by Don Snowden – March 15, 1977
On the eve of the release of her sixth album, Sweet Forgiveness, Bonnie Raitt still remains something of an anomaly in a music biz that usually relegates women to the role of backup “chick” singers. There simply aren’t many women fronting their own bands and playing badass guitar to boot–not to mention the nastiest Delta-styled bottleneck work this side of Muddy Waters–around these days. Add her staunch feminism and socialist political stance–though she doesn’t advertise them in her music save for the implications of an assertive woman telling her man what she wants from him in song–and you have one unusually serious, talented performer in the midst of the “That’s Entertainment” music world mentality.
If you turn the clock back about a decade or so, one of the burning questions in the rock world at the time was, “Can a blue man sing the whites?”–or, more prosaically, “Can a white man sing the blues?” Prompted by the Stones’ frequent use of old blues standards on their early albums and the influence of The Butterfield Blues Band, Blues Project and a host of British bands spearheaded by Cream, there was a full-fledged blues boom going on in the late ’60’s. Many of the veteran bluesmen, Muddy Waters Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. and Albert King among them, found the audiences expanding beyond what B.B. termed “the chitlin circuit” to include crowds of white, middle-class kids at rock auditoriums like the Fillmores.
It’s not surprising that the inspiration for most of the blues-rock of that period came from the gritty urban blues born on Chicago’s South Side. The electric energy and instrumentation of those bands matched the lineups and inclinations of most rock groups and lent itself perfectly to the extended jamming and guitar heroics so beloved of that era. And the macho bravado of songs like “I’m Ready” was custom made for the arrogant outlaw stance cultivated by most rockers.
But, save for the staunch folkic crowd who had been into the music all along, two facets of the blues tradition were largely passed over at the time—the acoustic bottleneck guitar stylings of the country bluesmen from the Mississippi Delta and the legacy of the blueswomen. Though Cream may have made the names of Robert Johnson and Skip James familiar to many by recording versions of “Crossroads” and I’m So Glad”, their high energy, high decibel interpretations bear little resemblance to the original versions. Likewise, Janis Joplin became the symbol of the blueswoman for most rock fans but her music seemed to rise more from the need to be accepted and loved than the inner strength one senses in the original ladies who sang the blues.But wait, there's more!