Rory Block: Personalizing the blues
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., July 17, 2002) – Rory Block grew up in a house full of music, especially classical music and the folk music of Pete Seeger and the Weavers. By the time she was 12 years old, she was accompanying her fiddle-playing father playing Appalachian mountain music on guitar.
But when she heard the blues for the first time, she knew this was her music.
“When I heard the blues it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard and I wanted to listen to it and play it morning, noon and night,” said Block, who performs on Saturdya night, July 20, at 8 at the Guthrie Center in Housatonic, in a recent phone interview from her home in Columbia County, N.Y.
“Right away I was drawn to the blues,” said singer/guitarist Block, 53, who since 1981 has released 14 albums, primarily of acoustic blues, on the Cambridge-based Rounder label. “I don’t know why, I just loved it. It was totally gorgeous and I wanted to learn it. Other than I loved it and was drawn to it, it was powerful and beautiful, melodically beautiful, haunting, so many things about it that seemed so incredibly moving.”
And the blues have been good to her, ever since she was first exposed to the blues masters during the folk-blues revival of the 1960s. Block is the winner of numerous W.C. Handy Awards – the genre’s own version of the Grammys. Her interpretations of blues masters like Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Son House and the Rev. Gary Davis, as well as her original, blues-based singer-songwriter material, have won the praises of critics and fellow musicians, including Bonnie Raitt, who came out of the same blues-revival scene in the mid-to-late 1960s.
But before she got to the blues, young Aurora Block received an early immersion in Appalachian mountain music. “My dad started playing country fiddle when I was about twelve, and I started backing him up,” said Block. “We were listening to all these old Appalachian mountain music records, and then we went down south and there was Tom Ashley and some of the old original greats like Dock Boggs, and Doc Watson was there as a young man.
“They were totally inspiring. And I find that form of roots music is totally soulful. It doesn’t get a whole lot more soulful than that.”
But shortly thereafter, the blues bug bit Block. It wasn’t a huge leap from the music she had been playing with her father, however.
“There was a very natural transition from the soulful Appalachian mountain music to this Southern soul music,” said Block. “They were both Southern, for one, and I was able to take things from one and apply it to the other.”
Block was also able to garner a lot of the blues idiom from the masters themselves. “I had the special good luck of being in the right place at the right time and meeting the blues masters one after the other as they were rediscovered,” she said.
“First I listened to all the records, then I met the masters, the players, and the way that enhanced the inspiration is immeasurable. The inspiration of meeting Son House and sitting and playing music with him is something that I couldn’t reproduce in any other way.”
In addition to House, Block met and played with the Reverend Gary Davis, Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt. “Now I think back on that time and I can’t believe I was that lucky,” said Block.
Block’s challenge was to take this music and make it her own. At first, she says, she was in love with it, and while she played it in a very personal way, she was still in awe of it and trying to duplicate the music of her mentors with respect.
It took a while, but at some point, she says, she was able to put more of herself into the music. “When I first started playing it, it was outside myself,” she said. “I was playing it so very closely and exactly that I might not have had the freedom that I have now when I perform.
“Now I’m expressing the deepest parts of myself when I play blues, and I’ve personalized it and I’m not worried whether I’m doing the identical arrangement any more. I have strong elements of my own style that are part of my interpretaion. I have become an extension of the music, not an interpretation as much as part of the flow of the music.”
Nor is Block confined by a purist’s definition of the blues. Over time she has incorporated spirituals, gospel, r&b and folk into her repertoire. Her most recent album, “I’m Every Woman” (Rounder), is a mix of gospel, instrumental blues and the classic soul of Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Al Green and Chaka Khan.
When setting out to record the album, said Block, “There was this feeling like let’s have some fun, let’s do something different.”
“For me it was like let me do all the songs that I’ve loved the most over the years, the ones that I’ve been singing in the shower but haven’t recorded. It was just fun.”
Singing an Al Green song like “Tired of Being Alone” is a far cry from offering a rendition of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroad Blues,” however, and Block said she actually had to work to get herself in the right frame of mind to sing the r&b tunes.
“When I’m doing an Al Green song, I have to warm up to it,” said Block. “I have to think to myself, OK, where do you want to go with this? What do you want to do with this? Because you can approach it in many different ways.
“With the blues songs, I could do it in my sleep because it’s a natural style. I sing without thinking about it. I don’t question it, I don’t analyze it, I don’t intellectualize it. I just do it and it comes out pretty much the way I want it to be.
“But with an Al Green song, there really is a mood. And it’s not to make it come out like Al Green per se, but there’s a mood that I have to get into with any kind of r&b singing. There’s something in me that I have to get over, some kind of hurdle to get in the right space. It’s very intimate, very personal. There’s something about r&b for me that’s such a special mood, but once I get into it it’s pure joy for me.”
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 19, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
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