Not Your Skin
It's Your Soul!
The Gospel According to Rory Block
By T.E. Mattox
ll kidding aside, I've got just as big an ego as the next guy. And when
it comes to blues players, their lives and their music, I consider myself
relatively well-read and somewhat knowledgeable. But I recently sat
down with a phenomenal musician; songwriter, blues historian and musicologist
that gave me pause
and shiny new perspective in my career as village
idiot. Let me put it another way, if blues music and a history of Delta
players was a college course, this woman would be the Dean of Academia.
Not only has Rory Block been playing guitar since the
age of eight, this East Coast native literally sat at the feet of, played
for and with, some of the most legendary names in blues. Greats like
Skip James, Mississippi Fred McDowell, John Hurt
and Son House.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. During the Southern
California leg of her current tour, Rory took a few minutes to talk
about her music, her life and the road she travels. We began our conversation
with one of my favorite blues quotes; 'It's not your skin
"Well, I say to people, you're looking in the
wrong place. It's not an outward thing, it's a spirit thing and you
can't control what inspires the human heart."
How was it that the blues grabbed you so hard, and at
such an early age?
"It's really hard to explain because it's just
I loved it. And love is not something you can truly
explain, why you love, who and how and what. It just is a feeling
of being drawn to it as the most beautiful sounding music I'd ever heard,
and the most passionate, soulful music in the world, as far as I was
My first encounter with Rory Block and her blues, was
a small venue, a guitar shop actually, called McCabe's, in L.A. back
in the mid 80's. After seeing her show, I found it amazing that she
wasn't born and raised in the Mississippi Delta. But rather spent her
formative years in SoHo and the West Village in New York City.
She smiles, "It was magic." And her
best Manhattan memories? "Probably the music scene, I would
say. Definitely the music scene in fact, I won't even be vague about
that. It was extraordinary."
Your mother bought you your first guitar?
"She bought the guitar, not FOR me, but she
gave me her own Galiano guitar as a way to start me off when I was eight."
Tell us a little about Washington Square Park on Sundays.
"Oh, that was also pure excitement. Each group
was a different style of music, and the whole place was packed. You'd
hear what was going on in THAT group, and make your way through the
crowd, and you'd hear bluegrass. You'd hear David Grisman, who'd go
on to play with all the best, top bluegrass masters. You'd hear Frank
Wakefield and all of these truly magnificent players. Then you'd go
over here, and that's how I met Stefan Grossman, and there'd be like
ragtime guitar over here, with the various ragtime players. There were
a handful of people playing unbelievably ornate ragtime, and they would
all be in a cluster. Then there would be blues people playing over here,
and then there would be the folk singers over there. It was like everything
you wanted to hear, all in one small area of the village."
With so much cultural diversity around the West Village
in the early 1960's, it wasn't surprising that you could run into about
anywhere. And that included Rory's fathers' place of business,
the 'Allan Block Sandal Shop' on West 4th Street.
"It was all about incredible musicians and amazing
people. I did come in the sandal shop one day and there was Bob Dylan.
I didn't know it was Bob Dylan until he left and I don't even know if
his first album had come out. But my dad spotted him and told me about
him and said, 'You see that young man, he's an artist and he's a poet,
first and foremost, and he will never compromise his art. He believes
in staying true to his art. He's not interested in the business side
of things, he's a poet.' When Bob Dylan left, my dad said, 'that young
man is going to really make his mark in the world.' And boy was he ever
Looking back it seems Block was a true child of destiny.
Early in life she had the incredible good fortune to meet some of the
Delta's most talented and influential bluesmen. And she is the first
"I was lucky and who would have thought that
being in New York City was the place to meet
Son House, Skip James,
Bukka White, Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt and others. Who
would have thought that? But it happened."
Rory Block and a fan. San Diego, CA. Photo:
Do you have a most memorable moment about John Hurt?
"Oh, that he offered us Maxwell House coffee
when we went to his house. That was the ultimate in coffee in 1964,
How about Skip James?
"Well the book that I've written, there's a
chapter for every one of the Blues Masters. It's not really, per se,
my favorite story, but we did visit him in the hospital, a very sad
story. He had cancer and as we were headed down south we stopped in
to see him. I mean, he was very, very down you know? Understandably."
"Oh! He's my mentor, he's my mentor. And Son
was just a powerhouse of Mississippi Delta blues playing. He was the
guy who taught Robert Johnson. He told me that. That REALLY meant a
lot to me, because I brought Robert Johnson up to him.
