How to Listen to John Lee Hooker

John Lee Hooker at Massey Hall, Toronto, Canada on Sunday 20 August 1978. Photo: Jean-Luc Ourlin

Get the quaint arrogance of the title! How to listen! It apes old-fashioned dogmatic ideas of improvement, or something. It’s surely one of those deliberately misleading titles and the article won’t be anything about anything. Who needs to have somebody try to tell them how to appreciate, I mean especially primitive visceral stuff, blues, rock & roll, anyhow? Those ideas are long gone, daddio. I don’t mean primitive in a derogatory sense. We just try things like art, and blues and rock & roll, this kind of stuff especially, we try it and see how we feel. How to listen to John Lee Hooker?! How would you even begin a straight take on it? What, with some privileged version of a history lesson?

The first blues audiences were black. We know that. The first middle-class white listeners must’ve tended to hear the music differently to those black audiences. We must know that. People probably conduct anthropological studies on those middle-class white fans the way those white people in turn poked around the black cultures that delivered the blues. There are probably books on it all by now.

Yes. That middle-class white audience tended to place too much emphasis on the lyric. It treated the blues in the way it treated all those collections of folk artefacts, as too-literal representations of the common folk, which it enshrined and encircled with its best intentions. Blues music, to the middle class, was about suffering. Blues music, to those first black audiences, was about life. It was about death, fun, dancing, religion and other magics, sadness, suffering, lust, and it was about everything between. The musicians crudely stitched together lines from lines of other musicians, sayings in the air from friends to strangers to radio announcers to white folk to comedians to shopkeepers to bartenders to barbers. They heard songs and used their minimal musical chops to deliver brilliant part-remembered bad covers.

Wait. The first blues singers to gain a widespread popularity (and with black and white audiences) were women in the 1920s who often performed in trad-jazzy-blues modes. Their songs went beyond the theme of suffering. They sang dirty blues, “hokum” that used deliberately clumsy, extended sexual euphemisms to comic effect (see Lucille Bogan, her use of the popular lyrical trope in “Coffee Grindin’ Blues” for example). Risque sidelines from suffering, sometimes these ditties shed even their thin pretence, and sometimes they became the explicit main event (again, see Lucille Bogan, her “Shave ’Em Dry”, and hold on to your hat for the party version). The blues from early on was about more than depictions of suffering even to white audiences, then. These popular instalments also tended to be smoother than the down-home stuff that all whites supposedly demanded.

God, it’s hard to generalise. Many blues musicians went well beyond “minimal musical chops”. Many would’ve been able to play beyond their signature styles, if the market had allowed it. Lightnin’ Hopkins had strict unwritten instructions from a hunk of his white audience to sustain the down-home shtick, so he hid it for them, but he knew how to tune his guitar to jazz. Record companies demanded endless rehashes of the hits from Elmore James and Magic Sam. When the results failed to hit pay dirt, the companies assumed they wouldn’t be able to play another riff, that fans wouldn’t want to hear it.

The folk revival didn’t want Bob Dylan plugging no electrical geetar into no amplifier. The folk revival involved a lot of middle-class veneration of an idealised rural poor, and they needed Robert to continue tending to the appropriate Woody Guthrie impersonation. (How to Listen to Bob Dylan aside. This isn’t entirely to excuse his thefts as a songwriter, or his thefts as a writer of prose or as a painter for that matter, but here’s a nonetheless highly flattering portrait: Dylan makes better sense when you view him as an artist in the mode of a fabled bluesman rather than anything next to a respectable intellectual. He has an improvisational impatience. He snatches the work of others, which he pushes into his own hasty art without qualms. Dylan is, despite any rarefied literary claims, part of a folkloric tradition and manifesto anyhow, an instinctive and emphatic yes for experiment. His sundry jagged phases are the restlessness of a bluesman free enough to play with other roles.) First thing backwoods blues players did when they moved up to the city was ensure their music penetrated those rowdy clubs. The expression that the unfaithful amplification gave to those harmonicas and other instruments was a mystical, happy almost-accident. The folk revival, though, needed its blues artists to shed their suits for dungarees, to exchange those new-fangled electricity-conducting bastardisations for the same natural guitars as its other carefully-everyday cast of characters. A straw in the mouth wouldn’t be too much at all, no.

