By Daniel Garrett
Producers: Koko Taylor, Bruce Iglauer, Criss Johnson
Alligator Records, 2007
“Didn’t have no money. Didn’t have nothing but us.”
“A piece of man is better than no man at all,” sings Koko Taylor (Old School), and the first time I heard her words I thought that it depended on which piece of a man you had hold of (his brain might be useful; his other parts—well, that’s a matter of inclination, mood, or opportunity). Koko Taylor, a blues singer and songwriter, begins the song “Piece of Man” with a wild, shouted honk and a story about a man who arrives for lovemaking and leaves. “I swim the ocean deep and wide as long as my man right by my side,” she sings; and that is one of those times when I think a living person can be a metaphor for something metaphysical: love, or solace. In her hard, heavy voice—one can imagine it shouting in a back yard, in a crop field, in a blues club, in a church—Koko Taylor sings, “I’m gonna buy me a mule, one that can take the place of you.” It is a startling idea. So is the metaphor of Lizzie Lawler’s “Black Rat,” which Taylor also sings on Old School: “You is one black rat. Some day, I’ll find your trail. I’ll hide my shoe somewhere near your shirt tail.” In a voice of anger and fleshy force, a practical voice, Taylor sings of exploitation and trouble, and the lack of trust in a relationship, for which no correction seems to come from fairness or logic or compassion’s appeal. Taylor seems to sing of the kind of relationships you enter out of desperation and need.
Koko Taylor is the Queen of Chicago blues; and as there are apparently no worthier aspirants to the throne, though she is not as famous as Bessie Smith was or as B.B. King is, Taylor is the de facto Queen of all the blues. Koko Taylor’s career spans a half-century. She received, from the National Endowment for the Arts, a National Heritage Fellowship Award. Through an introduction legendary bluesman Willie Dixon made for her, Koko Taylor recorded on the Chess label—Koko Taylor and Basic Soul—and for Alligator Records she made The Earthshaker and Force of Nature, among others. Koko Taylor wrote five of the songs on Old School: “Piece of Man,” “Gonna Buy Me a Mule,” “You Ain’t Worth a Good Woman,” “Better Watch Your Step,” and “Hard Pill to Swallow.”
“How can a poor girl make it, when money is the name of the game?” Koko Taylor asks in “Money Is the Name of the Game,” a slow lament, a recounting of changed circumstances, a Johnny Thompson song that comes as close to a crying blues as any on Old School, a song on which Taylor sings with and against the piano of John Kattke, the harmonica of Billy Branch, the drums of Willy Hayes, and the guitar of Criss Johnson. How can a poor girl make it, when she is faced with the expectations of availability, love, respectability, sacrifice, sexuality, and work that all women feel pressured to meet? “Money Is…” and “Don’t Go No Further” and “All Your Love” are the songs I like most on Old School.
“All you do is lay around, waiting for something good to fall in your hand,” Taylor sings in “You Ain’t Worth a Good Woman.” This is a song—and these are the blues—in which intimacy is a matter of brutal assessment, of cruel candor, of repudiation. “I’m more than a notion,” Taylor sings: and that cannot be denied. I found myself thinking that it is easy to be a bad man, especially a bad black man: be poor and out-of-work or just out-of-luck and before long you will be called lazy, shiftless, no-account. It might not be your character or your intention—but you cannot deny your circumstances, which are—often, if not always—all the evidence anyone needs to convict you in the courts of law or public opinion. (That is why black men often settle for any paying opportunity, no matter how tenuous, no matter how it frustrates whatever genuine ambition they do have.) It is a bitter fact that a world that treats the aspirations for accomplishment and dignity of many black men with a chilling indifference—which is akin to a declaration of war—then finds African-American men disappointing and dangerous: what are men at war, with few resources and the necessity to invent survival strategies, supposed to be like? Taylor’s denunciation is not the way anyone wants to be spoken to, or described, no matter the circumstances. Taylor offers words of warning, amid wailing instruments, in “Better Watch Your Step”: “You done messed up a good thing, all my love I had for you.” She adds, “Be careful baby, you just might slip—and you just might fall.”
In Walter Williams’s song “Bad Avenue,” a song about a place where men have shotguns and women pistols, a song in which a man gets shot and a nurse leans down to help and a straight razor falls out of her purse, is the place Taylor as narrator—mysteriously? predictably?—is asking to be taken to: for some people, there is always excitement where there is conflict, where emotions are intense and manners rough and, on some level, people just do not give a damn because they have little to lose. What is life if you have nothing else but life? (It is a life that shares aspects of the contemporary hip-hop scenarios that young music-makers have been giving us; it is a life that is lived, or tolerated, before anyone thinks to put it in a song.) “Bad Avenue” is a picture of a society we have been shown for decades, a “cut-and-shoot” society, a good-time, bad-time, night-time blues world.
I must acknowledge that these songs are not documentaries; rather, they are song dramas, a dynamic art in which believable situations are presented for what they suggest about human character and relationships and values. The blues capture not just difficulty, but the sense—beneath the complaints and curses and threats—that people want and deserve something else, something more; and thus, the blues can be read not only as an acknowledgement and even celebration of the bruising ways of the world, but a record of survival, and of the better aspects of people: the desire for love, for understanding, for comfort, and the ability to create even out of need and trouble a song. Is it necessary to judge a life when simply describing it delineates its limitations?
A woman, Taylor, wakes up looking for her rooster and finds him rolling in the hay with a slick chick in “Bad Rooster,” written by E. G. Kight (Kight, not Knight) and Richard Fleming. (John Kattke is on piano.) In the song the woman considers doing some ass-kicking and maybe some rooster-killing, but decides to restrain herself: “forgive, but don’t forget.”
Willie Dixon’s “Don’t Go No Further,” with Taylor, and Jimmy Sutton’s upright bass and Willie Hayes’s drums, seems to be, in theme, a classic blues: “You need meat, go to the market. You need bread, try the bakery. You need love, don’t go no further—just bring it on home to me…I got to love somebody—somebody gon’ love me.”
The closest the album comes to sounding a reflective and tender note is in Sam Maghett’s “All Your Love,” with John Kattke on piano and Kenny Hampton on electric bass, and Koko Taylor singing, “All your love, baby, can’t it be mine?”
The last two songs on Old School suggest some of the things rock music borrowed from the blues (a willingness to go without reconciliation, in addition to fast rhythms and howling guitars). With a rhythm that reminds me a little of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful,” Koko Taylor’s “Hard Pill to Swallow” is a song of recrimination, a song in which she seeks aid from a doctor and a lawyer, who are no help after a lover’s betrayal, a song in which she declares: “it’s so hard to leave you—it’s even harder to be alone.” Taylor is joined by the Blues Machine (Vino Louden, Shun Kikuta on guitars; Stanley Banks on piano; Melvin Smith on bass; and Ricky Nelson on drums) for Willie Dixon’s “Young Fashioned Ways,” in which Koko Taylor sings, “I may be getting old, but I got young fashioned ways.” Koko Taylor is frightening. Koko Taylor’s Old School in content, sound, and vision is one form of classical blues.
Daniel Garrett, a New York resident, is a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the founder of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House; and his work has appeared in The African, AIM/America’s Intercultural Magazine, AltRap.com, American Book Review, Black American Literature Forum, Changing Men, Cinetext.Philo, The City Sun, Film International, Frictionmagazine.com, The Humanist, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Illuminations, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, NatCreole.com, Offscreen.com, Option, The Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter, 24FramesPerSecond.com, UnlikelyStories.org, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. His commentaries on B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Keb Mo, Eric Bibb, and Cassandra Wilson have appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader.
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