But see, at the time that he said he taught Robert
Johnson to play guitar, there was no craze about Robert Johnson, so
it wasn't like he was trying to build up a myth. As far as he knew I
was the only person who remembered Robert Johnson in 1964, as far as
at that moment. It wasn't like getting on the bandwagon;
he just told me the truth. He said, 'I taught Robert Johnson how to
play guitar.' And I just thought, 'Man, this guy is just the Master.'"
And now, the student has become the teacher.
"When I was 16, I had this thing
got to apprentice. I was wrong, but that's how I felt then. I felt like,
well Robert Johnson followed Son House around and this one did that
were no teaching DVD's in the 1930's. You had to have a good ear. So
I teach my students, 'hey when the electricity goes out, you can't count
on the internet. You have to go back to grass roots.' So I do that with
my teaching, as well as selling DVD's."
"It's all wild
where the bras
are hanging from the rafters."
When you see Rory Block in concert, she's literally
surrounded by six or seven different guitars. As she finishes a song,
she'll exchange one guitar for another, while relating a tale of an
originator or early Delta master who paved part of the blues highway.
Her stories make the heritage and history of blues come alive. Then
as she adjusts her capo and finishes her 'lesson', her foot begins to
stomp. And as if adding punctuation to her story, the metal slide on
her ring finger peels back, yet another layer of your epidermis.
Her dynamic style and presentation surely channeled
through Son House and Mississippi Fred McDowell can be traced back through
her journeyman existence, performing in clubs, bars and in front of
all manner of clientele.
"It's all wild. Once I was singing to a completely
mad house in Massachusetts. This was years ago, and a thunderstorm swept
in and all the power went out. I could've walked off, but I didn't,
I just did the show. But I ramped up the volume and I remember thinking
that I learned something about projecting, that night. I did the show,
without a sound system with a bunch of screaming, happy-hour people,
and no electricity
so that was fun!"
I read somewhere a friend of yours; Jorma Kaukonen (Hot
Tuna) had a great name for those types of venues.
"Oh yea, 'vomit-through-the-nose' bars. He's
a little bit on the direct side with that one. He talks about certain
venues and says, 'Oh, THAT place! That's the place where the bras are
hanging from rafters.' You know it's just, that's THAT kind of place."
Now more than three decades deep into a lifetime of
blues, does the stage and audience interaction still amp you up, invigorate
"Oh yeah, they do all the work. I'm just sitting
there enjoying their energy. (laughing) That's my office out
there. (Points to the stage) I used to be really a nervous performer
then I realized, wait a minute. There not here because they hate me,
they're my friends. What do I have to be worried about? And then I got
comfortable and I went, (again pointing) that's my office. People
go into their offices every day and they don't sit there like, being
afraid to go into their office. They do what they need to do, they do
it well and that's my job."
The offices of Rory Block, Inc. are rapidly expanding
"Because of the Internet, I guess, yea."
Tell us a little about your relationship with Holland?
"Well for awhile, it was my second home and
I really love it there. The people there don't realize how wonderful
they are. They're just
humble. And if you tell them, 'you guys
are wonderful,' they get embarrassed. But, they all happen to be
Along with being a multiple W.C. Handy Award winner,
Rory Block is also a realist.
"You like to say that it doesn't matter, but
it does. When I say that it does
it's not a superficial thing,
it's a spiritual thing. Like you feel washed in support. At the same
time you mustn't become completely discouraged or gauge your value if
you do NOT win an award. That's important. You cannot say, well what
I do is of no value, I've never won an award! That's important.
You can allow yourself to feel joy. That's how I
perceive it. It just made me happy; it just felt like someone cares.
Even though they cared before I got the award, it just felt really sweet.
Like getting a gigantic hug from your parents when you were a little
kid, you know?"
You are such a prolific writer
do you have a set
process when writing or in your musical composition?
"Not really. It's all very off the cuff. You
could say this one formula tends to work for me, which is
record a guitar part that I just come up with, and then I take a recording
of it and drive around. And the words come to me while I'm driving.
That's actually one way
it's not the ONLY way, but it's a good
As you read this, Rory says she's working on yet another
tribute album. The project will commemorate the music of friend and
fellow blues musician, Mississippi Fred McDowell. She also dedicates
a chapter to him in her forthcoming book. McDowell's unique slide sound
originated from a 'filed-down' beef bone, and is probably one of the
most recognizable of all the Delta bottleneck players.
And Block smiles when she thinks about him. "What
what a great guy!" You've got to believe
McDowell isn't far from her thoughts every time she pushes a slide onto
her left hand.
As Rory prepares to return to her 'office' she moves
with a casual grace toward the stage door. As she steps back into the
spotlight, an appreciative and welcoming applause echoes through the
night's venue. It's all too apparent, it's not a job anymore for Rory
Block; it's a labor of love.