Blimey. We’ve hit upon quite a few ways to listen to the blues. So what the hell, already, is the problem with John Lee Hooker? The marketing weight behind his legend pushes new listeners towards his later stuff. That’s a problem. Potential fans often fly out of his orbit altogether after that. I mean albums like, and especially, 1980s celeb-fest The Healer. The cover shows John Lee Hooker in silhouette. You can tell it’s him because he has on his homburg hat. He has his arms aloft and outstretched, his spindly fingers doing preacher’s work, healing air.

We know the drill: the earlier part of a musician’s oeuvre (especially if it’s more obscure) out-hips the latter. You only need to consult briefly with the Beatles, however, to admit complications with this mechanical instruction. The most contrary fan would have trouble sustaining an authoritative argument for the Fab Four’s White Album as empty compared with Please Please Me. The uneven solo-Beatle output further muddies the water with its debacles and triumphs. Admirers of bluesman Furry Lewis (who has the added bonus of being a funny-named, somewhat obscure artist) too often concentrate on the pioneering 1920s records as if his wondrously engineered, godlike performances from the folk-revival early 60s, recorded at Sun Studio, were leftovers.

The earlier half of John Lee Hooker’s oeuvre, though, does out-hip the latter. How? Let’s look briefly towards the Rolling Stones. Their music, as with the music of all those giants of the 1960s, had succumbed by the 1980s to the industry’s intensified push for disinfected product. Blame it on Solid State Logic mixing consoles with their gated reverb if you like. It was to do with production. The tones of Stones albums revive after that Duran Duran decade but, stubbornly, the truly magical colourations remain pre-1980s. Yet it’s somewhat a failure of imagination on the part of those Stones fans who refuse to venture much beyond the early 1970s, because buried beneath the sterile productions you can still hear the music. You can hear songs on Steel Wheels, and what if, what if they had the textures of Let It Bleed or Exile on Main St? OK, it’s unfortunate if it’s necessary to bring this sort of imaginative approach to a record. Anyhow, the point is it’s an impossible trick to play with John Lee Hooker’s music, because it’s all about texture, feel, sound. Subtract that, and you have no songs. It’s too much of a weird ask to recolour The Healer, to picture it with John Lee Hooker’s heyday atmospheres in place of its hostile technologies and big-name “accompanists” (actually, John Lee Hooker is barely an accompanist to the record’s cumbersome cast, which comprises the likes of well-intentioned soft-bluesy rock performer Bonnie Raitt and well-intentioned bluesy-Latin rock fusion guitarist Carlos Santana). John Lee Hooker’s songs, more than most any major artist, are sounds. They’re raw-feel grooves, riffs on rawness, however you want to hear it. Dungarees and a straw in the mouth are beside the point.

This lack of John Lee Hooker songs is, understandably, why people have such trouble covering them. The first albums of the Animals (ie before the name change to Eric Burden & the Animals) were close attempts to copy the sounds of rhythm & blues. The covers of “Dimples”, “I’m Mad Again”, “Boom Boom”, “Maudie” are more than sympathetic. They took to the sound. Usually, though, it’s better when musicians misappropriate the riffs, as say, ZZ Top did with “Boogie Chillen’” for the 1973 hit “La Grange”. Junior Parker adapted the feel of “Boogie Chillen’” to varying degrees for his releases on Sun Records, which Elvis Presley and his band in turn twisted for the 1955 “Mystery Train” cover. John Lee Hooker for his part never attempted a close cover: the idea was simply to run a song’s elements through his monolithic sound.

The blues is primitive, or another way to put that and resist the racist overtones of such an epithet is to say the blues has an authority that only arrogance would want to improve. It’s an authority whose originality and drive also resist the racism of any noble savage caricature. Gratuitous ideas of quality swathe themselves around The Healer. John Lee Hooker was a healer. Perhaps it’s a little more complicated to how that album sells him as one, perhaps much more simple: either case it’s different.

