Interview: Rory Block - When a Woman Gets the Blues
April 4, 2011
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.
Photo by WARD Photography www.wardpics.com
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.
What are some specific techniques you picked up from watching them play?
I had heard Son House making percussive sounds on records, and had always wondered about the techniques he was using. Watching him in person, I saw him deliver his music with unbelievable passion—he’d roll his eyes, throw his head back and slam his hands on the guitar. So I understood that the snapping and popping was sort of a byproduct of playing with great feeling, and I sort of absorbed that into my playing. I don’t think too much about it, but I know from looking at my photos and videos that I have similar mannerisms when I play.
Your recent records have been tributes to blues legends.
Yes—I first did a tribute to Robert Johnson [The Lady and Mr. Johnson, 2006] and then a tribute to Son House [Blues Walkin’ Like a Man: A Tribute to Son House, 2008]. After that, it seemed only natural to do a tribute to Mississippi Fred McDowell. I’d love to eventually have a five-album box set of the project and call it The Mentor Series, after the masters I learned the most from.
How would you compare the approach on your latest tribute record to that you took on the previous two?
When I did the Robert Johnson record, I stayed pretty faithful to his original arrangements and tunings. But with the Son House record, I switched things up a bit. Unlike Robert Johnson, Son House played a lot of duets with players like Willie Brown, so I decided to layer things a bit. I would play each basic track much in the same way Son House did, but then take things in a new direction by layering on tracks in different tunings. I took the same approach on this record, recording the basic tracks in Fred McDowell’s tunings—mostly open G and open E—and style, then adding my own tracks in whatever tunings suited my fancy. I don’t read music and can’t tell you what notes were in the tunings, but I can say if the original arrangement had a lot of open-position work, then I might use a random tuning and place a capo high up the neck to avoid too many overlapping frequencies. It was as if I were having a conversation with McDowell in the music.
Block performs at Iduna in Drachten, The Netherlands in May 2009. Photo by Oscar Anjewierden
The album includes a mix of Fred McDowell’s best known tunes and your originals. What is your songwriting process like?
I’ve always admired songwriters who wake up and have coffee, write music for three hours, then have lunch. When I’ve tried to write in a structured way like that, nothing comes out of me, so I’ve adopted some freer and easier methods. When I’m just working on the music, I’ll generally come up with a guitar part pretty quickly and record it in Pro Tools—an indispensable tool for recording on the fly. Then, I’ll often transfer it in onto a CD and listen to it in my office or car. Words come to me a lot of times when I’m driving around and hearing things in a fresh way. When inspiration strikes, I’ll pull over to write things down—sometimes I feel like people are staring at me when I’m on the side of the road scribbling madly.
Lyrics occasionally also come to me in dreams. I write the words down and store them along with a wealth of other materials, like letters and poems that I sometimes consult in songwriting. And there’s something about recording that inspires me to write. Just like I did with the Son House and Fred McDowell records, I’ll start with a basic guitar part and layer on parts I compose on the spot in different tunings. That’s what I love about the birthing process in the studio—if I don’t have a set plan, I’ll just let the process of overdubbing take the music wherever it wants to go.
Rory Block’s Gearbox
Martin OM-28V, Martin OM-40 signature model
Fishman Gold Plus
14mm deep-well socket