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Nov 24, 2008

Rory Block plucks the world’s heartstrings with rocketing performances of the Mississippi Delta blues.

By Donna Sapolin

Five rescue dogs of various sizes and shapes bound through the hatch in Rory Block’s back door. With the sure-footedness of someone practiced at safeguarding a cherished possession, the legendary blues musician whips her signature custom Martin guitar out of the path of the careening animals while bending down to ruffle their coats.
The dogs are Block’s companions both at home and on the road. She explains that her attitude toward them is about protecting and giving a voice to those who have none, a theme that recurs throughout her music.  

Listen to some of the songs off of Rory Block’s latest album, Blues Walkin’ Like A Man.

Block has spent the better part of four decades interpreting the blues of the Mississippi Delta region—a raw, aim-for-the-gut genre that was not widely known or particularly popular when she began her career. For years, she traveled the world with her historically accurate renditions of the works of leading Southern country blues figures, building a reputation for herself as one of the foremost Delta blues musicians.
With its percussive, lightning-speed guitar playing, foot-stomping beat and soulful lyrics, Delta blues can rouse the drowsiest of spirits—and it eventually roused global audiences.
Because of Block’s impressive skills and persistence, she became an influential figure in the revival of the blues.
With over 20 albums to her credit, she has won some of the industry’s top awards: five W.C. Handy Blues Music Awards, and in, 2007, the Blues Foundation Blues Music Award for best acoustic album for her album, The Lady and Mr. Johnson. Critics now consider her both a national treasure and a living legend.
Her recent album Blues Walkin’ Like a Man—a tribute to the music of Mississippi Delta blues artist Eddie James “Son” House, Jr.—is the latest entry in a career single-mindedly devoted to mastering the distinctive slide guitar techniques and vocal artistry of the progenitors of country blues. Block’s music pays homage to Southern black men with sketchy histories—men like Robert Johnson, Skip James, Willie Brown, Mississippi John Hurt and Fred McDowell.

A WALK IN THE PARK
Born in Princeton, N.J. to parents whom she describes as “possibly the first two hippies on Earth” (a father who played violin and wrote poetry and a mother who loved to sing), Block spent her early years in New York’s Little Italy neighborhood.
At the age of eight, her family moved to the West Village where Washington Square Park served first as her playground and then, during her teenage years, as a vital artistic hang-out.
“It was a fabulously exciting and inspiring time,” she recalls. “Various artists would gather around the fountain and play. Among them were bluegrass guys, jazz players and, of course, folk singers with their protest tunes.”    
When anti-loitering laws prevailed and music was banned in the park, the scene shifted to her father’s sandal shop. “Word got out that there was this eccentric sandal maker playing old-time mountain music on his fiddle,” Block says. “Musicians started bringing their instruments over and playing in the shop and people would be backed out into the street.”
It wasn’t long before her father was holding regular Saturday afternoon jam sessions. Bob Dylan, who lived a block away, was among the regulars.

In listening to the irreverent artistry of these Deltra blues masters, Rory Block found her own way forward. With FLYP’s interactive slideshow, you can read about each musician and listen to their music.

A BLUE STREAK
At age 14, when the park was still the center of the New York City music scene, Block heard the ragtime guitar of 18-year-old Stefan Grossman. “I started talking to him and he gave me an album called Really the Country Blues, followed by Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues,” she recalls. “Though I had been playing guitar ever since I can remember and had already been listening to old country blues music, I became thoroughly hooked on these recordings.”
She would spend hours on end deciphering and transcribing the notes, tempo and tunings she was hearing—all day, every day for two years, she says. For Block, the blues were “love at first hearing…I listened and it was gorgeous, haunting, deep, profound and soulful. It completely spoke to what was in my heart.”
Through Grossman, she began to meet music industry personalities who were making an effort to track down the Southern originators of the music.
When she was 15, Block attended a concert given by House and then met him at Grossman’s home. “I looked at him and thought, ‘this is beauty,’” she says. “Sitting there, I felt transported back in time. This was a man who had been playing blues back in 1930.” Her reverence for him, sown during her teenage years, followed a trajectory that eventually materialized in her recent tribute album. 
Block played for House that evening and he asked where she had learned to play the blues. “I’m sure he was confused,” she says. “The music he played had only been distributed to certain limited audiences and he probably never expected to come to New York City and perform or become famous.”

Rory Block sends her gutsy voice flying up and over the beat of a tortured guitar. Watch FLYP’s exclusive videos of Block slapping, strumming and sliding to the beat of some of her musical influences.

Block took a few years off from the music scene after recording an instrumental guitar album with Grossman and starting a family. When she was ready to return, rock ’n’ roll was everywhere and there was virtually no support for her brand of blues. “What I was doing was way out on the fringe,” she says. “I was repeatedly told that I had to drop it and write music.”
Although Block made some conciliatory stabs at conventional songwriting, she never accepted that her focus on the nation’s root music was unimportant or that she couldn’t write songs in a new way.
“After years of touring in a Pinto station wagon, one night I found myself playing in a small Iowa venue to two people who had come out on an icy night to hear me,” she says. “I resolved then and there that I would never again take the rejection personally and would go on telling people that an acoustic music blues revival is happening until it became a reality.”

SLIDING ALONG

As the years passed, Block’s career gradually gathered momentum. She landed a recording contract with Rounder Records that gave her complete artistic freedom. She performed with Stevie Wonder on her song “Gypsie Boy,” and hit gold in Europe with “Lovin’ Whiskey,” a song she irreverently crafted on the basis of a letter written to an alcoholic friend.
The result was fame, a major role in reviving interest in the Mississippi Delta blues, and a house-sized bus to replace the Pinto.
Block cuts a petite figure that belies her monumental musical prowess. As a white woman from the Northeast, she defies every expectation of a blues giant—until she sings and plays. As her boot beats the floor and her fingers slap, slam and slide over her guitar—at times, snapping the strings to a seeming breaking point—there can be little doubt that the daunting mission she set for herself years ago was the right one.
She spent years cracking the code of the Delta blues, in the process delivering a priceless historical legacy. But the music she plays is not just a reproduction. Block has made the work contemporary and relevant by virtue of the uniquely personal stamp she has put on it: feminine, gritty and willful, matching the spirit of her long-gone mentors, note for note.
And, like any good blues song, her work is redemptive. As she puts it, “this music has given me a reason to live. It is my drive, my willpower and it recharges my connection to other human beings.”


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