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Do you do that thumping and pounding with a fingerpick?
I tried using plastic fingerpicks years ago but when I began focusing on players who used a lot of up-and-down strumming techniques, the fingerpicks would get caught on the strings. So I gave up on that idea. Occasionally, I’ll put on a thumbpick to get that edgy sound of plastic on steel, like on certain Mississippi Fred McDowell songs. But it feels difficult whenever I put on a thumbpick—I always forget how to use those things and they tend to get in the way.
Block shows off the 14mm socket she uses as a slide. Photo by Sergio Kurhajec.
Talk about some of your accessories and how you use them.
I love and only use Shubb capos. I use a 14mm deep-well socket for a slide, something you can pick up at any hardware store. In the ’60s, you couldn’t buy a slide in a store because nobody made them. One day John Hammond [record producer known for sparking a revival of Robert Johnson’s music] told me to go out and get myself a socket wrench because they came in all different sizes. So I went right away to a gas station, and they let me rummage away in their tool drawer. I found that a 14mm socket fits perfectly and I’ve been using one ever since. When I play slide, I always place it on the third finger of my fret hand and bend it at the knuckle, which is something I must have picked up from Fred McDowell. I got to know him in person and watch him play.
Players like Stefan would break a nice wine bottle, sand down the jagged end, and have a good time. I never found any bottleneck remotely close to fitting me, so I kind of gave up on the idea of playing slide. Years later, fans would bring me custom-made slides of porcelain and glass because they heard my hands were so small, but the slides were never comfortable for me.
How did you come to meet Fred McDowell?
When I ran away from home, Stefan and I stayed at the house of a man named ED Denson in Berkeley—one of the founders of Takoma records and a big-time collector and music guy himself. While we were there, Fred McDowell showed up. He was a fabulous guy, and it was very special to meet one of the original founders of the music that we were so intrigued by. I got to watch McDowell play up close, study his every move, and even got to play with him at this place in Berkeley called the Jabberwocky Café. By the way, I wrote a whole chapter about my experiences with McDowell in my book, When a Woman Gets the Blues [available through Block’s website, roryblock.com].
Through Stefan, I also got to meet other blues masters. Son House once came to visit Stefan at his family’s house in New York, and he told us all about teaching Robert Johnson to play the guitar. On another occasion we sat with Mississippi John Hurt at his house in Washington, D.C. All of those experiences brought something invaluable to my world about the meaning and power of music—something elusive I can’t exactly put into words. The music felt real and beautiful and really resonated in me.
How did these blues masters receive you, a young white girl from New York?
Of course they were probably a little surprised by my interest, but none of the blues masters I met in person ever excluded me in any way. They were nothing but completely welcoming. I think that’s because they felt so honored by how much I loved their music and were impressed that I wanted to emulate it.