Chicago Blues Rediscovers its Songwriting Ambition

When Chicago blues singer Toronzo Cannon signed with Alligator Records in 2015, label owner Bruce Iglauer told his new artist, “People remember songs, not solos.” This was contrarian advice in a field that fetishizes guitar flash, but Cannon took it to heart. 

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“Like any other guitarist in Chicago,” Cannon remembers, “I just wanted to play my Buddy Guy licks. I used to play covers like everyone else, because I didn’t think I could write songs. But then I thought of my favorite songwriters—Bobby Womack, Bill Withers, Bob Marley, Robert Cray—and how I could close my eyes and see the story they were telling. I thought I’d like to do that.”

Cannon not only became a proficient songwriter, but he also restored creative ambition to a field that had grown lazy. Too many blues songs were devoted to two topics: “Let’s party” and “My woman done me wrong.” Too many used rhymes so predictable the listener could see them coming from a full line away. Cannon could have settled for that approach, but he refused.

‘The Preacher, the Politician or the Pimp’, the 52-year-old Cannon’s second album for Alligator, is filled with a variety of subject matter, narrative momentum, visual detail and playful language. Two of the musicians on the project (keyboardist Roosevelt Purifoy and drummer Melvin “Pooky Styx” Carlisle) are also heard on ‘Every Day of Your Life,’ the new Delmark album from the dean of Chicago blues songwriters, the 91-year-old Jimmy Johnson.

“Anyone can say, ‘My woman left me yesterday, all I can do is pray,’” Johnson says. “You hear that so many times, it gets old. You have to sit back and think until you start a song that really means something. You keep looking at a situation, you keep fiddling with words that rhyme until they tell the story.”

“I hate predictable rhyme words, like beat and street,” echoes Cannon. “To me, that’s like nails on the chalkboard. I listen to blues songs on the radio, and I can predict what the rhyming word will be. That’s insulting to the audience; there’s no thought in it. Everyone’s asking, ‘Where’s the blues going?’ It’s not going anywhere if everyone’s trying to be like Sonny Boy Williams in the ‘50s. We need more chords, different subject matter.”

Over Purifoy’s organ accents and Carlisle’s push-and-pull drumming, the title track of Johnson’s new album advises us to “live every day like it’s your last. One day you will be right, ‘cause it’s gonna come to pass.” The inevitability and finality of death is a sobering thought for a music that lives in barrooms, but Johnson doubles down on the idea, adding, “Ain’t no need to save; when you’re dead and gone, you ain’t gonna take nothing to your grave.”

“I saw that phrase, ‘Live every day like it might be your last, because one day you will be right.’ in a doctor’s office one time,” Johnson recalls, “and I thought, ‘That’s a really good phrase, because it’s true.’ I kept thinking about that quote,’ listening at it, and then I wrote a story to go with it. Rather than staying in a corner crying, have yourself a good time, because I’ve never known anyone to live forever. It’s a song I couldn’t have written when I was real young; then you don’t know as many stories as you do when you’re older.”

The title track of Cannon’s album follows its wah-wah guitar intro with this sharp-eyed visual description: “Pinky ring, expensive suit, three-hundred-dollar pair of shoes, Cadillac sitting at the curb, sweet lies with pretty words.”  Over rippling congas, he follows up with this subversive question: “Am I the preacher, the politician or the pimp?”

“That song was inspired by my bus route,” Cannon explains. “You’ll see a billboard for a politician, then you’ll see a storefront church. Then you’ll see a fancy car and you know that guy’s not working at the factory; that’s a pimp car. The politician says he’ll set you free, but that doesn’t happen. The preacher says, ‘I know how to get you into heaven, so give me 10% of your income.’ The pimp is brainwashing a girl to make her think he loves her, but he doesn’t. But I don’t let you know who is who in the verses, which is the point.”

By “my bus route,” Cannon is referring not to the bus he takes but to the bus he drives. He has worked for the Chicago Transit Authority for 26 years, and from the high seat behind the wheel, he observes more the enough material for any songwriter. From young men surreptitiously exchanging packages for money on the corner to older women gossiping in the seat behind him, he sees and hears enough for all the songs he needs.

Johnson got a late start on his career, not till after his younger brother Syl Johnson had become a star with eight top-25 R&B singles between 1967 and 1975. Jimmy was making good money as a welder, but he’d gotten the music bug singing gospel in the Golden Jubilaires with future R&B legend Otis Clay. He started taking jazz guitar lessons and picking up gigs behind such Chicago blues greats as Otis Rush and Jimmy Dawkins. But when he decided to step out front as a lead singer, he realized he needed some new songs.

“If somebody had written a good song,” he remembers thinking, “they weren’t going to give it to me; they were going to give it to B.B. King. That made sense. So if I was going to have good songs, I was going to have to write them myself. But it’s something you have to have within you, and I was lucky to have it within me.”

Johnson’s 1983 sophomore album, ‘North/South,’ created quite a stir in the blues world with its fresh sound and even fresher writing. As I wrote in the Washington Post at the time, Johnson was “reaching beyond the traditional topics of wine, women and money. Instead he tackles the contradictory feelings that Southern blacks often had about moving north, [contrasting] his farm-boy, Southern dreams of trading a cotton sack for a Cadillac with his streetwise lessons in the North about just staying alive.” 

Johnson was “one of the few singers who could express such paradoxical feelings in the same song,” I added. “Without sacrificing any intensity, he allows a bit of vulnerability into his voice, as if implying he doesn’t have all the answers. Where his voice leaves off, his eloquent guitar picks up, telling of the pain and confusion.”

Johnson spent the first 16 years of his life in Holly Springs, Mississippi, where his great-grandfather had been freed from slavery by the Emancipation Proclamation. As such, he was at the tail end of a generation of musicians such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon, who were born in Mississippi and came to Chicago to transform the acoustic Delta blues into something urban and electric.

By contrast, Cannon is part of Generation X, born and raised in Chicago with no direct contact with Southern Jim Crow laws, raised not on juke joints and work songs but on the dizzying variety of music on their boom boxes. This gave him a broader range of influences and different stories to tell.

“I like storytelling songs,” Cannon says, “and it’s hard to get a story going over I-IV-V changes and that old blues cadence. When the traditional guys say we modern guys are messing up the blues, I tell them, ‘Muddy Waters loved Son House, but he didn’t sound like Son House all the time. Buddy Guy loved Muddy Waters, but he didn’t play like Muddy all the time.’ That’s what I’m doing: old blues in new clothes. I can’t write about segregation times, because I wasn’t there; I can only write about working on the West Side of Chicago today.”

One thing that Johnson and Cannon have in common is many hours at blue-collar jobs before and during their years as musicians. This allows them to write in the language of the working-class folks in their audience, and to tell the stories those folks are familiar with. For Cannon, that means writing not just for the men in the audience, but the women as well.

“I heard Gatemouth Brown say one time that he didn’t like woman-hating songs,” Cannon says, “and I realized that every other song in the I-IV-V blues is a woman-hating song. So I wrote a song called ‘The Silence of My Friends,’ based on that Martin Luther King quote, ‘In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.’ And I applied that to a bunch of guys talking trash about a woman, and someone I thought was my friend not speaking up, not saying, ‘What if it was your mother?’”

“I like Toronzo, Mike Wheeler, Kingfish and Ronnie Brooks,” Johnson says. “For a long time, there weren’t many young people coming along doing really good blues. They took it in a different direction away from the flavor of blues that I like. Maybe it’s coming around again.”

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