The main way the new listener tends to get into and stay with John Lee Hooker is through earlier stuff. Hooker’s catalogue, irrespective even of the myriad retitled reissues, disorientates more than any other major artist, although the classic early albums, compilations, from the late 1950s onwards provide ideal sets. They spread across a mess of labels, but they’re how the public first got extended exposure to his recorded music, and here vinyl-length albums certainly make better sense than unwieldy box sets. Chicago’s black-owned Vee-Jay Records put out the first album, I’m John Lee Hooker, in 1959. A little over half an hour of electrified blues, it collects singles for the label since he’d signed in 1955 and features irresistible band accompaniment on “I’m So Excited”, “I Love You Honey” and “Dimples”. Solo standouts include “Hobo Blues”, “Crawlin’ King Snake” and “Boogie Chillun”. As an example of how John Lee Hooker’s release history disorientates, “Boogie Chillun” is a similar rerecord with a slightly amended title, one of a few rerecords he’d made, of 1948’s “Boogie Chillen’”, the single that’d started his recording career with a such a bang.

The industry ripped off poor black musicians even more than poor white musicians. A natural answer was to ignore contracts, and that goes a good way to explain why so many eccentric early John Lee Hooker sides exist. He’d moonlight. He’d literally get out of bed in the middle of the night and spend a couple of hours in a studio for cash in hand. “No time to polish,” as he told Charles Shaar Murray for the wonderfully warm and considered biography Boogie Man: The Adventures of John Lee Hooker in the Twentieth Century. He’d mess around with his guitar on the drive to the studio and be ready to record half a dozen new songs. “They wanted something by John Lee Hooker: they didn’t care if it was a dog-bark, long as it had the John Lee Hooker sound.” He was between contracts when he recorded for Riverside in 1959, though. The Country Blues of John Lee Hooker was an affirmation of his music’s electrifying aspect even when voiced with acoustic guitar (just as rhythms retain their rural character when amplified). It also marks the first appearance of his stalwart “Tupelo Blues”. Meanwhile, a third Hooker album turned up thanks to Chess Records. House of the Blues is a rough selection of songs culled from early 1950s sessions. Riverside released That’s My Story, another acoustic guitar set, the next year too. Riverside was primarily a jazz label, and here it documented Hooker with the kind of fidelity usually reserved for jazz artists.

Back on Vee-Jay, another contemporary studio date, this time in Chicago, provided the songs that make up Travelin’. Where That’s My Story has jazz-background drums and double bass bent sensitively to Hooker’s simple purpose, Travelin’ features a rhythm & blues band intensively connected to his musical spirit. But I mentioned how his discography disorientates, right? That same year saw the release of a compilation on Modern Records’ budget subsidiary Crown, with the relatively grey title The Blues. John Lee Hooker had made his first recordings in Detroit, and LA-based Modern had made them into his first singles. The Blues includes the original “Boogie Chillen’” and his other outsize hit “I’m in the Mood” along with other early rough cut classics, acoustic and electric, solo and band. That electrified guitar sound on “Boogie Chillen’”, by the way, is a distorted recording of an acoustic. Anyway, John Lee Hooker’s fourth album of that year had the similar title Sings Blues, while the next year another compilation appeared with the title Plays & Sings the Blues, and another still had the name Sings the Blues.

Right. King Records had put out that Sings Blues compilation (1960). It again featured early Modern sides, although it had a few 1952 songs actually by John’s cousin, slide guitarist Earl Hooker. Chess released 1961’s Plays & Sings the Blues, another hotchpotch: solo stompers that, as with House of the Blues, Chess had bought in the early 1950s. Crown meanwhile was again behind Sings the Blues. Some of its songs came from a more modern (by a few years, anyway) Modern session with a small band, and the fruits were impressively full.

Vee-Jay continued its annual schedule of Boogie Man LPs with The Folk Lore of John Lee Hooker. A handful of its numbers is the outcome of a 1960 solo New York session, along with two further songs from that year taped at the second annual Newport Folk Festival in New England. The rest are magical rhythm & blues band performances courtesy of a contemporary Chicago session.

