Sunday, September 7, 2008
Alive and Well
I saw the musician from a distance. Almost hidden behind scurrying people, and framed by Indians selling salmon, and local growers offering sunflowers, or tubs of blueberries and strawberries, I could vaguely hear some kind of guitar sound. Just one guy on the small stage with an even smaller crowd more interested in their breakfast burritos and scones than the performer.
By the time I reached the far side of the Saturday Farmer's Market, looking for the pear grower with his down syndrome daughter who carefully fills a bag for me, the music stopped. Rounding the far turn of the stall space and heading for the homestretch, I heard some fantastic slide guitar. Then it hit me and settled in my brain like fine wine: Robert Johnson. They must be playing a recording while the next band sets up. Following the familiar sound of "You better come on into my kitchen..." I found the source. James Clem.
He looked more like a banker with a National steel-bodied guitar. The shiny silver chrome of that blues machine sparkled in sharp contrast to this 60 something white guy bringing it all home. The boy sang and played the blues. I set my bag of fruit and vegetables down and stayed a while. This is so Portland, I thought.
Turns out James Clem and I have even more in common than a love of delta blues. He, like me, is originally from L.A. and cut his teeth, as I did, seeing the likes of Son House, Howlin' Wolf, Sleepy John Estes, and Bukka White at the Ash Grove. On his web site Is saw a picture of James from the 70s looking more like James Taylor with a full head of flowing auburn hair. I plan to catch him at one of the local pubs or again at the Farmer's Market because his schedule is available on line now. Imagine that, delta blues on demand, online, all the time.
I love that James Clem has come to Portland to live. I love how people like him show up all over this city all the time. But what I love most is that the music he plays continues. Very few young black musicians will touch this stuff. Wynton Marsalis was mentioning the other day how we have to teach each new generation the history of their music. Made me think I still have work to do in that vein. It's one of the things I miss about teaching the most. People like James Clem are keeping this music alive.