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Remembering John Campbell

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When music critics list the legends of the blues, you will probably not see the name of Louisiana born guitarist John Campbell. He passed away in 1993 just as he was on the verge of establishing his rightful place in the hierarchy of blues greatness. By conventional accounts, his resume may appear to be rather slim. He released only three albums of music in his lifetime. But, John Campbell should be remembered as much for how he lived and played as the music he recorded. Campbell was special.

Photo used with permission. Copyright marc marnie John Campbell - Glasgow 1991 - photo by marc marnie

John Campbell’s path was not an easy one. Prior to being discovered in New York City, Campbell had spent the previous 25 years living the blues and studying its precepts like a blues monk in training. Seriously injured in a car accident in his teens, Campbell left home and quit school at 16. Moving invisibly from town to town playing wherever they would let him, Campbell discovered the blues first hand. He lived in the back of abandoned buildings, slept in bus stations and on buses, and even sold his blood on occasion for new strings. Though he had learned to play the guitar at age 3, he learned to play the blues by watching and listening to the great bluesmen of the time: Lightnin Hopkins, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and Howlin Wolf. He sought them out and immersed himself in their songs, their stories, and their myths.

When he was given an opportunity to record for Elektra in 1991, he took the blues and morphed it into something that was entirely different and yet so grounded in the legends and mythology of the blues that it was sometimes taken for camp. His music was raw, electric, and honest. His voice was harsh - sometimes he moans or growls instead of singing. His songs were about graveyards, mojos, voodoo spells, hoodoo charms, hellhounds and even Satan. The first time I listened to Howlin Mercy, it shook me to the core of my being. But, I kept coming back. Campbell’s blues capture the passion and tension that is at the heart of the blues but does so in a way that pays respect to its roots while exploring the musical ideas of the time.

June 13th, 2003 marks the 10th anniversary of his death. Had he lived, he may have led the blues beyond its obedience to strict forms and its obsession with long dead musicians and into much wider acceptance. In Europe, his records were top 40 popular. And thanks to non-stop touring in the States, his profile here was rising as well. Indeed, his next album could have established him as the standard bearer of the blues and blues-rock music scene. However, I’m not sure John Campbell would have welcomed these labels. He believed that the blues was more than just a classification of music. He saw it is a way of life. He never imitated or pandered; he bared his soul and embraced his inner demons. That alone places him in elite company.

Copyright 2004, Thomas Geiger
Revised: January 30, 2004