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Country Bluesman - The Roots of John Campbell by Tom Geiger

John Campbell - London: Crystal Pallace - 1992

Photo Copyright Tim Spencer 1992

If you met John Campbell in 1971 or in 1985, you would swear that the music he played on Howlin Mercy was not the real John Campbell. John never played the same song the same way. John's music was always evolving. What was consistent was the way he played. Whether you first heard John play in his teens or later during his tours of Europe and the States, you would remember John as both passionate and consumed with the power of music as a form of human expression. You would swear he could never play better. And for that specific moment in time - you would most certainly be right.

Every John Campbell fan has a favorite recording or song of John's. And for most, the recording of his music that reminds them of when they knew him is the most powerful and meaningful. Each of John's recordings is unique and different. The Tyler Texas Sessions demonstrates John's mastery of the country blues and its many idioms, A Man and His Blues displays John's technical skill and showmanship honed from countless nights playing at the Cross Roads. The blues is there in One Believer, too. It never left. But, it takes second stage to John's ideas, thougts and emotions. These were ideas that are rooted in the lessons learned in a lifetime playing the blues. He is expressing more than musical ideas on this album. On this album, John is sharing his soul.

John's Style evolved over time - as he moved from city to city and played with different bluesmen he introduced new elements to his music. In many ways, John's style was a musical mosaic - a collage of licks, songs, and blues ideas and influences. The guitarist on Howlin Mercy - who takes Charley Patton's pony for a ride and howls when the levee breaks had become the consummate bluesman. His powerful slide and right hand fingerpicking were testimony not only to his travels down lonely roads in search of himself, but also to the blues itself. Listening to John Campbell is like listening to the history of the blues.

During his shows and live performances, John wowed audiences when he demonstrated his complete mastery of the country blues. He would start out by demonstrating the piano style blues guitar of Leadbelly, then move on to Texas style fingerpicking and banjo styles. He would then demonstrate delta slide guitar. But, John wasn't done. He would take things up a notch when he would mix all three styles together in an all out assault on the fretboard. The key John would say is to play them all with a beat. This was the blues of John Campbell and it is the blues of Howlin Mercy.

John was doing more than merely entertaining. He was making a statement about himself and also about the blues. He wanted everyone to understand what they were listening to. He was lecturing about the roots of the music, about the roots of the blues, and also about the roots of John Campbell.

Early Influences

John liked to tell people that he met the blues after a near fatal accident when he was only a teenager. But, John grew up around music. He was raised in a musical family. His mother and grandmother listened to string music. His grandmother played Lap steel Hawaiian guitar. When John was only 3, his grandmother would let him play with the strings and taught him simple songs.

The music of the blues was also an early influence on John. His uncle had a large collection of early blues records and listened to the post war blues of Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf. John also heard the blues on local Shreveport radio.

John told Roger St. Pierre, "Black radio introduced me to the artists like Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, Lightnin Hopkins and Leadbelly. I'd been messing around on guitar since my grandmother taught me to play on her Hawaiian lap-steel when I was three and I had been playing for money since the age of 13. I like the sound of the blues, thought I didn't understand the lyrics at the time, and I decided that was the music I wanted to play."

But, the accident did signal a turning point for John. After the accident, John saw the blues in a new way. He began to see at as a spiritual exercise. Music, and in particular, the blues, helped him to move past the discomfort and pain he was feeling. Playing the blues enabled him to confront his pain and overcome it. It was liberating. He told Marty Racine, "Something happened. The guitar and those songs connected with me. I got in touch with my feelings. I realized at that point that the blues was going to be what I do. The blues reaffirmed life, got me living again."

He considered the study of music and the playing of the blues to be a lifelong endeavor - a discipleship. He told an Italian interviewer, "When I started listening to the music of the great Son House, Fred McDowell, Elmore James, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, men that created this great music, I realized that if I was going to attempt to do this - this was going to be a lifetime of work. It's not something that I would understand in a year - that I had to live." It was more than just songs and lyrics - it became a way of life. Something he was compelled to do. John said, "I think you have to ultimately develop to a point where you can sing from the heart honestly and then just do the best you can - and that's the way I have treated it over the years. I have no choice about it really."

Shreveport Roots - Parker Bloodsaw

As John's interest in the blues grew, he realized that he was in the midst of great blues history. Shreveport was a town full of musical history that had already been written and recorded, and history that was still in the making. Shreveport was the home the Blue Goose district and Fannin Street, which are considered blues landmarks. John spent hours listening to the blues and learning the licks on the records and the structure of the songs. Soon he was adding in his own licks and devising his own arrangements. John would play for hours at a time - sometimes more than 12 hours a day. By the time John was playing professionally in his late teens - he was not just interpreting the music. He was expressing the blues in his own way. He had become a bluesman in his own right.

