Bonnie Greer: The blues, Obama and me

In an extract from her new book about the music she and the US president grew up with, Bonnie Greer tells of her own childhood in Chicago, and the musician whose dark work haunts her to this day
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The Independent Culture

There is a moment in [his book] The Audacity Of Hope when Barack Obama is questioning his very essence: his restlessness, his need to keep moving. The question I ask is this: had he been attracted to Chicago because of this restlessness, this desire to keep moving? Chicago has always been a centre of transport, of moving. One of its nick-names is "The Go". The railroads were and are in Chicago because it was and is still considered to be the crossroads of the country. Massive interstate highways cut right through. Chicago has itchy feet. Like the blues.

His chief advisor at the White House has stated that the President likes to slip out and walk around a bit, be on his own. To my mind, that natural restlessness, that need to break out, is the essence of the blues. The blues are said to have a "slippin', slidin'" tone.' The improvisation beneath the careful exterior. "If my hands could get what my eyes can see," the great Chicago bluesman Lonnie Brooks sings in "Eyeballin'". "Eyeballin'" – the refusal to look down when your "better" is speaking to you; the "yes, we can" to fate and the way things seem to be – is what embodies the Chicago brand of the blues, and the South Side itself. "Eyeballin'" invites re-creation. Looking someone in the eye can enable you to see yourself. It is said that the President is pre-occupied with how others see him. "Eyeballin'" lets you see the reflection in someone else's gaze. If you can do this, then you can get busy. You can improvise. Re-make.

Obama set out to get what his eyes could see. Obama feels this as a constant process on the South Side. Chicago is his place. Check it out: There are numerous bluesmen who called themselves "Son", "Guitar". This is not an act of plagiarism or ripping off somebody's else's act (although some might have done it for that reason, that's for sure), but to "name" that part of them that had to move on, that had to believe in the vision that they had seen on that crossroads where they first took up the blues. Obama writes of several crossroads in his life. The notion of the crossroads is integral to the blues, and to the Chicago blues.

The Devil At The Crossroads

Traditional blues is not about analyses and codification. It is about signs and portents, deeply felt emotion plainly spoken; forbidden sex; doomed love; intuition; chance; and a world without the God you were given when they threw you off the boat after the Middle Passage. Pretty frightening stuff at the high tables of the West. The real blues is about feeling when to come in, feeling when to do it.

The Delta Blues – named after that region of the state of Mississippi located on the delta of the Mississippi River, one of the ancestral homes of South Siders – is father of the Chicago blues sound. This Chicago blues sound would have permeated all of the places Obama worked and lived in, saturating what many would have seen as his rather laid-back West Coast-Honolulu ambience. Twelve-bar blues would have knocked the ukulele for six.

At first, 12-bar existed only in the playing and the feeling of those who sang it and heard it and lived it. Later, like everything natural, it came to be written down, its elements codified, books came into being; orchestras took it up; sects developed. It became accessible to outsiders. Then it became "respectable". But no matter what, feeling is always there in the blues. This feeling could be first heard in what were once called "race records".

Race records were a product of the rigid segregation of American society. They were marketed exclusively to the black community, had their own stars and charts, existed in their own world. Black people brought the records with them to the North. In a strange way this very musical segregation, part of the general apartheid, was made useful. This is the entropic ay, that way in which negative or seemingly useless energy is used and forged into something strong and positive, bristling with power and the power of change. It was used to create institutions, philosophies, approaches to religion and culture and education and government that created networks and alliances.

Inner fortresses were built, full of pride and direction and focus that made something whole and of itself. This something could, in time, have the power to make a black man mayor of one of the most segregated cities in the US. This something could give the world the most powerful person on Earth. It could. And it did.

King Bee

Billboard magazine published "race records" charts between the years 1945 and 1949, starting with what was on various juke-box "plays". From 1948 it included a record of sales from them. All of the great blues musicians and vocalists – everyone you would have ever heard of – would have been marketed under the "race record" label. And paid accordingly.

No prizes for guessing that the words "blues artist" and "rich "do not exist in the same sentence, except if that sentence also includes the name of the record label that gathered the profits! Blues men and women plied their trade up and down the "chitlin'" circuit", a touring route of halls and clubs, bars and cheap motels where you could spend the night, because there were no places on the road where black people were allowed to stay except where they owned their own.

