Rory Block with her signature Martin, which features a 1930s Hudson Terraplane on it in honor of Robert Johnson's "Terraplane Blues." Photo by Sergio Kurhajec.
In the mid-1960s, Aurora “Rory” Block was just 15 years old when she ran away from her home in New York City and hitchhiked across the United States to the Bay Area. While in Berkeley, California, she would meet Mississippi Fred McDowell and enjoy an informal mentorship with the blues legend. More than 45 years later, Block acknowledges her debt to McDowell on her new album, Shake ’Em on Down: A Tribute to Mississippi Fred McDowell
, third in a series of blues tributes.
Block spent her earliest years in a small house in Princeton, New Jersey that lacked plumbing—not unlike the domiciles of many early bluesmen. Growing up in the bohemian New York neighborhood of Greenwich Village, her father, Allan Block, had a sandal shop that became a hangout for folk musicians like Peter Rowan and Geoff Muldaur. Block made her recording debut at age 12 with her father’s string band. Not long after, she met the young blues guitarist Stefan Grossman, with whom she traveled uptown on occasion to hang out with the ragtime guitar pioneer Reverend Gary Davis.
It was with Grossman that Block journeyed across the country, and while in the South she learned all about the blues firsthand by watching players like Skip James demystify their music. By the time they got to Berkeley, the travelers had received a lifetime of blues lessons, and Grossman had scored a trove of pre-war Martin guitars.
A decade after that sojourn, Block recorded a self-titled debut album and an instructional video How to Play Blues Guitar
. She toured constantly, up to 250 concerts per year, before taking a break from the road in the mid-1970s to start a family. Since returning to music full-time in the early ’80s, Block has released dozens of albums where she reexamined blues standards while crafting her own fine songbook. She recently chatted with us about her beloved Martins, her blues education, and her compositional process.
You’re closely associated with Martin guitars. What was your first exposure to that brand?
It was in 1965, when I hitched rides across the country with Stefan Grossman. We stopped at pawnshops all along the way, and Stefan bought all these wonderful Martins with beautiful pearl inlays and herringbone trim for like 40 or 50 bucks each—of course, no one knew what treasures they were at the time. That said, I felt like Martin guitars were the absolute pinnacle of excellence even then, but didn’t get one until many years later.
What were you playing at the time, and when did you finally get a Martin?
I only had a little Galliano—which I still have—that my mother gave me when I was eight. It was a nylon-string classical that I changed to silk and steel, but those strings had too much tension for the guitar and the neck began to warp. When I started recording blues records, I would borrow steel-string guitars from John Sebastian [singer-songwriter and founder of the Lovin’ Spoonful], and over time I came to own guitars by Alvarez, Yamaha, and Gibson—and by luthiers like Michael Gurian.
I’ve used Martin strings since I began making records, but I didn’t get my first Martin guitar until years later. One day I got a call from Dick Boak [Martin’s director of artist relations]. He had read all the good things I said about their strings in interviews and asked if I’d like to endorse them. He then sent me a bunch of strings and an OM-28V—a beautiful, beautiful guitar that started my collection of Martins. I was beside myself with happiness to be the owner of that guitar, and it became my road warrior.
Tell us about your signature model Martin.
A few years after I got the OM-28V, maybe around 2003—I’m not so good with dates—Dick called and said that Martin wanted to honor me with a signature model. Obviously, that was another huge honor and thrill. We ended up designing a guitar together that is basically an OM-40, featuring a representation of a blacktop highway on the fingerboard. Our idea was to create a bluesy scene with different road signs, like a crossroad sign inlay at the 7th fret and a railroad crossing at the 9th fret. Underneath the Martin logo on the headstock, we decided to inlay a 1930s Hudson Terraplane, a car that’s referenced in the Robert Johnson song “Terraplane Blues.” Now I am bedecked with Martin guitars. I have three of my signature models and feel that they are the world’s best guitars—at least the best guitars for me. They sound and look amazing and really stand up to the thumping and pounding I do.
Block strums her signature Martin OM-40 and puts her socket slide to use at the Sedalia Blues Festival in 2010.
Photo by WARD Photography www.wardpics.com