Alan Harper – Waiting for Buddy Guy
(University of Illinois Press, 200pp., £14.99. Book Review by Chris Parker)
It’s all too easy to forget, in these days of instant access to even the most esoteric styles of music, that pre-Internet British blues fans such as Alan Harper had to go to extraordinary lengths to satisfy their cravings for the form. Specialist record shops, such as Dobell’s in London, were the only source of albums by the likes of Sleepy John Estes and Blind Willie McTell; blues aficionados sought each other out and shared rare recordings (à la, most famously, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards); the live article could be experienced only via somewhat unsatisfying ‘blues package’ tours featuring an assortment of players who frequently seemed disengaged. (I attended one such concert in the 1970s, primarily to see the legendary guitarist Hubert Sumlin, only to see him storm off the stage in the first few minutes, never to return, having received an electric shock from his amplifier during his opening number.)
Consequently, Harper decided that the best way of immersing himself in his chosen music was to travel to its most accessible US source, which – in the late 1970s and early 1980s – was Chicago. Waiting for Buddy Guy chronicles several such trips, and thus provides a valuable record of a transitional period in the music’s history, when traditional (acoustic) musicians (in whom interest had been sparked by the US folk movement spearheaded by the likes of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie) were gradually being obscured by the guitar-centred electric music made popular by the British Blues Boom, exported to the US in the 1960s. (Those interested in the politics/sociocultural history of this period, and its still controversial flashpoint at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, should get hold of Elijah Wald’s fascinating recent study, Dylan Goes Electric).
Harper’s book, packed with interviews with clubowners, musicians and magazine editors, and illuminated throughout by his own thoughtful and sensitive reactions to the many gigs he attends all over the city, is as enlightening as it is racy, as much an unblinking (and often engagingly self-deprecating) eyewitness account, full of telling detail, as an intriguing social history, dealing with such burning issues as authenticity, racial politics, music-industry practices, the difficulties of making a living as a blues player in an increasingly rock-dominated world etc. etc. From Sugar Blue to Willie Dixon, from Son Seals to Sunnyland Slim – the whole vibrant Chicago blues scene is captured here in a book which is both immediately accessible and constructed with scrupulous care.