At Snowmass: music Taylor-made for blues devotees
July 20, 2011
SNOWMASS VILLAGE – Here’s the modern-day blues lament: The blues largely has fallen into the hands of white kids, whose concept of the blues is fast, flashy guitar licks, not the emotions and experiences – pain, poverty, persecution – that gave the music its name. True enough, but there is a more fundamental truth here. The blues has become detached from its places of origin – the black American experience, especially in the pre-Civil Rights Era South, and, another few steps back, to Africa.
Otis Taylor was born in 1948, nearly a century too late to know slavery. He is a stranger to the Mississippi Delta – born in Chicago, raised in Denver. His father was a railroad worker, but his job was on the relatively luxurious Pullman cars: “That was a big deal, to be a black Pullman on the trains. That was prestigious,” Taylor said. When Taylor took a protracted break from music, he found work that bespeaks of comfortable, middle-class niche: From 1977 to 1995, he was an antiques dealer.
But in his life as a musician – particularly in the latter period, in which he has released 11 highly acclaimed albums under his own name – Taylor has kept his eye on the place from where the blues came. His 2001 album “White African” opened with “My Soul’s in Louisiana,” which serves as an announcement of where Taylor’s interests lie: “I didn’t kill no brakeman, I didn’t kill no engineer/ Well a white man pointed his finger and they said what they always said.”
It is one of many songs that direct listeners to the specifically African-American place that the blues originated; Taylor’s other songs include “Ten Million Slaves,” “Mama’s Selling Heroin,” “Government Lied,” and “Sounds of Attica,” about the 1971 prison riot caused largely by racial issues. Even songs with less aggrieved titles tend to address desperate subjects; “Little Willie” is about a mother being informed that her son was shot dead on the playground.
Taylor’s sounds, too, are distinctively rooted in the old. He calls his music “trance blues” (the festival/workshop he holds in Boulder goes by the name, too) and rather than follow the standard three-chord progression that so much blues is built on, the musical foundation for Taylor seems to be deep, flowing rhythms. “Hands on Your Stomach,” from his most recent album, last year’s “Clovis People Vol. 3,” seems to have no chord changes at all, but the insistent rhythm keeps the song driving.
“The best trance music is the voodoo music – just drums, just congas,” the 62-year-old Taylor said from his Boulder home. “That’s the earliest form of music. It’s all a pocket – that’s what gives you the trance part.”
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Almost absent from the music are the look-at-me guitar solos. Taylor says that he is the worst musician in his own band, and it’s not false modesty; he’s more a singer and songwriter than guitar wizard, and on a stage, he’s more a presence than anything.
“I’m a blues artist, not a musician,” Taylor, who leads his five-piece band to the Snowmass Free Concert Series Thursday, on Fanny Hill in Snowmass Village. “I’m more a magician than a musician. I make people think I can play that instrument. Everybody on that stage can play better than me. But I make a certain sound. Nobody can play like me, so I get to eat.”
As to why his blues sound like no one else’s, Taylor gives credit to an instrument that few people associate with the blues: the banjo. As a kid in Denver, Taylor – whose grandmother played church music, and whose father hung out with jazz players – found himself attracted to the Denver Folklore Center, which was on his route to his junior high school. “And I just never walked out of the store,” Taylor, who recalls the Folklore Center in “Harry, Turn the Music Up,” from “Clovis People”: “It was a special place, more a hangout than a store. The Rev. Gary Davis, Tim Hardin, Mike Seeger would be sitting there.”
As attractive as those pickers was the banjo. In his early teens, Taylor put himself to work and saved the money for an instrument. “I don’t know why I liked it. I just did,” Taylor recalled. Possibly there was an unseen connection. While banjo at the time, as now, was a bluegrass and folk instrument, it originated in Africa.
Taylor got scared away from the banjo when he saw the bluegrass group the Dillards perform. The band members told Taylor that, if he liked the banjo, he should go to the South. This might have been a case of extreme cultural insensitivity; this was 1964, the year that three civil rights workers, two of them white Northerners, were lynched after participating in a voter registration movement.
“I freaked out,” Taylor said. “I wasn’t going down there – forget it, man. They’d lynch me. I’d last a day and a half. I freaked out – and started playing more guitar and harmonica.”
Taylor moved towards rock ‘n’ roll – and got chased away from guitar by Tommy Bolin, a Colorado legend who led the band Zephyr. “Seeing Tommy play the guitar – that didn’t make me want to play guitar. Just in my living room,” he said.
Taylor was content to take the bass position in Zephyr, and he often heard fellow rockers talk about finding their way into blues. “In the ’60s, people would say, ‘I discovered the Yardbirds; I discovered Clapton.’ Then Buddy Guy, then Robert Johnson. But where did Robert Johnson come from? Everybody else stopped at Robert Johnson, but I went further back, to the African roots.”
While Taylor maintain ties to those roots, he isn’t constrained by them. His current band features a violinist, the dazzling Anne Harris; he often employs cello and trumpet. When he played at the Big Aspen Barbecue Block Party last summer, his group featured steel guitarist Chuck Campbell, a frequent collaborator; last summer at the Telluride Blues and Brews Festival, he was accompanied by an 11-voice choir. Hardly the staple of modern blues.
And Taylor no longer sees banjo as a mortal threat. The electric banjo has been a recent fascination; the instrument, he says, “looks like a little Stratocaster – people don’t know I’m playing banjo. But you can get really aggressive – more feedback, different textures.”
Turns out, Taylor doesn’t mind guitarists playing those gaudy licks. “I’m not a flashy guitar player. But I have a flashy guitar player,” he said. “I like a little bit of everything; I like Hendrix and Clapton. I like originality.”