The first of the two classic manifestations of Hooker’s recorded sound had begun with his first record, the hit single “Boogie Chillen’”. “Dimples” marked the earnest start of the second manifestation, but it’s “Boom Boom”, from the 1962 Vee-Jay LP Burnin’, that serves as the most famous example. The shift between the two classic sounds is natural. It goes in essence from raw-solo-Hooker-drone to Hooker-drone-with-deadly-rhythm-&-blues-backing. Vee-Jay has overdone things by the time of 1963’s The Big Soul of John Lee Hooker, though. Motown lent a hand to Burnin’, and it lends a bigger hand to The Big Soul. The title signposts the attempt to work with Motown’s miraculous early sound. Prominent female vocals feature, Mary Wilson of the Supremes among them, as well as other core Motown musicians, Motown keyboards, Motown brass section. The result leaves Hooker adrift.

Vee-Jay actually put out another Hooker album that year. Despite the title, On Campus is a studio work too, much of it a further Motown-inflected record. As “Birmingham Blues” and “Don’t Look Back” testify, it shows greater sensitivity than The Big Soul. What’s more, a handful of numbers that includes versions of “Half aStranger” and “Bottle Up and Go” is just John Lee Hooker with the simplest drum accompaniment.

The On Campus title is an attempt to attract the booming folk revival crowd, to evoke the cafe and college circuit, and the tracks on the album that cut out the Motown sound are part of the concession. The revival market generated That’s My Story and other acoustic propositions, got phrases such as Country Blues into titles. It certainly shoehorned the word folk into titles.

Crown presented another electrified compilation of Modern sessions in 1962 and called it Folk Blues. Chess recorded, with particular consideration and a classic rhythm & blues band setup, an impressive number of Boogie Man jams one day in 1966 for a release with the customary sham title of The Real Folk Blues. However uninterested he seemed with the acoustic guitar, Concert at Newport (1964), the seventh and last John Lee Hooker album on dysfunctional, diminished Vee-Jay, really was a record of his performance at the previous year’s Newport Folk Festival. (Hooker, by the way, performed at Newport twice in a row: the festival itself hadn’t run the couple of years between his appearances.)

Californian label Galaxy had bought the fruits of a 1961 Hooker session and released the John Lee Hooker LP, a revival of his electrified sound, the next year. Galaxy also taped his solo electric performances at San Francisco’s Sugar Hill blues club in 1962, eventually offered as Live at Sugar Hill. Meanwhile, the 1959 session that’d provided the songs for that year’s Country Blues long-player also provided for Burning Hell in 1964. Any unaccompanied Hooker presentation might carry enough of a suggestion of folk. Even as late as 1976, for the Alone album, engineers taped a solo (electric) college gig. The story the folk crowd told themselves was that they helped him get back to his roots. Hooker for his part welcomed the space to explore slower numbers.
Companies had continued to plunder from the early part of Hooker’s recording career. Atco, a division of the Atlantic label, put out Don’t Turn Me from Your Door in 1963. Solo numbers cut a decade earlier make up two-thirds of the LP and feature powerful distorted electric guitar. The rest blends a similar 1961 session except with electric bass. Stax would issue the remainder of the 1961 session on the album That’s Where It’s At!

A new British group called the Groundhogs backed Hooker when he toured the UK in 1964, and afterwards he took them into London’s IBC studios. Verve Folkways, the folk division of California’s Verve Records, released the result, …And Seven Nights, and the boosted rhythm & blues sound emphatically dismissed that label’s folk implications. Impulse!, the jazz subsidiary of New York major ABC, recorded the Boogie Man with jazz musicians at the end of the year for It Serves You Right to Suffer. As with That’s My Story on Riverside, the arrangement provided for a superior grade of studio; otherwise, and likewise with Verve and its folk ways, the fruits subverted any jazz association.

