Otis Taylor – Beyond the blues
The guitar figure introduces itself with a fetching lilt. It is almost happy, certainly beautiful. Captivating. Repeats, drops a few keys, rises. Drops and rises, the same riff resolving twenty seconds later into a question. Pauses. Gathers into chords which ring with the distant sounds of African pop until Otis Taylor, his voice both weary and resilient with resignation, sings: “Please come home before it rains.”
Please come home before it rains.
There is more to the story (it is but a phrase in a letter read by a man on the deck of his ship), but everything is revealed in the simple, heartbreaking eloquence of that line.
Taylor has an arresting voice. Not the slightly distressed baritone with which he sings, nor the soft tones with which he greets you on the phone, but the voice with which he writes. That voice commands attention.
His are hard songs, songs about southern lynchings and Russian prisons and his mother’s conviction for dealing heroin, reminders of the early 20th-century black bicycle racer Major Taylor and of Rosa Parks and of the voyage Africans took to this continent, brutal stories of life for Indians off the reservation and of life today for the poor. One or two about love gone wrong.
Another deceptively sweet guitar figure, trailed by Ben Sollee’s solitary cello line, introduces “Plastic Spoon”, one of the most beautifully anguished songs from Taylor’s most recent disc Double V (Telarc). That weary voice again quickly reshapes the mood. “Poor Willie cry/Every night/When he watch his wife/Just about dinnertime/Eating dog food/On a plastic spoon…Can’t pay the bills/Can’t pay the bills anymore.”
The song ends on a hanging chord with the line, “Oh player of this life.”
What it means to pray for death. For the death of a spouse.
It is unimaginable, and terribly real.
Another song, four records back. “3 Days And 3 Nights”, the cries of a dying child, the agony of a father living in a cardboard box who cannot even convince a doctor to look at her.
My own daughter, just now 1 year old, is crying for supper. His daughter, maybe 12 then, sings a keening line in the background.
Perhaps there is yet a future for the blues.
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings have written and recorded four albums which argue, not for the first time, but with the greatest force and eloquence, that the traditional sounds of Appalachia might be ever so slightly adapted so as to form the texture of highly sophisticated and intentional art.
Otis Taylor has written and recorded six albums which make the same argument for the traditional music of African-Americans, and which honor both sides of that ocean. “Some of the blues people would just like to see me go away,” he says. “Because of what I write, the hard [songs], no chord changes.”
His third album, White African (on the Canadian label NorthernBlues), won the 2002 W.C. Handy award for best new blues artist debut, and he’s been honored with two handfuls of nominations since. That does not make him a bluesman, no more (nor less) than Nickel Creek are a bluegrass band. Taylor has said that if he were white, he’d be considered a singer-songwriter, but if he were white he could not credibly sing these songs. (Other songs, but not these songs. These songs are lived in.)
This is, perhaps, how best to know Otis Taylor: He is an antique dealer, always seeking things which other people do not properly value. This is how he has supported himself for much of his adult life.
He is also a serious artist who has found, in the blues, an art form that others no longer value.
We tend to like our bluesmen dead and unlettered. (Or, like the Fat Possum finds, poor and feral and pickled, as if that were somehow more authentic.) Perhaps this is because so many of the original rock tastemakers had backgrounds in literary criticism, and projected the role of Shakespeare’s fool — the one natural man throughout the play who might speak the truth — onto the poor black men (and women) whose music they stumbled against.
Blues is the music of endurance, not of revolution, which is doubtless one reason it fell from fashion. Otis Taylor’s work seeks to make blues the music of memory, however unpleasant, while assuring that the orchestration (often banjo and cello, rarely drums) serves the song as much as the tradition.
Still, the blues are assuredly in ill health. Starved for songs, starved for audience, all but completely severed from the people and places that gave birth to the sound. Sounds, really. Severed even from its bastard child, rock ‘n’ roll.
“Antique dealers can’t be political,” Taylor insists. “We’re mercenaries.”