Shreveport was a magical place to learn about the blues. It was in many senses a blues town. John told Howard Thompson that, "in that area there were people that were really extensions of the first generation blues players...In that part of the country there was that school of music and in Shreveport, John Lee Hooker recorded there for Jewell records. Lightnin Hopkins recorded there. Lowell Fulson, too."

As John sought out local bluesmen in Shreveport, he developed a friendship with Parker Bloodsaw. Bloodsaw had played with John Lee Hooker and had traveled his own roads of hardship as a bluesman. At the time, many bluesmen were finding trouble making a living playing or recording music. Bloodsaw was working as a manual laborer in Shreveport. John and his friends, Steve and Scooter Swann, were impressed with Bloodsaw's knowledge and experiences in the blues. He was the first guitar player that John met who played primarily in open tunings.

Bloodsaw was one of John's first connections to the bluesmen of the past. He would introduce John to playing the slide guitar, and filled John's imagination with the stories of the traveling bluesmen. He told John rich stories and mythical tales that included stories about Charley Patton, Son House, and the story of Robert Johnson's trip to the Crossroads. His influence on John wasn't primarily musical - in many ways it was metaphysical. When he was teaching John slide guitar, he told John something that John never forgot. Bloodsaw said, "If you're going to play the blues, and your going to slide. It has to boogie. It has to be played with a beat."

Leadbelly, Blind Blake and John Lee Hooker

Shreveport was also the adopted hometown of the famous folk-blues singer Leadbelly. Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter had left an indelible mark on Shreveport. He had lived and played on Fannin Street, a section of Shreveport filled with mystery and roots with its countless dance halls, brothels and boarding houses.

Leadbelly is considered by many to be primarily a folk artist, but in his time he would not have been out of place in a juke joint or dance hall where the blues was played. Leadbelly's blues laid emphasis on bass-heavy strums, a technique adapted from watching the barrelhouse piano players on Fannin Street. John studied Leadbelly's songs and songs by other guitarists like Blind Blake who adapted piano and banjo stylings to their instrument with dazzling results. As a result, John gained a deeper appreciation for the alternating bass lines of players like John Lee Hooker.

John learned more in Shreveport than just licks. The area was fertile soil for a bluesman interested in the roots of the blues. The tradition of Fannin Street was rich in blues stories and aging bluesmen like Parker Bloodsaw and Jesse Thomas. John would spend countless hours walking and playing on the streets of Fannin Street and in clubs like Humprhees down by the river.

John often said that the first blues song he played professionally was "Hobo Blues" by John Lee Hooker. The song is symbolic in many ways of John's early life in the blues. The life of a bluesman is necessarily a life on the road. John's early years were a very solitary time. Traveling by greyhound bus, John moved from town to town playing on street corners, in coffee shops, at gas stations, or at local field parties. He was drawn to the acoustic style of blues because it could be played without accompaniment. The guitar was also an instrument that enabled him to travel light.

John never recorded a song by Leadbelly, but he recorded John Lee Hooker's "Driftin and Driftin," and Blind Blake's "Chump Man Blues," on the Texas Tyler Sessions.

Blind Lemmon Jefferson, Gatemouth Brown and Lightnin Hopkins - Texas Style Blues

John would travel back and forth from Shreveport to East Texas and from Shreveport to Baton Rouge many times over the years. Traveling in Texas he would cross paths with many of the great blues players from Dallas and Houston. During the 1960s and 1970s, Texas blues artists like B.B. King, Albert King, Freddie King, Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Guitar Slim, Buddy Guy and Albert Collins were part of a new breed of guitar-virtuoso. These artists were part of a new renaisance in the blues. But, John was not interested in copying a particular style or being part of the 'Texas Sound.' Instead, John studied the contributions of men like Blind Lemon Jefferson and T-Bone Walker who were the architects of the Texas sound.

Blind Lemon Jefferson was well known for his singular approach to the guitar, which established the basis of the Texas style of blues. The Texas style emphasized the use of single string guitar work as a call-and-response to the vocals. Jefferson strummed or "hammered" the strings with repetitive bass figures to produce a succession of open and fretted notes. He used a quick release, arpeggio runs and single-string fingering to produce the Texas blues' distinctive sound.