ABC started a more appropriate subsidiary, BluesWay, which delivered Live at the Cafe Au-Go-Go in 1967: John Lee Hooker backed by Muddy Waters and his band! The label had Hooker revisit Chicago for a band-supported Urban Blues next, a straight-ahead set along with the topical and rocking surprise of “The Motor City is Burning”. Hooker and BluesWay followed up with a return to New York for Simply the Truth, another straight-ahead band selection, and then Los Angeles for If You Miss ’Im…I Got ’Im, where Earl Hooker, John Lee’s cousin, laid a smooth wah-wah guitar across customary accompaniment.

John Lee Hooker had made regular live jaunts across Europe for most of the 1960s, and in the last autumn of the decade, at the request of a short-lived French label called Carson, he agreed to a studio date in Paris. The result, I Feel Good, features West Coast blues legend Lowell Fulson on guitar, and the band furnishes rocking rhythms in the style of his London album …And Seven Nights. Hooker was still in France at the end of the season and even had another studio date, this time in the southwest for Black & Blue Records, although the title track of the solo set that followed, Get Back Home in the USA, broadcasts his desire to leave.

Back home in the USA, in LA, the white blues-rock band Canned Heat took John Lee Hooker into the studio, and Liberty, which had signed Canned Heat, put out the popular double album of the collaboration in 1971. The band understood the importance of the right grungy amplifier tone, and the first half-dozen tracks have Hooker solo with beautifully overdriven guitar. Alan Wilson, Canned Heat co-founder, comes in for the next half-dozen tracks with supernaturally sensitive accompaniment on harmonica, followed by piano and then guitar. The band joins for the rest of the numbers, the culmination of which is an 11-minute take on “Boogie Chillen’”. The tragedy, Alan Wilson’s fatal barbiturate overdose, would take place before the album’s final mix. Meanwhile, John Lee Hooker moved from Detroit after the end of his marriage to settle in California permanently.

It represented the growth in interest for electric blues among white audiences that a major company had launched a label such as BluesWay. Riverside’s The Country Blues of John Lee Hooker, the first album of his for the folk revival market, had helped supercharge his name. It took Canned Heat rather than BluesWay’s efforts to do similar work with rock audiences, though. ABC dropped BluesWay and transferred John Lee to its standard marque for 1971’s Endless Boogie, the first in a series of albums that tried to extend the success of Hooker ’n Heat. As with the Liberty LP, Endless Boogie is a double, recorded in California. These late-period ABC records concentrate on the jam facet of Hooker ’n Heat, and the critical consensus has been that Hooker gets lost among a myriad of hired hands. We’ve had feisty discord over the similar situation of the Motown-laden Big Soul album, though, let alone The Healer with its guest-star overload. It comes down to the versions of John Lee we wish to hear. It hardly flatters ABC’s series that the jams share common ground with the kind his live band would plod through for the rest of his career. However, that he chose to sit on top of those comfortable and admittedly solid live grooves makes them part of his musical character. When he listened to his own records even in the era of The Healer, he chose from this ABC stuff. He failed, in contrast, to warm to The Big Soul from the start.

(An illustrative aside for how Hooker found himself incompatible with Motown components. Three guitarists named Eddie served as important sidemen for John Lee Hooker. Eddie Taylor helped out when Hooker got with Vee-Jay in Chicago. Eddie Kirkland and Eddie Burns recorded with Hooker from the early Detroit days, though, and Burns was a popular Detroit draw in his own right. Indeed, for a time from the mid-1960s Eddie Burns was a bigger attraction in the Motor City than Hooker, and much of it was because Burns adjusted his style to account for the popularity of Motown and Stax. Hooker in live terms as well as on record had left behind Vee-Jay’s Motown experiment, even when the cost was that for a spell, in the town he’d called home, he was sideman to his sideman.)

The real argument for some of these ABC records is simple. They capture supremely enjoyable jams, make up a supremely enjoyable sound. They’re outcrops of the blues-rock found through …And Seven Nights and I Feel Good. Priceless jam band Endless Boogie, fronted by professional record collector Paul “Top Dollar” Major, obviously saw enough worth to signpost its music with the name of the Boogie Man’s first ABC effort.

