a national literary award in college and raising his parents hopes, ran away from his midwestern upbringing to live the bohemian life in the new land of freedom, the East Coast. Setting aside her dreams of becoming a singer and a painter, Jean had her first child when she was nineteen, a daughter, named Mona. The second child, Aurora (‘Rory’), came less than a year later.
Shortly afterwards our family moved to Sullivan Street in New York, now part of Soho, and then, part of the culturally rich neighborhood also known as Little Italy. I remember lingering in the cheese shops soaking in the indescribably fabulous odors of the cheeses that hung from the ceiling in every shape and size. I remember the butcher shops, the dry cleaners downstairs, and the watermelon truck that came up the street in summer preceeded by cries of “Waterme-low! Waterme-low!”
My sister and I spent many afternoons zooming up and down the sidewalks on our tricycles, giggling, crashing into each other, people’s legs, imitating adults, shaking our fists and pretending to be tough. We would clamp our lower lips under our teeth and say “Big boys! Big boys!” in unison, as well as one can with one’s jaw locked. We sat in our second floor window with our legs dangling out through the iron bars shouting and waving at people. Our baby sitter, at her wits end, threatened to walk off the job if we didn’t come in. We didn’t. But we later felt very sorry for Rose, and begged her to come back. Long suffering and with a heart of gold, Rose came back.
I felt great sadness about the “bums” I saw walking aimlessly up and down the city streets and asked no end of questions about them. Why did they have nowhere to go and why didn’t anyone help them? Whenever I had change in my pocket I gave it to a bum.
My father settled into a tiny shop on MacDougal Street not much larger than a kitchen counter, and there began his custom leather business that later became famous. Having no room inside, he stretched his materials out across the sidewalk and made sandals in front of the pedestrians. But in those days, the Village was a neighborhood where everyone knew your name, where the worst danger was the occasional alcoholic, stray cat, or maybe a rare brawl. No addicts, no guns (at least none we were aware of), and only a few crazies. My father said it was a safe neighborhood because the sense of family was so strong that everyone was always looking out for each other.
Later we moved to Perry Street, to what is now the height of West Village chic, but at the time was the remnants of low income row housing for immigrants. The Allan Block Sandal Shop relocated to it’s well known address on West 4th street, at the head of Jones street, where frequent sightings of Bob Dylan and John Lennon were all part of the incredible live atmosphere of the place.
I grew up in a family where, on a good day, music, art and poetry were the most important things in life. Allan’s mother Valeria married an industrious junk yard owner named Isadore who stashed away every penny until he had saved enough for his wife (after his death in 1955), to send her grandchildren to a school on Bleeker Street called Little Red School House. It was this school that was the center of my world.
The streets of the city, too, were a home. In those days a child could walk from anywhere to anywhere, with the worst thing an occasional bizarre comment, but nothing one couldn’t learn to ignore or avoid. Even at ten one could become proud and savvy and navigate through the city alone. In retrospect, I think I had a guardian angel with me, because I certainly was in grave danger many times, but at the time I had no fear. I spent all my time walking from place to place and thinking or endlessly strumming my Galiano guitar that my mother had acquired at a garage sale for all of $4. Music had become the absolute center of my being, and nothing mattered more. At the age of ten I figured out “Froggy Went A’Courtin'” by slamming down on the E and then the A string and plucking out a melody. The guitar was an instrument of wonder and joy, a best friend.
One day when I was twelve my father walked in the door and exclaimed that he met an old farmer in the street selling corn. He unrolled a piece of paper that revealed four fat ears of farm fresh corn. He told us he wouldn’t be playing “violin” anymore, but a new style called “Old Timey” which he learned about from this farmer. He took the instrument from it’s case and announced that from now on this was a “fiddle.” He demonstrated the style, which was scratchy and bouncy. Of course we had old records around the house and already knew about the music, but my father always found a way to embellish reality with bizarre stories, most made up on the spot, till none of his children ever knew what was truth and what was fiction.
At the age of fourteen I became part of the Sunday jam sessions in Washington Square Park. People stood around in clusters, pressing together to watch incredible musicians playing styles largely unheard of up north. David Grisman, Frank Wakefield, Jodie Stecker, John Herald, Roger Sprung, and Eric Weissberg were some of the bluegrass/country players, and John Sebastian, Maria Muldaur, Stefan Grossman, Marc Silber, Jack Baker and others were playing ragtime, blues, swing and early barrel house jazz. Then there was John Fahey in Washington DC and Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder on the West Coast.