During the 1970s, John would also cross paths with another influential Texas guitarist, Gatemouth Brown when he opened for him in Shreveport. Blues artists like Gatemouth Brown and Mance Lipscomb were playing the guitar in different ways and John was fascinated by the banjo sound and right hand fingerpicking style. Brown often played a violin or fiddle during his live performances. Opening for artists like Gatemouth enabled John to experience the richness of their techniques first hand. But, John also learned about stagecraft and performing, too. Gatemouth was a no-nonsense performer who gave John advice about the blues and performing. He once told John, "Boy you play real good, but you’re makin’ that thing holler all the time. If you don’t make it whisper, no one’s gonna pay attention to you.”

But, if you had to name one dominant influence in the music of John Campbell - it would have to be Lightnin Hopkins. John was first introduced to Lightnin Hopkins in the late 60s when Lightnin was recording for Jewell records in Shreveport. Lightnin Hopkins' roots were tied directly into Blind Lemon Jefferson. Lightnin Hopkins played the blues in a traditional manner. He was a country bluesman who continued to play by himself with an acoustic - even when other blues acts were going electric. Like many fans, John was impressed by the fullness of sound that Hopkins was able to produce from a single guitar.

Lightnin Hopkins was a performer and song-writer that did not cater to any preconceived expectations. Lightnin's blues was music of immediate expression. Lightnin improvised constantly - on stage and in the recording studio. Lightnin never played the same song the same way twice. As a bluesman, each note was channeled through the emotions of the moment. John told Cree McCree, "What makes a Lightnin Hopkins or a Robert Pete Williams special is what they choose to do with the notes. There's a process that occurs between the fingers and the mind and the heart, and that's what makes the clock on the wall stop and turn backwards. The stuff that's drug behind you gives a note its meaning - those crusty layers of history that led you to the point of making that decision."

Lightnin also could take it up a notch and boogie. John listened to Lightnin Hopkins as much or more than any other artist. One of John's favorite Hopkins tunes "Going to Dallas" is the first song on his Man and His Blues CD. John played "Bluebird," another Hopkins tune as a warm-up during many of shows in 1992 as well. And his version of Mojo Hand from the Texas Tyler Sessions is awe inspiring in its lethal right hand attack.

Robert Johnson, Son House and the Delta Slide

The Mississippi Delta was the birthplace of perhaps the blues' two most commanding historical figures: Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson. If Lightnin Hopkins was the musical ideal of the country blues that John exemplified - then Robert Johnson was the spiritual ideal of the philosophy of life that John lived by. The legends and myths that grew up around Johnson define what most people think of when the word bluesman is discussed. And John embraced the mythology of the blues as much as he embraced the music.

You will find many similarities to Robert Johnson in the mythology that was written into John's story over the years. Some of that was natural. John certainly modeled his life and his music on the stories and legends he learned from Parker Bloodsaw and others about Johnson. The lyrics of Howlin Mercy and One Believer are full of blues hoodoo and voodoo references, and in interviews he talked openly about the spiritual aspects of his music.

John believed in the power of that mythology. He told Bob Chapman, "The crossroads is a place and it is a real place, but it’s not a specific place, on a specific highway, on a specific map. You can have the crossroads here: it’s a place of decision, it’s a place of change, of confrontation, it exists. There’s a nomadic tribe of people that erects a totem pole in their village and it represents the center of the world, but they’re nomadic, so the center of the world is moving the whole time, or are they chasing it, or taking it with them? You know all these questions come up. I have mojos that I carry with me. I have John the Conqueror roots and stuff."

John told Howard Thompson, "One of the things that always moved me, and I think one of the great powers of the blues is the fact that it states clearly and firmly without apology for the situation. It lays it down, man. I'm not saying that I can presume to know what it was like to let's say be Robert Johnson, to walk in Robert Johnson's shoes. But, I'll tell you what, I was affected by the magic that he spread around the world. And the great Muddy Waters, when he would sing his song and state his case, you know what I mean. I think that one of the great powers of the blues has always been just the way it would address something - a nightmare as well as a dream equally."

Musically, John would incorporate the licks and open tuning slide of Robert Johnson, Son House and Elmore James into his own playing. Living in the South and playing regularly in some of the same towns and venues that the original delta bluesmen travelled years earlier, John could easily find inspiration. He studied the Delta Bluesmen and became recognignized as a master of the slide guitar sound.

On the Tyler, Texas sessions, John recorded versions of Robert Johnson's "Walking Blues" and "Terraplane Blues." That CD also contains a version of Elmore James "The Sky is Crying."