Chitlins are chitterlings, a delicacy made from the entrails of the pig (poor folks made food out of every last part of an animal), that our father used to boil slowly in a large pot on Sundays, and whose smell drove me far away from the house whenever it was bubbling away, but which (served with a particularly piquant hot sauce) was Daddy's Numero Uno comfort food and Sunday afternoon's raison d'être.

In other words, "chitlin'" means down-home-no-bullshit-you'd-better-know-how-to-play/sing. This ensured that the circuit was vibrant, and a real testing ground. That line in "New York, New York": "if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere" was understood by anyone who stepped up on a stage and survived.

Chicago's South Side, with its majestic Regal Theatre was one of the capitals of the circuit, one more reason for musicians to head north, confident that Nirvana awaited. I can recall the 45s and 78s that [my father] had collected. The names of the musicians are like the list that Shakespeare gives Henry V to recite in that rousing St Crispin's Day speech: Big Walter; Howlin' Wolf; Magic Sam – King Of West Side Blues (behind Muddy's Emperor); the great Otis Rush; Luther Johnson (Guitar Junior); Sunnyland Slim.

Dad's books included those of that late, great Chicago chronicler of the common people, Studs Terkel, which he would read while listening to the immortal Otis Spann, Sonny Boy Williamson, and James Cotton. And Bo Diddley.

Everything has been said about Bo Diddley, including how his revolutionary riff has been ripped off – I mean borrowed or one of my favourite words: "hommaged" – on numerous occasions without acknowledgment; his songs [or his riff] recorded by the likes of Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, The Stones, The Who, Springsteen, U2, The Jesus and Mary Chain, the Smiths, Eric Clapton, George Michael, Elton John, David Bowie, The Police, The White Stripes, the Clash, and Black Eyed Peas, plus loads of descendants of these bands who probably don't know they're even channelling Bo Diddley.

Can I say that they don't know "Diddley" as we say on the South Side (and probably everywhere else), a statement of the highest stage of ignorance. But for me, well those early blues days are all about Slim Harpo. I don't know why, but the name "Slim Harpo" still puts dread in my heart and a chill down my spine, a frisson runs through me like ice.

I first heard that name as a little child when my parents were talking about something I wasn't supposed to be listening to. And, being a very curious, even nosey kid, I didn't go away, but kept saying over and over in my mind: "Slim Harpo, Slim Harpo, Slim Harpo". Slim Harpo.

This was the stage name of James Moore, after the word "harp", slang for the blues harmonica. His name and his music evoke in me all of the terror of the Mississippi woods where a black person could meet his true love or the Ku Klux Klan, both within seconds of one another. This primal terror, with its accompanying reticence and outright "clamming up" is in the bones of South Siders, making some of them not actually say anything of real use while all the while talking away a mile a minute.

You can walk away from a South Sider and realise, after a few minutes, that they were, in the immortal words of one of James Brown's songs: "Talkin' Loud and Sayin' Nothin'" Folks are polite, but distant. And they neither talk to nor pay attention to strangers. Finally, the great day arrived when I got to hear my dad's crackly record with the yellow label: "Slim Harpo's the immortal King Bee". You can hear it yourself on YouTube. It still gets to me.

As far as I'm concerned you can forget The Rolling Stones' version on their first album; likewise The Floyd, The Doors, The Dead, and especially John Belushi's piss-take. Kick them all to the kerb. Listen to Harpo himself, a true Devil's-Son-In-Law, the highest accolade that can be attributed to any male blues musician (don't know what the female equivalent of this could be...). Listen: first comes that stomping blues guitar, hard and dark like the Mississippi woods. Then Slim arrives, sounding like a malevolent bee: "Yeah, well I'm a king bee, buzzin' around your hive..."

He goes into his riff on the wings of: "well, buzz awhile; sting it then..." and the guitar pings with a kind of an acidity, very, very spare and silvery, and after that Harpo implores the women all over the world to become his Queen Bee. A dubious invitation, especially when he plays his harp like a siren.

It all ends with old Harpo, malevolent like the guy who's going to take all of your stuff, and I don't mean your packet of crisps, singing the way a cobra must sound: "I can buzz all night long." There he is, ladies and gentlemen, especially the ladies: Slim Harpo, slim as a knife blade, skin as black as two in the morning in a blackout; looking like he's seen things that he cannot say, but can certainly sing about, Slim Harpo is the man your mother warned you about; the guy you bump into in a bar and decide to run away with; the one who doesn't give a hang about anything, and mostly that includes you. After all, hypocrisy is his enemy. Slim's blues are not for the faint-hearted.

'Obama Music', by Bonnie Greer, is published by Legend Press at £7.99