My father eventually became the reigning impresario of the incredibly vital folk revival scene in the West Village, hosting regular Saturday afternoon jam sessions in his sandal shop after music in the park was banned (something about a “no loitering” law). Bursting with enthusiastic musicians and fans, the players and spectators literally spilled out onto the sidewalk while the center of the room steamed up from the intensity of the music as my father held court and directed. Everyone knew his thing was “holding down the beat”, and from time to time an excited musician would receive a gruff reprimand as my father snapped, “Speeding up!” while casting a grave eye at the offender. One then had to pay sharper attention to his stomping foot, which pounded out the beat like Big Ben, seemingly setting the standard for worldwide time. (I have often been asked about my own pounding foot, videos have been done of my boot in motion, and bass drums have been triggered in the studio from the sound of my foot. Let the question be forever put to rest, it is clearly hereditary). This small inconvenience aside, these Village sessions were frequented by some of the most phenomenal musicians, famous and otherwise, and this exciting atmosphere formed the core of my musical life. If my father was a bit imposing with his fiddle and his watchful eye, he was also a catalyst for those eager to share in a truly historic musical transformation that was to be part of the wider phenomenon of renewed interest in American roots music. My father has since moved into the remote reaches of the backwoods and quietly continues his leather work and music, and has also published several books of poetry. I think he is still searching for that old farmer with the corn.
One day in 1964 I heard an album called “Really The Country Blues”, and from that moment on my life was dedicated to learning how to play blues. I spent untold hours and two years of my life with my ear glued to a speaker. I was determined to figure out each and every note and play the great songs with as much accuracy as I could muster, out of a deep reverence for the music.
This was an incredibly vital period of my life. Intensely alive, with all my senses tuned into the notes, I felt wild, crazy, in love. My life was suddenly too good to be true, from the moment I first heard Mississippi John Hurt in concert to the many days Stefan Grossman and I spent traveling to the Bronx to visit Reverend Gary Davis. The great Reverend, whose music was sacred to me, playing, singing and quipping with Stefan. When teaching, the Reverend never slowed down to explain his music, he only played it at you with lightening speed and had a lot to say if you couldn’t catch it. His formidable little wife entered the room from time to time to remind him that playing blues was not acceptable in God’s sight, and instructed him to play only gospel for the salvation of his mortal soul. I did two drawings of the good Reverend, which I include here, one done from life while he was playing in the livingroom, the other from a photograph taken at a festival somewhere.
Then there was the moment I met Son House, a blues God as far as I was concerned. Backstage at the Village Gate in 1965 he virtually radiated a golden light. As I watched him perform, rolling his head back, slamming the strings and almost choking on the intensity, I learned a deep lesson about the power of the music which became an inseparable part of me. Later, sitting with him at Stefan’s parent’s house, I had a chance to play for him. I will never forget his amazement as I played Willie Brown’s Future Blues. He kept looking over to Stefan and Dick Waterman and asking “Where did she learn to play like this?” He told me he taught Robert Johnson how to play guitar. He was beautiful looking; smooth skin, tall and handsome, his face filled with a million stories of the music, a life lived in hardship and cloaked in mystery.
We visited Skip James in the hospital after his operation for cancer. He was depressed and distant. He had soulful, far off eyes. No doubt he wondered what on earth we were doing there, and had a universe of private sorrows to meditate on. His music so essentially expresses this same melancholy, it’s enough to make your hair stand on end. His high haunting voice is a subtle wail.
Mississippi John was also shy, with a gentle sweetness that was endearing. He had an elegance, a humor. We visited him at his home in Washington DC, where he had finally been located after a search that began in Mississippi. He offered us a cup of Maxwell House, his favorite coffee. “Good to the last drop”, and so on.
This time period seemed to last forever. I now realize how lucky I was to be there, in the right place at the right time. I thought everyone knew these incredible men, these blues geniuses who wrote the book. I later realized how fleeting it was, and how even more precious.
Many people ask me why a fourteen year old white girl from New York City felt so deeply and personally connected to the music of the black rural south from another era. How can you explain love? The music resonated inside me, felt real, beautiful, spoke to what was in my heart, moved my soul. It cried out as I cried out, it wept when I wept, it haunted and rolled and wandered as I did. I always say that before I’m white, black, male or female, I’m human. But does it really need to be explained? Inspiration is born in the deepest part of the soul, where boundaries don’t exist. If you live with your soul extending beyond the borders of your body, you never see boundaries.