Howlin Mercy - John Campbell's Blues

When John got to New York - his music would be influenced by the intensity of his new surroundings. The city was a strange and cold place to John, and he almost allowed that darkness to erase the joy he found playing music. But, John overcame the darkness. His music started to take on an edgier feel and the pain and loneliness that had built up over the years was starting to emerge in lyrics and song ideas.

John was still playing the traditional country blues. On any given Friday or Saturday night, you might have heard John playing "Going to Dallas," by Lightnin Hopkins or "Person to Person," by Elmore James. But, the feeling was more original and intense. John had started playing with an amplified acoustic in New York out of necessity. He couldn't hear himself over the sounds of the subway in the apartment he was living in at the time. The images and lyrics in his music were also becoming more urban. The result can be heard on One Believer. John considered that album an exorcism, because it brought him face to face with a lot of the pain he had been channeling unconsciously into his music.

When John recorded Howlin Mercy in late 1992, he may have sensed that he was nearing a point of resolution - both physically and musically. The album's raw sound and lean production give the recordings a live sound. The songs themselves were written on the road and the music definitely has a harder edge. The songs are full of blues images and common blues lyrics and the influence of the blues is omnipresent in every song. But, Howlin Mercy is more than just blues. John died before the world realized its brilliance. Really, it is a new genre of music - it's that great, and had John lived I am sure there would have been a flock of imitators. But, John wouldn't have stayed in that musical place very long; there were always more roads for John to explore. That was a part of John's blues, too.

Some music critics failed to see Howlin Mercy as a blues masterpiece because it strayed somewhat from the traditional acoustic country blues format. Where they had praised One Believer for its originality, they attacked Howlin Mercy for its inclusion of songs like "When the Levee Breaks", and "Saddle Up My Pony". It would have been easy to hear only cliches in the lyrics, and critics did. But, they were wrong. John didn't just copy these old blues songs. He transformed them into something his own. On "when the Levee Breaks, many critics heard closer similarities to the Led Zeppelin version than the original Memphis Minnie. The album irked blues purists who wanted to dismiss it entirely as rock. The truth is that it was neither blues nor rock. The songs on Howlin Mercy are each steeped in the music of John's roots. But, John had taken those roots and morphed it into something distinctive. No performer since has captured John's sound.

When asked about it, John was mildly defensive. John was taking the blues in a new direction and he was bringing it straight from his heart like his idols: Lightnin Hopkins and Robert Johnson. He told Rolling Stone, "These bluesmen forged a genre and to sit still and just carry someone else's guitar case...if I did something like that and Robert Johnson were to walk into this room, he'd slap the hell out of me and say, 'You didn't get anything, did you?"

Final Thoughts

The different styles of the blues may have developed along different pathways. In some sense, each style affected the others. John Campbell explored these paths - in the country roads of Texas and Louisiana and then later in the busy city streets of New York. When he died in 1993, his style was uniquely his own. And yet, it was reminiscent of all the blues songs and bluesmen who had come before him.

Today many blues artists feel caught in a no-win trap. You must meet the blues credibility and litmus tests that purists use to classify and label artists. At the same time, you must be original or risk being labeled as a thief or simple imitator. John found the way out for him. But, it required complete devotion to his art. He immersed himself in all aspects of the blues and sacrificed everything for it. He literally lived the blues. John used to say you have to carry your own guitar case. I think if he were alive - he would also say you have to walk your own roads - and take it somewhere new, too. John did that everyday of his life.

I truly believe that John Campbell had much more to offer the world. I am saddened when I think of what we lost collectively when John died. John Campbell was more than just a musician and entertainer. He was that rare individual whose art transcended the barriers of form and substance. It had a spiritual power that was breath taking especially when he was on stage. However, the legacy that John did leave is nonetheless impressive.

John said the blues "is a song of victory." He believed in the power of music. Playing on stage was like performing a ritual. He was prepared to sacrifice everything for it. He told Bob Chapman "You have to be prepared to go to the point of death. I mean literally. When I started playing the blues, I was literally at the point of death, and it was physically very hard for me, and there was a price to be paid physically. When I reached for a note, or when I was trying to play the music and do a thing, and your living that life, physically it hurts. But, you got to push through that, you gotta go, and I've realized for me that to go to that place of full confrontation - it's like you're almost going to a place where it's instinctual."

Howlin Mercy was John's masterpiece. It was the culmination of years of struggle and devotion. If you listen to "Saddle Up My Pony", you find yourself walking down the roots of John Campbell. But, the song is also a testament to John's spirit and philosophy of life.

This is for you, John.

Copyright 2003, Thomas Geiger
Revised: June 19, 2003