How I Met the Blues: The Black Keys, Junior Kimbrough and King David

After a few months off, I have decided to finally explain why exactly I called my blog “Scott Bedgood’s Mind is Ramblin'”. Its based on this song by the Black Keys. The song is from their album “Chulahoma” as well as the artwork in the background of this blog page. The album is a collection of covers of an old Blues man named Junior Kimbrough. In the liner notes of the vinyl record Dan Auerbach recollects the day that he discovered the music of Kimbrough. This discovery changed Auerbach’s life, he would soon drop out of college in an endless pursuit of this magical, complicated and irrepressible thing called the Blues. It has worked out in a big way for Auerbach and his playing partner Patrick Carney after years of toiling away.

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Black Keys Concert at BOK Center in Tulsa, OK. April 2012.

In the same way Auerbach recalls discovering Kimbrough’s music, I recall discovering the Black Keys. I was 16 or 17 years old, I never enjoyed popular music, but I didn’t really listen to anything that wasn’t on the radio my parents were listening to until about my freshman or sophomore year of high school. Even then, it was mainly things my older brother gave me. Those songs were mostly given to him by a friend. They were random, but mostly alternative rock. I knew very little about rock and roll except for whatever was on the radio. I did go through a long phase of listening to Audioslave, but the less said about that, the better. Anyway, lost amongst this shuffle of random alt rock songs was this song called “10 a.m. Automatic” by some band called the Black Keys. I liked it, but I didn’t do too much research into the band or anything.

Later that year I was given a gift card  to some website that only had indie music on it. So much of the music offered on this site was beyond me, but I needed to find something to use this gift card on before it expired. I downloaded a live Johnny Cash album, a live album by the Glen Hansard’s band The Frames, and “Rubber Factory” by the Black Keys. All three of these albums completely changed my perspective on music in their own ways. They remain some of my favorite albums, I’ll forever be grateful to whomever gave me that gift card.

Someday, I may write about the other three but this article is about the Blues and the Black Keys. I got “Rubber Factory” based solely on “10 a.m. Automatic”, but what I got in return was a portal into the world of the Blues. The Black Keys were my gateway drug into the hardcore Blues. Now, 5 or 6 years later, the Blues comprise a vast majority of what I listen to on a daily basis. Without the Black Keys I would likely never have heard of the early greats like Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, or Son House. Without the Black Keys I never would have appreciated the passion of Howlin’ Wolf, or the incredible guitar work of the three Kings of the blues (BB, Freddie, and Albert). And without the Black Keys I never would have quite figured out what artists like Johnny Cash were really doing, which was playing the Blues in their own style.

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Howlin’ Wolf, at 6’6″ and almost 300 pounds, was one of the more intimidating presences in music history.

The Blues appealed to me for a lot of reasons, and none because I am depressed and like to revel in sadness. Instead, they mostly appealed to me because I am a history buff. I love studying the beginnings of things, I love figuring out why things are the way that they are, and I love learning about things that seemingly have no relation to myself. If ever there was someone who couldn’t play the Blues it would be a white kid that went to a private school in Tyler, Tx. Yet, that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate them. I appreciate authenticity in everything, and nothing is more authentic than the Blues. Nothing is more authentic than pouring out your grievances, nothing is more authentic that a man like Blind Lemon Jefferson riding the train from town to town playing the Blues just to survive. Whether you like the Blues or not, I can almost guarantee that the music you listen to now has been influenced in some way by the Blues.

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Nothing says “Blues” quite like this picture of Junior Kimbrough.

Of course, the argument could be made that the Black Keys aren’t exactly a “Blues” band. Instead, they are a “Blues Rock” band with heavy emphasis (especially lately) on the Rock part of that statement. This brings us back to the discussion of the name of this blog and “Chulahoma”. After listening to every bit of “Rubber Factory” I ventured into other parts of the Black Keys discography, from their debut “The Big Come Up” and its follow up “Thickfreakness”. I eventually landed on “Chulahoma”, this collection of seven covers by a relatively obscure Blues man named Junior Kimbrough. This album, more than any of their others, is truly the Blues. The Black Keys certainly add their own harder rocking touch, fuzzing up Kimbrough’s licks and adding some of their own, but the heart of this album is music by a man who lived and died in small town Mississippi and supposedly had 36 children. If anyone had the Blues, it was Kimbrough. My study of Kimbrough opened the door to all the Blues of old. I’m not musically inclined enough to explain what a Blues scale is, or any of the other music-specific things that define the Blues. However, I can immediately identify them when I hear them. the Blues take the dirt and grime and toughness of life and make them entertaining. It’s the same thing that Hip Hop music at its best does, the same thing that Punk Rock did, and the same thing that Rock and Roll does. Long before Rock and Roll was “sticking it to the man” the Blues were being sung by poor black men who “the man” had long forgotten about. Nobody sang the Blues for fame, they sang because they needed a way to express themselves.

Bono recently called the Psalms in the Bible that cry out in anguish to God the “Blues”. Some may have dismissed this comment, but it fascinated me. It makes perfect sense, I love the Psalms because they are full of honesty. Sometimes, they declare the majesty and wonder of God, while other times they shout to God in confusion. Yet, no matter the subject, they leave me encouraged. I don’t listen to the Blues and get depressed, instead I listen to them and feel encouraged. I’m encouraged that there were other people that struggled in life, whether with relationships, or jobs, or family. I don’t struggle with the same things they struggled with, thankfully, but I am encouraged that despite the circumstances they still found a way to sing.

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Son House, who sang the song “Grinnin’ in Your Face” that is in that link was heavily influential. Jack White calls “Grinnin'” his favorite song of all time.

If you’ve read this far, you probably have absolutely no doubts why I say that my mind is rambling. So I’ll close with this: Its no surprise to me that some of the most troubled souls have created some of the most beautiful music. Just like much of the music of today can be traced back to the Blues, the Blues can be traced back to the beginnings of time. Humans have always found ways to express their anguish in beautiful and soul-stirring ways. One of David’s most beautiful and “Bluesiest” Psalms, Psalm 51, was written after one of the most troubling incidences in his life. David has just had an affair with an army officer’s wife and then had that officer killed. He is not exactly the type of person you want to idolize at this particular moment, yet out of this despair comes something that has been encouraging people for thousands of years. What we can learn is that when life gets us down, don’t mind other people. Sing about it, write about it, talk about it. Do something. Just get it out, life can only get you down if you internalize. God has heard it all before, he won’t forsake you because of your frustrations.

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