In search of the blues R. L. Burnside

Rafael Alvarez

February 26, 1993|By Rafael Alvarez

Holly Springs,Miss. -- TWO or three times a month, the phone rings in R.L. Burnside's little farmhouse on Highway 4; calls from strangers asking if they can stop by to talk about the blues.

The last time Mr. Burnside's phone jumped with a curious ring, the callers were pilgrims from Baltimore.

"Sure, I remember you," said the 66-year-old guitarist who learned his lessons by watching Mississippi Fred McDowell and Muddy Waters. "Come on over."

I had met "Rule" Burnside once before, when he played at the Cat's Eye Pub on Thames Street in May 1986. Back then he had said: "I think the blues are beginning to come back a little bit."

Maybe. Hopes for a blues revival flutter beneath the chaos of mainstream music every six or seven years. As they come and go, artists like Mr. Burnside endure, hauling the blues around the world for those who care to listen.

Rule Burnside will be bringing the blues back to Baltimore when he plays the gilded juke joint known as the Walters Art Gallery tomorrow at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10.

Since Mr. Burnside's last visit to the jewel at the head of the Patapsco, his music has grown stronger, while year after year his peers have been dying in twos and threes.

When I interviewed Albert King on his 68th birthday in New York City last April, we talked about the death of bluesman Johnny Shines, one of those rare blue birds who actually traveled and played with the fabled Robert Johnson.

Around the wood-burning stove in the living room of R.L. Burnside's two-story white frame farmhouse, we discussed the December death of King.

"I saw Albert two weeks before he died, in Memphis on Beale Street," said Mr. Burnside. "I go up there to sit in with my son Dwayne sometimes. He plays at B.B.'s [B.B. King's] club. Sometimes we all jam. Albert was there and he looked healthy. I had talked to him that Wednesday night, but Friday he said something about his heart. His breath was short. He told Dwayne to get him an Alka Seltzer," Burnside said. "And the next Monday he died."

Asked to identify what was special about Albert King's music, Mr. Burnside said: "He could sing the blues good and he was a good guitar player."

As is Mr. Burnside, who plays both electric and acoustic guitar and counts Albert's "Born Under a Bad Sign," popularized in the hippie era by Cream, in his repertoire.

The great fun of seeking out bluesmen in their own backyards is asking if they would play a song or two.

"I'd rather not," Mr. Burnside said, smiling and picking up his guitar.

He is a classic Delta style guitarist in the tradition of Robert Johnson and Fred McDowell, whom R.L. honors as his mentor. He lived in the electric blues of Chicago for a few years in the 1950s, where he picked up slide guitar by watching Muddy Waters. But, "I like the old-time blues best."

The old-time blues is what my friend and I got as he launched into "Jumper on the Line," a song he performed in the documentary "Deep Blues," which was shown earlier this month at the Orpheum Cinema in Fells Point.

Now what do you think a title like "Jumper on the Line" means?

I thought maybe it was about fishing. It is, sort of.

Mr. Burnside, eyes wide in the joy of making others happy, sang out in a high voice: "See my jumper, Lord, oh hangin' on the line. . . yes, I see my jumper, oh lord, a hangin' on the line. . .

"When I see my jumper, you know there's somethin' on my mind. . ."

Call it espionage of the heart. In blues lore, if a married woman hangs her housecoat or "jumper" out on the clothesline, it's a sign to her lover that the coast is clear.

R.L. had some competition from a TV set in another room, and several of his 12 children came and went. A few were working on a derelict Ford Pinto in the front yard. His wife Alice sat beside him, rubbing her temples as her man showed off the way he earns a living.

Mr. Burnside played three songs before quitting, picking the notes with the nail of his right index finger and strumming chords with his thumb.

Once in a while, as he sat on the sofa across from a big blue and red poster of a Paris blues festival with his name on it, Mr. Burnside banged on the wooden guitar as though it were a drum.

There was one more thing I wanted to give this generous man before leaving, but first I had to see if the gift was appropriate.

I wanted to know what R.L. Burnside, a former sharecropper whose music is a direct link to the most primal of American art, thought of Elvis Presley, another Magnolia State native who is accused of stealing that art.

As I posed the question, there was music spinning in my head: Elvis hits interpreted by the late Albert King on an album with the eerie title "Blues for Elvis."

"I like Elvis, yeah man, yeah," he said. "I think Elvis helped the black people. I believe it now; I sure enough do."

And so the image of R.L. Burnside that stayed with me, as I backed out of his front yard to drive to the grave of Elmore James an hour's drive south, is that of a grinning man in a red flannel shirt and work pants.

And he's holding up a sheet of Elvis stamps from Baltimore's Gough Street post office.

It seems there is no room for resentment in R.L. Burnside's blues.

"I never figured it would come to this," he said. "Me -- a poor man growing up on a farm, playing music all over the world. I never thought I would go the places I've been. . . the blues have helped me a heap. I've been lucky there."

Rafael Alvarez is a reporter for The Sun and Evening Sun.

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