THE READING ROOM: Bobby Rush Memoir Recounts Building His ‘Folk Funk’ Sound
Photo by Bill Steber
Reading Bobby Rush’s memoir I Ain’t Studdin’ Ya: My American Blues Story is a bit like watching him leave it all the stage at one of his shows. On stage, he works the crowd, rolling from one song into another with an effortlessness that comes from playing juke joints and clubs and concert halls with the likes of B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Luther Allison, and Freddie King, among many others. In the memoir, he works the audience the same way, never letting them take a breath, and Rush seems never to take a breath, either, as he tells his stories on stage and on the page.
In over one hundred anecdotal chapters, Rush tells his story to music historian and composer Herb Powell, and the result is a compelling collection of the highlights, and low lights, of the life of an American bluesman whose music continues to shape not only the blues but all roots music.
Rush’s book opens with a bit of a confession: “I started lying about my age when I was twelve, becoming fifteen overnight — and I ain’t never looked back.” That lie gets Rush, who was born Emmett Ellis Jr. in Carquit, Louisiana, into juke joints to see Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Big Joe Turner, and Jimmy Reed, but music had already cast its spell on Rush as a youngster listening to his daddy play the harmonica.
“But something happened to me the day Daddy pulled out of his pocket a dull silver harmonica … ,” Rush writes. “I could do nothing more than to stare deeply into his brown eyes and listen to the greasy yet melodic sound coming out of the harmonica. In my childhood mind, it sounded like somebody was crying, but they weren’t sad. The slew of changing tones Daddy was producing with his mouth created pictures in my mind. … The mystical mixture of him rhythmically popping me up and down on his knee while I listened to the music coming out of that harp — became my first groove.”
Blues preacher that he is, Rush testifies about the power of this moment and its soul-changing effect: “My first groove. It’s something when a groove hits you. You feel it in your bones. You feel it in your hands. You feel it in your butt. You feel it in your heart. It’s primal. It’s magnetic. It’s pure. It’s irresistible.” Soon, Rush makes a diddley bow, a one-string guitar, using a broomstick and a hay baling wire. “I continued to play with it. Learned how to change the pitch by running my left hand up and down the string by plucking at the same time. I took a flimsy piece of leather from Daddy’s old belt and used it as a pick … I started to dream … I played that one string so intensely that I would get lost in it, dreaming I’m on stage … I’m lost in a fantasy set in motion by the twangy sound of the diddley bow.”
When Rush is 12, the family relocates to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where he meets Elmore James, who had already had a hit with his song “Dust My Broom,” and plays with a troupe known as the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, where Rush hones his ability to entertain. He changes his name from Emmett Ellis to Bobby Rush and starts playing house parties under that name.
Rush reflects on the meaning of the blues: “The world gets the wrong idea of what the blues is. They like to think that is just some Negro picking his guitar and hollering. That’s not even close to the truth. The blues is shy and simple. But to do it well requires an incredible amount of unique skills. How to get an audience up, then take them higher. How to bring an audience down, then take them lower. How to make them shake their hips and how to make them think. How to make them laugh and how to make them cry.”
Rush eventually moves to Chicago, where he meets Muddy Waters, who counsels him to play to his strengths. Rush takes Muddy’s words to heart but then tries to take them further: “I knew one of my strengths was entertaining, but just like there are plenty of good guitar players in the world, there are only a few Albert Kings, Buddy Guys, or Chuck Berrys. I wanted my entertaining chops not to be just good — but to stand out from the crowd.”
In 1971, Rush records what becomes one of his signature songs, “Chicken Heads” at Universal Studios in Chicago. As he recalls, “the track came out great. A funky yet simple bass line with greasy guitar work and a little 1971 wah-wah thrown in … I didn’t know then, but this was where my own style was born — folk funk. An intense, pregnant blues sound. It was as if James Brown, Bo Diddley, and future star Prince had had a baby.”
I Ain’t Studdin’ Ya tells Rush’s story up to 2019, but he’s still out on the road, bringing his raw sound to audiences around the world. As he observes in his closing reflections: “People come to see me to hear good music and have a good time regardless of which songs I play.”
That’s exactly what he does in this entertaining memoir: No matter where we dip into the book, we hear him tell good stories and we have a good time. There are enough stories here to keep us rolling with Rush all night long, still wanting more.