In the eighth grade I was accepted at Music & Art High School as an art student, but by this time a strong wandering spirit had taken hold of me. My parents had long since gone off in separate directions… my father was getting remarried and my mother had for some years been in a relationship with a man my siblings and I considered to be an invader from outer space. It was clear that there was no room for me. But the music was my refuge, and perhaps it even saved my life. It was also a tumultuous time in the Village, a time of unprecedented political change and experimentation. It seemed like all the world was taking psychedelic drugs, and many of the people I knew got strung out, had mishaps, and even died of overdoses. Amazingly, I was never interested in drugs, as it always seemed like an unacceptably dangerous thing to do to your body. Despite my confusion and immense feelings of rejection at the time, I somehow always knew that drugs were not an option for me. I have always valued life and clarity of mind over all else.
At fifteen I drove to California with Stefan Grossman and two other travelers. No one tried to stop me, despite the fact that I left in the middle of the tenth grade. But it would have been unnecessary to capture me and bring me back, as there was nothing to come home to at the time. Everyone had gone off in separate directions and life on my own began in earnest.
Our journey was slow and wound through many towns along the way, was derailed briefly by a car accident in Peoria, Illinois (a friend fell asleep at the wheel and spun out into a cow pasture at two in the morning), included a stop in Denver to visit Harry Tuft and an extended stay in Boulder when there were so few buildings that it looked like God’s original creation. As we came over the burnt hills of California there was a brand new song rocking on the radio… it was our old friend from Greenwich Village, John Sebastian hitting the big time with “Do You Believe In Magic?” It sounded so good! We all marveled… home town boy makes good!
Stefan had an uncanny sense about guitars and scouted out an incredible collection of old Martins from pawn shops when Martins were going for a song. The guy in the pawn shop in Iowa thought he had found a couple of suckers when we walked out with an old pearl inlay for $75. I thought about nothing but blues, dreamed, lived, breathed and ate blues. I sat outdoors by a stream in the Rockies and figured out Willie Brown’s “M&O Blues.” I had the heartache, I didn’t belong anywhere, I didn’t know where I was going. The highway looked sad and empty, the West Coast far from home and lonely, but the East Coast was where I also had no home. The music was the real home.
When we got to Berkeley we stayed with Ed Denson, cofounder of Kicking Mule Records. Fred McDowell came over for a few days, long enough to help me one day with a sink full of dishes. We all went out to the Jaberwockie Cafe and took turns performing. When I played “Big Road Blues” by Tommy Johnson, someone in the audience jumped up and shouted, “She plays like a man!” I didn’t understand what “men” played like, what “women” played like, I didn’t comprehend whether I was black or white, 14 or 40, or that where I lived could have anything to do with loving or not loving deep music. Those things felt irrelevant. I learned the music because it was around me when I was growing up, and that’s how it happens.
Back East, Stefan and I recorded a record in Peter Siegel’s bedroom on a Nagra tape recorder and it turned into an instructional record known as “How to Play Blues Guitar.” The record company felt that a straight out blues record would never sell and there had to be a catch. At the time I felt that cheapened the project, that it should be enough to present the music. I believed that it needed to be learned by apprenticeship and sweat, not by tablature and instructions. You had to sit and watch Reverend Gary Davis play, live with your ear against the tape recorder, play til your fingers fell off. The teaching thing felt like cheating. But I was overruled and the record came out with a tablature book enclosed. And a good thing too, in retrospect. (I was called Sunshine Kate on the original recording and later, Aurora Block).
From 1966 to somewhere in the mid seventies I took a complete break from music and started a family. There had been little or no support while I was growing up for actually having a career… it was all part of being trained that there was something inherently wrong with being female and driven, female and talented. Girls weren’t obsessed with music, that was masculine. Though I thought I’d never look back, the desire to return eventually became stronger and stronger. The emotional baggage from the past continued to haunt me along with the extreme pressure I was soon to encounter from the “business.” Blues was the last thing record companies wanted to hear about. Not only would I have to drop blues and write music, it would have to be along the narrow lines considered saleable at the time. To the best of my abilities, I approached this assignment like homework, sitting up late into the night at my piano banging out songs I thought would sound “commercial.” Eventually disgusted with trying to accommodate a business which never seemed to accept me or be satisfied by my efforts, I gave up totally and went back to blues, a humble recording for Rounder Records called “High Heeled Blues,” produced by that good old home town boy John Sebastian. I was shocked when Rounder called me to say it had been reviewed in Rolling Stone: “Some of the most singular and affecting Country Blues anyone, man or woman, black or white, old or young has cut in recent years…” With my priorities straightened out, my direction clarified and the solid beginnings of a career, I threw myself headlong into touring. These early years were a painfully slow investment in almost imperceptible gains. It was a balancing act between road and family, and some of my more passionate songs were inspired by this particular agony. I should point out that one bright light in all of this was that I eventually found a voice as a songwriter which has become the most profound joy of my musical life.