Hooker, in the tangled tradition of his catalogue, actually had one more album on BluesWay. ABC taped a remarkable gig in the Endless Boogie blues-rock groove; the August date in San Francisco featured the Coast to Coast Blues Band — his road troupe with teenage son Robert Hooker on organ — and a delayed release of the resultant Kabuki Wuki album coincided with a brief resuscitation of the BluesWay imprint. ABC meanwhile arranged another couple of days in the studio in San Francisco. Endless Boogie had featured the odd name such as white rocker Steve Miller, but this time Hooker’s son Robert mingled with a line of white guitar prodigies and even, in anticipation of later celeb-fest years, Van Morrison (more members of the Butterfield Blues Band turned up than had for Endless Boogie too). The company eventually extracted a couple of albums from that couple of days. Never Get Out of These Blues Alive, the first, plods where the second, Born in Mississippi, Raised Up in Tennessee, swaggers. Born in Mississippi manages, strangely enough, to benefit from the kitchen-sink overdubs (flugelhorn, check) and additional mix by producer Ed Michel (who’d worked on If You Miss ’Im…I Got ’Im as well as these ABC records). Hooker performed at Soledad Prison, California, the year after the studio session, which provides another notable ABC album for 1973. (It was convenient for John Lee Hooker Jr, his other son, to appear on Live at Soledad Prison as he was there anyhow.) Finally for his ABC releases, the psychedelic funk of Free Beer and Chicken makes the Muddy Waters LP Electric Mud look only conservative, and, well, some swear by it.

The last great John Lee Hooker album of the 1970s came right at the end, long after his ABC contract had finished. It consists of tracks laid down in New Jersey a couple of decades earlier, however. Hooker had recorded for the state’s Savoy Records, but it was New York neighbour Muse that eventually released Sittin’ Here Thinkin’, where John Lee chugs through hypnotic runs, backed by gloriously simple drums-bass-guitar.

The 1970s gifted a Hooker record for posterity in turn. Performances by various artists from the latter part of that decade at a Canadian club, the Rising Sun in Montreal, surfaced in a bootleg series in the 1990s. The John Lee Hooker instalment of The Rising Sun Collection, a smoking gig from 1977, is a continuation of his blues-rock sound: drums-bass-guitar format with guitars good and loud both for Hooker and Coast to Coast bluesman John García.

I’ve noted these original varied albums and rough-and-ready compilations, the original grouped issues of his songs, provide the best way to listen to John Lee Hooker. He was for over a decade, though, an artist for the single-release market only. His first hit, “Boogie Chillen’”, is a simple, jumping rhythm, a solo acoustic performance. Stripped back, as with Lightnin’ Hopkins’ down-home “Short Haired Woman”, the successful “race record” of the previous year. These were, from the perspective of investors, small outlays with large potential returns. They were three-minute-long songs, because that’s about as much as a side could hold (shellac was the industry standard: 10”, 78 rpm made from the secretion of an Asian insect). Columbia Records introduced the LP (12”, 33 1/3 rpm made from plastic) in 1948, same year as “Boogie Chillen’”. Jazz musicians and Frank Sinatra took priority as the LP market began to grow, though. Raw blues was way down the list.

We’re soundly beyond remote arguments of a disposable format for a disposable music, the idea that Hooker should’ve only entertained us in terms of singles. It’s as preposterous to conclude, in a mythical bid for authenticity, that a bluesman such as Hooker could’ve only made sense as a live performer. One argument might be that he used an electric guitar, had piano and drums behind him when he played in bars and at parties around Detroit in the 1940s. The solo approach, the acoustic guitar of “Boogie Chillen’”, was more a business decision by producer Bernard Besman. The short length of singles, a technological constraint, could provide a further claim for artifice. Bluesmen naturally took their influence from everything around them, though, and that included singles. They’d perform lengthy rhythms at parties and shorter stuff too, like they’d hear on the radio and on jukeboxes, like the singles they’d buy, like they’d hear other bluesmen in turn perform live. Hooker played however he could. An amplified band conquered the noisiest joints but, just as on later records and in later performances, he used all kinds of configurations that included solo acoustic.

