Take My Hand believes that the best blues dancers don’t develop in isolation. Rather, they learn from and dance in community with historical blues dancers, learn from and dance with with contemporary adjacent communities, and learn from and dance with others in our subculture. We want to get you deep into the history and to broaden your understanding of contemporary blue dancing while achieving impeccable technique.
It’s hard to think of an artist who matches these ideals as closely as Chris Thomas King. He portrayed the bluesman in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou, where he played Hard Time Killing Floor, and bluesman Lowell Fulson, in Ray, singing Everyday I Have The Blues. To appreciate his Grammy/ Film awesomeness, this is a pretty good intro. To understand why Hollywood views him as authentic, though, watch his excellent Ted Talk here. In it, he discusses his problems with the Smithsonian labelling him the last great primitive bluesman of the 20th century (in the 1980s, when there was still a pretty good chance that someone else awesome would be discovered!). He feels like there’s a myth that the more primitive a bluesman, the more authentic. But, although he sees that creativity and a recognition of one’s own time and context are important, that he nonetheless cares passionately about the history. His Hard Time Killing Floor isn’t slavishly copying Skip James’ version orJimmy “Duck” Holmes’. The same is true of his other roots songs, which you will hear many of on our Friday; they’re faithful to the aesthetic and display a deep knowledge of earlier versions, but they’re their own unique sound, and some of the best music existing to dance to.
Dance to Trouble Will Soon Be Over, for instance, and you’ll find your body forcing you to be more grounded, the polyrhythms pushing themselves into you. You’ll feel why blues dancing works as it does. But not all blues is the same; listen to the lightness of Cotton Fields, which heads in a more Piedmont-y direction (King pulls much of his music towards New Orleans, but not so much that you can’t hear its geography when it was born elsewhere). Or for the opposite, feel the grittiness of Red Shoes.
He plays the blues like Julie Brown dances the blues, though. As above, his delta shows respect for the original guys in the Delta while remaining his. As with Julie, though, you can move forward in time and across space and he won’t stop being awesome. Check out the determinedly modern sound to his Red Mud and Come On In My Kitchen (this version; he also does more old fashioned versions). Or listen to his soul blues in I’ll Play The Blues For You, or his namesake’s other great, Born Under A Bad Sign.
In order to bring our event a particular punch, he’s bringing his sampling equipment so that he can play songs like Revelations, from Dirty South Hip Hop. This song samples Son House’s John The Revelator and combines it with a contemporary sound and King singing If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day. The only time we’ve seen a whole room stop what they were doing and watch Julie dancing, it was to hip hop, and it’s our hope that King will have a similarly electrifying impact with this eminently Slow Dragable driving tune. With that sort of thing, his blues Adele covers, the rock tinged energy of American Man (In The Key Of Free), the upbeat jazzy energy of Les Bleus Was Born In Louisiana, or the baby making songs of his earlier days, you have to get pretty obscure to find a jukin’ blues genre that King doesn’t do amazing things with.
When we saw Jimmy “Duck” Holmes play at the Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland, we immediately knew that we had to book him for Take My Hand. Like Chris, Jimmy reaches both forward and back; his Bentonia Blues Festival is one of Mississippi’s foremost contemporary blues festivals and highlights the strength of the contemporary community. Meanwhile, Jimmy learned at the feet of Henry Stuckey, making him the last of the Bentonia Delta Bluesmen. Who are they, you ask? It is a school of Delta Bluesmen, based in Bentonia, Mississippi who play a distinctive form of blues, with a shared repertoire and a distinctive minor tonality.
One of the most famous songs was Hard Time Killing Floor, which you may recognize from the Chris Thomas King description; although King’s character’s name is Tommy Johnson and the plot refers to Johnson’s myth, often possibly misattributed to Robert Johnson, regarding the devil and the crossroads, the song King plays is a Bentonia Delta song. You’ll have a chance to hear an actual Bentonia Delta Bluesman and someone who portrayed one in a major movie discuss the nature of creativity and fidelity to tradition with particular reference to their versions of this song on Saturday.
What struck us when we heard him, though, was not his role in contemporary blues, nor his pedigree and personal connection to the roots of blues, neither of which we knew about. Listen to his Evil. Listen to I’d Rather Be The Devil. The man has an incredible intensity. Like Slow Drag, his music isn’t particularly big or spectacular, but it crackles and creates suspension, pulling the dancer or listener into the moment. And, because that kind of intensity would be exhausting if you danced it all for hours, he plays things like Shaggy Hound, which lift the spirits and encourage playful, lighter, dancing.
What he doesn’t play is songs that aren’t fantastic music at the core of blues.
Radio King Orchestra and the Pincurl Girls play big band music of the 1940s. When the West Wing wanted to show Barlett having a classy gala, the show runners thought this should be the band. We will have eleven musicians (RKO) and three singers (the Pincurl Girls) giving their all to us, and to a bunch of lindy dancers. In the Savoy and other ballrooms of the ‘40s, you wouldn’t see so much of what we have today, where you have a Lindy event or a Blues Dance. You’d have a dance, and they’d advertise the band, and then people would come and dance to that band in a variety of ways. Even when Muddy Waters would play, he would generally not play all the songs, in part because not all the songs would be blues songs.
We’re not going so far as to have songs that aren’t suitable for Slow Drag, but we do want to capture a little of the feel of the dances at the great ballrooms, so we have an hour for people to gently travel their Slow Drag around the room (some of the ballrooms had rules demanding that people not stay in one spot, so that affectionate couples were forced to at least pretend to be classy) to the tunes of DC hometown favorite Duke Ellington and others. Or travel to the middle and practice your Harlem Slow Drag as if you were at the GrAystone in Detroit. Or, if you’re feeling like you’re getting enough Slow Drag into the rest of your weekend, no one will stop you from swinging out to these songs; you could even Bal to some of them.