My first child, named Thiele after a dear friend, grew up bright and talented, brilliant actually, playing every song Jimmy Hendrix ever wrote through a Pignose amp on the corner of West 4th street and Jones at the age of eight. His open guitar case had $80 in it by the end of the day, a figure which seemed like more than I could make in a year. People were always amazed by this little boy, slamming an electric guitar like there was no tomorrow, playing with the skill of an adult. I think he was a genius, frankly. He once caused everyone at a party to go silent and watch awe struck as he soloed for half an hour. The band that night was an up-and-coming group called “Los Lobos.”
He was a star in high school, sliding across the stage on his knees, playing the guitar behind his head, picking the strings with his teeth. He went from a shy chubby kid to a hot item over night when the guitar thing got great. One night, eight days before his 20th birthday, Thiele skidded off the road, hit a tree and was killed. Nothing has ever been the same since 1986.
His service was so packed I couldn’t believe that many people knew and loved him. After hearing countless people speak about how he was the most supportive person in their lives, I learned what so many parents eventually realize, that our children are so much more than what we can actually see by raising them. We need the rest of the world to reflect them back at us to fully grasp who they are, as we tend to perpetually think of them as our babies.
My youngest son Jordan was fourteen at the time and taught me more about courage and spirituality than anyone. Now, years later, Jordan and I have recorded and toured together over a number of years. People are invariably amazed, pleased, touched, that mom and son have this kind of friendship. I think the credit goes largely to Jordan. He’s an old soul, a teacher, a sage. Although I never finished the tenth grade, he managed to graduate Harvard, and now works freelance designing alternative environmental technologies as well as writing and performing his music. Among our recordings together are “Walk In Jerusalem” on Ain’t I A Woman and “A Father And Two Sons” on Angel Of Mercy.
My mother, with whom I had a painfully difficult relationship as a child, became ever more mellow in later years. She demonstrated great courage in reaching out, and we had profound moments of reconciliation before she died in 1992. She set an example by asking for forgiveness, as the hardest and most humbling thing is putting one’s pride aside totally. It is also the highest form of enlightenment. Once, at a church in Cape Cod where she attended services, I sang a song and preceded it by saying that I thanked my mother for inspiring me to sing (she used to sit on the bedside and sing us to sleep, and it sounded like the angels singing). I looked over, and she was crying, and then, so was I.
Somehow over the years, the career took hold without my noticing when or how. Somehow after playing to two people in Stone City Iowa or screaming at the top of my lungs over brawling drunks in countless “vomit through the nose bars” (a little phrase I learned from Jorma Kaukonen), after reeling from years of criticism and scraping myself off the floor, repeatedly hearing that I was no one and would go nowhere, after always being out of style, unhip, never the latest thing, never what’s hot, too young, too old, too blue, too unique, too you name it, weirdly, things have changed. When I walk down the road now, it is with gratitude in every step. How did things get good? When did they get good? I only know they did get good, and for this reason I am regularly amazed. Maybe it was the moment Stevie Wonder played harmonica on “Gypsie Boy” while I stood in the studio with tears rolling down my face, maybe it was when “Lovin’ Whiskey” became a gold record in Holland, maybe it was when Mark Knopfler played on “Faithless World,” or when Bonnie Raitt and I played “Big Road Blues” together on stage. Perhaps it was when I got my first WC Handy Award nomination. But most likely, it was when I began to notice that fans were moved by the music, like the lady who came up to me in Spokane, Washington with tears in her eyes. She said “‘Mama’s Blues’ is my song!” Maybe it was the letter where the guy said he decided not to kill himself after hearing my music. Maybe it was all the letters after Thiele’s memorial album “House of Hearts,” people reaching out and telling me their own stories. Somewhere, it got really rewarding. It’s about the people, the wonderful, kind people I meet.
Life is short, and fragile, and I know we all have a mission. Don’t forget that it is a great privilege to be in this miraculous place, and that if you’re here, you’re chosen.
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