Vinyl-purist arguments are beside the point in support of the original albums. Many formats, in many issues, do the trick. Advantages of vinyl such as limited dynamic range and mastered warmth can carry across to other technologies, to compact discs, YouTube streams, whatever. We can create playlists to remove bonuses and replicate the constrained length of a long-player. Efforts to supersede the format wholesale, though, reinforce the sense those original sets provide the best presentation of his legacy. Crammed CD compilations proliferated in the 1990s. Keen to reproduce the acetates as faithfully as possible and exploit the superior technology, rather than an arrangement of songs to play, the results made for dry documents, an academic archive. Things got worse across the next decade as expired copyright conspired with attempts to fight off MP3s. It left us with multi-disc chronicles of flat masters and transfers, a myriad of box sets.

A flood of music files and streams has tried to drown those original albums since the efforts of the box set. His legacy in general can be lost as the internet expands ever faster. Listen to the flip side, though, and it’s a music of opportunity where the internet has made it easier to get into John Lee Hooker. It all has its positives, and that includes CD box sets and compilations. The Legendary Modern Recordings 1948–1954, a single-disc anthology released in 1993 by UK reissue label Ace, is inevitably dry and long (24-track), but it’s the best of its kind. The Complete John Lee Hooker is a project that a small French label called Body & Soul undertook around the new millennium. Half-a-dozen double discs attempt to track Hooker’s entire output up to 1954. It’s enough to excite the curiosity of any Hooker junkie in abstract at least, whatever the impossibly weary reality of a chronological listen. Box sets plumb these specialist depths of our interest. The Classic Early Years 1948–1951 by JSP, another UK reissue label, is the best here. Notwithstanding the fright of its abundance, a hundred tracks across four CDs, the imperfect, slight warmth to the sound in comparison with the fidelity of the Ace rival makes it an easier listen if anything.

CD’s heyday gifted the opportunity to release further tracks from the 1966 Chess session that spawned The Real Folk Blues. More Real Folk Blues: The Missing Album (1991) is as impressive as the first instalment, and by then it was easier, even for many purists, to hear its electric setup as a kind of folk-blues after all. The 1976 college campus gig that Alone captures also has an impressive sequel in Still Alone, a record of the night’s second set. Californian label Fantasy had already elaborated on the 1962 solo performances that Live at Sugar Hill reproduces: under the name Boogie Chillun, it’s a 1970s double-album issue that adds ten class-A tracks to the original list. Ace released these extras as Live at Sugar Hill Volume 2, which offered an opportunity to amplify the confusion of his catalogue. Fantasy put out an album in 2002 under the same title. Just as good, 19 tracks from the same residency, but different to the other Live at Sugar Hill Volume 2.

People often know Hooker’s albums under the title of a reissue. …And Seven Nights can be familiar as Hooker & the Hogs, The Rising Sun Collection as Black Night is Falling and so forth. Google helps sort through that aspect. This might be the most in-depth piece of writing on John Lee Hooker since the internet held our capacity for consideration hostage, yet its emphasis and long list of records is selective, recommended. It accounts for the biggest absences, namely the final phase of John Lee Hooker’s career, but a full story, a list that reckons with everything, might as well be an infinite boogie.

We take different approaches to try to navigate Hooker’s catalogue. We group by place, try to ignore the back-and-forth, start with Detroit and then to Chicago and then to LA. Other times we summarise by label, beyond its mazed detail of detours, from Modern leases to Vee-Jay to ABC. Perhaps we steer our way with his overall sound as it shifts from raw-solo-Hooker-drone, to Hooker-drone-with-deadly-rhythm-&-blues-backing; from trill-filled and dark, slow solo folk-blues, to blues-rock grooves, jams. “Always different, always the same,” radio DJ John Peel said of his favourite band, Mark E. Smith’s post-punk outfit the Fall. It’s worthwhile to keep this epithet in mind with John Lee Hooker.

