Reconsidering the Arts: The 1971 Project – Honoring a Great Year in Music (November Entry)

“Man, sometimes it takes a long time to sound like yourself,” Miles Davis famously stated. Artists that were just beginning to establish their own original and unique musical voices are included in this month’s entry in the 1971 Project, which celebrates the strong music that is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Canned Heat’s young members made the wise decision to apprentice under an established blues master, John Lee Hooker, who was still seeking for new heights. Vctor Jara was quickly establishing himself as the musical representation of his country’s political struggle, which led to both his early demise and long-term popularity. The Grateful Dead built their genre-defying musical sound and a reputation of incredible live performances. Yes pushed for studio excellence as progressive-rock pioneers, while Lofty Funk Railroad worked on their grand goals for what rock ‘n’ roll could be and mean to people.

John Lee Hooker and Canned Heat – Hooker ‘n Heat (Liberty)

This kind of confrontation between young white blues-rockers and their bluesmen idols was a result of the 1960s blues resurgence. (See, for example, Muddy Waters’ Fathers and Sons with Mike Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield, as well as Muddy and Howlin’ Wolf’s London Sessions records.)

So here was John Lee Hooker, then in his mid-50s (his exact birth date is contested), widely recorded and widely toured, a “star” of the 1960s blues revival but not a household name. Canned Heat’s members were all in their twenties and had scored enormous pop radio songs with “On the Road Again” and “Going Up the Country” in 1968, as well as appearances at Monterey Pop and Woodstock.

Hooker ‘n Heat’s grainy sepia-toned cover photo plays on the era’s original-bluesman myth, with band members gathering in what appears to be a corner hotel room, worshipping Hooker as he gazes at the bright neon album title.

Mystique, on the other hand, does not always imply that something isn’t real. Canned Heat were dead serious about it. A plywood platform was erected to echo with his constant foot-stomping, and a search was launched for a guitar amp that would provide “that authentic ‘Hooker’ sound” of his Epiphone guitar. The interplay between tracks in the studio control room added to the impression of good-natured vérité closeness.

The album is split evenly between a solo Hooker disc and a disc with the band (plus a couple of duets with Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson on harmonica or piano from the band). The band’s tracks are fun, upbeat jams, but it’s the first disc that makes this album stand out. From the opening “Messin’ with the Hook,” the raw, unadorned sound of voice and guitar establishes a deathless groove, sustaining aggressive bass lines with simultaneous trebly filigree, the riffing between the two instruments (the third being the elemental percussion instrument: foot) extending into solo-guitar outbursts. Hooker is trying to get at something in the tracks, which are filled with such spontaneous, impromptu moments. And having a good time. The groove on “Send Me Your Pillow” breaks into an atonal guitar percussion break (slapping tamped-down strings? ), then a bass-string solo with a rhythmic vocal accompaniment: “ah-nittin-grittin-unh-unh-umm-umm-umm-umm-umm-umm-umm-umm-umm-umm-umm-umm-umm-umm-umm- The sluggish blues have a seeking air to them, and the jagged guitar riff provides an answering chorus to Hooker’s imprecations (“I should have been gone from you darling a long, long time ago”). The guitarist comforts the singer, but it is also an extension of his voice, of his need — the intangibles.

Hooker ‘n Heat was John Lee Hooker’s first chart-topping record. Wilson passed away before the book was published. Canned Heat passed through several lineups until disbanding in 1981, following the death of cofounder Bob “The Bear” Hite. Hooker experienced a late-career renaissance that lasted from the late 1980s until his death in 2001, a time when he was “one of the best-loved bluesmen of all time” and “the good and the great flocked about his feet,” according to the Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music. Canned Heat had done the same thing all those years ago.

Vctor Jara on the right to live in peace (Dicap)

A CIA-backed fascist coup would attack Chile’s presidential house on September 11, 1973, in order to depose democratically elected socialist Salvador Allende. Many others were thrown out of helicopters to their deaths or just disappeared as a result of the horrific repression that followed. The torture and death of Chilean artist Vctor Jara was one of the most sad consequences of that incident. The guitarist and singer, a peasant’s son, had become a shining figure in Chile’s nueva canción (New Song) movement. He would acquire the esteem of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, befriend Pablo Neruda and Violeta Parra, and work alongside Quilapayn as a dedicated communist.

Jara, along with thousands of others, was imprisoned in Santiago’s Estadio Chile stadium mere days after the coup; he was tortured for four days before being slain. “You are that Vctor Jara asshole, the Marxist singer, that awful vocalist!” exclaimed a soldier in the stadium. You son of a bitch, I’ll teach you to sing Chilean songs — not communist ones!” His fingers were smashed and his tongue was hacked out of his mouth when he was in prison. Laughing soldiers told him to play guitar and sing during his agony.

So, what was it about Jara that made him both an inspiration and a threat? El derecho de vivir en paz (The Right to Live in Peace), his sixth album from 1971, provides some of the reasoning. “The right to life, the poet Ho Chi Minh, which strikes from Vietnam to all mankind, no cannon will obliterate the furrow of your rice field, the right to live in peace,” the lyrics to the title song say. Obviously not in Kissinger’s top 40 list that year. Despite this, the song continues to be performed as a protest against harsh repression in Chile and internationally.

An ode to Chilean socialist Ramona Parra, who was killed during a protest in 1946, is also included on the CD. There’s a collaboration with Peruvian composer Celso Garrido Lecca, as well as an adaptation of a poem by Spanish Republican Miguel Hernández on a peasant worker’s life. There’s also “Las casitas del barrio alto,” a satirical reworking of Malvina Reynolds’ “Little Boxes,” however it’s not about the everyday life of a middle-class American worker. The “Little Boxes” in our world are the rulers’ castles, not the workers’ cages.

Jara’s powerful voice and extremely exquisite guitar playing can be heard throughout the record. Jara’s keen interest in folklore is not reflected in this album. The classic Peruvian song “A la molina no voy más” (I Won’t Return to the Mill) hints at some of this, but it never goes beyond the tune’s political message. Jara’s final CD, Canto por travesura, a collection of classic southern Chilean folk songs, was published just 10 days before his death, which is fortunate.

His art’s polemical intensity should not — could not — be enough to keep his memory alive. Neither the cruelty of his death nor the violence of the period in which he lived can be overlooked. “How hard it is to sing when I must sing of tragedy,” Jara wrote in his final poetry, smuggled out of the stadium before his execution. Vctor Jara, a peasant boy and former seminary student, was more than just a “Marxist singer” – he was a true admirer of his people. The Estadio Chile is now known as the Estadio Victor Jara.


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