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Are the Black Keys Still Underdogs?

This is why within blues songs, there is an immense weight, but even more than that — particularly in the Hill Country — there is a sense of celebration, of praise. These are songs that get people moving out of their seats, songs not just about lost love, but about the glory of love’s returning. When Junior Kimbrough sings “Stay All Night,” the language drips with ache, but the ache is not sadness. It is the exhaustion of joyful longing, the same thing that settles deep into Marvin Gaye’s voice at the end of “Let’s Get It On,” when he’s pushed his pleading to its limits and he’s breathless with desire. Kimbrough, at the doorstep of desire and searching for the keys to the kingdom, moans, “Love me baby, love me girl.” And this is a song not about sadness, but about celebration of the potential for what might come, what might rest on the other side of a long night. These are the great blues songs. Suffering is the marathon; pleasure is the short sprint that happens during the in-between moments.

I’ve known elders or friends who will drop the needle down on some old blues records at the start of a party, to warm people up. Because you can dance to the blues just as well as you can sink into the thick and immovable nature of them. You can sob along to the blues, though you can also pursue a more joyful route, peppered with laughter or kissing or swinging on a porch swing with your legs pushing up against the night air. The logic, as I’ve always understood it, is that the blues is something you get through first in order to get to everything else. It lives inside of you, so that you might be lucky enough to see the world better, more honestly, with more dexterity. This, too, is why so many of the great blues songs are about leaving one place and arriving somewhere else. About seeing something that, in a moment, seems impossible to see and then carrying it with you for the rest of your life.

When people talk about the spontaneity of the blues, or how it has a type of freedom underneath it, it is in part because the blues had a long history before recorded music. It had a history of traveling from one person to the next to the next, like good gossip, bending along the way. “It’s like how diamonds never lose their value,” Auerbach told me, still twirling the lighter on his fingers. “Because all these musicians — the really good ones — they’re never the same. They always put their own stamp on everything.”

This was a sound and tradition forged by working-class players, playing songs after their days of labor, sustained by the people who would show up and nothing else. R.L. Burnside was a farmer, a fisherman. He would have gone on playing the music whether anyone came and recorded him or not, satisfied with sustaining a tradition in a place he loved. Most of the early recordings of Hill Country blues musicians were made by musicologists who had heard stories of jukes bursting with sound way past typical closing hours and wanted to come down and see what all the fuss was about. Artists like Mississippi Fred McDowell managed to capitalize on some of those field recordings and land record deals and touring opportunities. But even modest commercial success was rare, and it often hit late in the lives and careers of the artists, who would fall ill or die shortly after becoming better known. McDowell’s first album was released in 1964, and he was dead by 1972.

When Fat Possum was formed and went looking for bluesmen who hadn’t been properly recorded for decades — like Kimbrough, Burnside and the sonically versatile Greenville player T-Model Ford, among others — it seemed like a correction of the record. The Hill Country and Delta blues mini-revival swept through the 1990s and held until the early 2000s, translating into record sales, documentaries, festivals and traveling juke-joint revues. This revival afforded a place for living legends to record and release music later in their lives. But it also rendered the question of the value of an American archive. Alongside Fat Possum’s recordings — which were embraced by listeners all over the country — is another archive that lives in the people who were there, from whatever the beginning was for them, hearing these songs and telling people about them. That archive is less glamorous but still valuable.

When Dan Auerbach was 17, he took a road trip to Mississippi with his father, in that moment in the ’90s when the blues scene was gaining more mainstream attention, in part because of the work of Fat Possum. They started in Akron, stopped in Nashville and then Memphis, where they got a small guidebook to Mississippi blues, and then they drove straight to the heart of Hill Country to see some of the players and the places that they’d only heard stories about. Auerbach went straight to Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint. Kimbrough was known for his live shows, which stretched long and got people dancing for hours (Fat Possum’s release of his 1992 album, “All Night Long,” took him to the national stage). But by the time Auerbach made his way to Mississippi, Kimbrough was at the end of his life. Kinney Kimbrough, Junior’s son, told Auerbach that Junior wouldn’t be by the club and wouldn’t be playing that night, which presented another issue entirely: Kinney’s brother played, but was locked up at the moment. He needed a loan to get him out. “He told my dad they’d pay him back once they sold some drinks that night,” Dan says. “It was like $24 or something.”

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