Mark E. Smith comparisons bear further assessment, and not just over a shared enthusiasm to deliver part-remembered covers. The unlikeliness of the comparisons help. Biographies of Smith necessitate the context of the punk and post-punk scenes, the atmosphere that provided for the Fall. His profiles naturally emphasise working-class Mancunian qualities, and they just as naturally emphasise idiosyncrasies. We benefit as listeners when we admit complex interactions that make Hooker a distinct artist, rather than take him as a reductive representation of a music or people. His sound reflects endless aspects of African-American and Southern experience, and it transmutes them endlessly.

Rhetoric in this article had it that John Lee Hooker played sounds rather than songs. Elsewhere, an early middle-class white audience for the blues was teased for the precious emphasis it placed on the lyric. We understand that Hooker was a champion of simplicity. He urged musicians to slow down, for instance, play half as many notes. Hooker’s music flows. All that said, songs that swim out of his sounds recurrently emerge with a lyric made up of something other than a simple, haphazard collection of lines taken from the common blues supply, something other than lines simply stitched together from the lines of other musicians and so forth. Either way, we can hear the sexism that goes through the blues and beyond, and it’s hardly a comfort that as an artist Hooker is a relatively light offender with a song title such as “I’m Gonna Kill That Woman”. As with those well-intentioned, early white middle-class audiences across college campuses, we fumble towards an appropriate critical approach to the blues while moved by its divided and vital spirit.

The caricature of original, liberal middle-class patrons represents only one early white audience for down-home blues, with Elvis Presley a conspicuous example of an enthusiast of poor circumstance. Blunt conceptions of what constituted a rock crowd, a folk crowd and the fabled crossover market might’ve been effective enough from an industry point of view, but homogeneous blocks of audience, black or white, are an illusion. Our ideas of how to listen to John Lee Hooker modulate uniquely. Perhaps this article will open more direct connections to the music but, of course, only you know how to listen to him.

Selected John Lee Hooker Discography
1959
I’m John Lee Hooker (Vee-Jay)
House of the Blues (Chess)
The Country Blues of John Lee Hooker (Riverside)

1960
That’s My Story: John Lee Hooker Sings the Blues (Riverside)
The Blues (Crown)
Travelin’ (Vee-Jay)
Sings Blues (King)

1961
Plays & Sings the Blues (Chess)
The Folk Lore of John Lee Hooker (Vee-Jay)
Sings the Blues (Crown)

1962
Burnin’ (Vee-Jay)
Folk Blues (Crown)
John Lee Hooker (Galaxy)

1963
The Big Soul Of John Lee Hooker (Vee-Jay)
Don’t Turn Me from Your Door: John Lee Hooker Sings His Blues (Atco)
On Campus (Vee-Jay)

1964
Concert at Newport (Vee-Jay)
Burning Hell (Riverside)

1965
• …And Seven Nights (Verve Folkways)

1966
It Serves You Right to Suffer (Impulse!)
The Real Folk Blues (Chess)

1967
Live at the Cafe Au-Go-Go (BluesWay)

1968
Urban Blues (BluesWay)
Live at Sugar Hill (Galaxy)

1969
Simply ehe Truth (BluesWay)
That’s Where It’s At! (Stax)
If You Miss ’Im…I Got ’Im (BluesWay)

1970
I Wanna Dance All Night (America)
I Feel Good (Carson)
Get Back Home in the USA (Black & Blue)

1971
Hooker ’n Heat (Liberty)
Endless Boogie (ABC)

1972
Boogie Chillun (Fantasy)

1973
Kabuki Wuki (BluesWay)
Live at Soledad Prison (ABC)
Born in Mississippi, Raised Up in Tennessee (ABC)

1979
Sittin’ Here Thinkin’ (Muse)

1980
Alone (Labor)

1982
Still Alone (MMG)

1991
More Real Folk Blues: The Missing Album (MCA)

1993
The Legendary Modern Recordings 1948–1954 (Ace)

1994
The Rising Sun Collection (Just A Memory)

2002
The Classic Early Years 1948–1951 (JSP)
Live at Sugar Hill — Vol. 2 (Fantasy)