Rory Block on the struggles and triumphs that happen When a Woman Gets the Blues
Rory Block (due April 21st at Rock and Soul Cafe in Boulder and on April 22nd at Swallow Hill in Denver) was fortunate to be at the epicenter of the roots music explosion of the late '50s and early '60s as a child in Greenwich Village. Block rubbed shoulders not just with Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, but also the still-living blues masters of the day, including Son House, Reverend Gary Davis and "Mississippi" Fred McDowell.
Some of that blues soul was obviously infused into Block's own spirit at a young age, because she went on to be one of the most talented blues musicians of her generation. But rather than go the rock route, as so many did, Block stuck to the original art form and -- in so many ways -- she has held on to her integrity as a true modern master of that music.
In 2006, Block got an unexpected stamp of approval from the surviving members of Robert Johnson's family; one couldn't hope for a more coveted endorsement. We spoke with the charming and gracious Block before she ventured forth on one of her many tours, chatting about her struggles, her triumphs, her art and her new autobiography, When a Woman Gets the Blues.
Westword: On that interview section of your website, you mentioned how you drew Reverend Gary Davis. Did you do a lot of drawing when you were younger, and do you continue to do visual art for yourself today?
Rory Block: I absolutely spent quality time with him where Stefan Grossman was taking lessons. But he also came to an apartment we had on St. Mark's Place in the West Village. I write about this in a chapter in my new book, When a Woman Gets the Blues. He was sitting in the living room and smoking his cigar, and Stefan used to reach over and flick the ash off and sort of take care of things. I just drew him when he was sitting there. I have two drawings of Reverend Gary Davis. One was when he was at the house and it was from life, just looking at him and drawing him. The other was from a photo of him at a festival, and I've long since lost track of the original photo. I hope somebody will recognize it at some point and identify it, but I don't recall anymore.
I haven't done much in the way of artwork for quite a while, but I still do a little bit from time to time. I don't seem to have much time for it right now. Maybe sometime I'll get back to it. It's a very peaceful pursuit, and I kind of miss that.
Why was baseball the activity of choice during stops on tour rather than another activity?
I always liked baseball growing up, so it was something I was fairly good at it. Plus, a bicycle takes a bicycle, and if you think about it, almost all sports activities require something in terms of equipment. And a bat and balls and mitts don't take up a lot of space, so they're kind of perfect in that sense. You don't have to carry a kayak on top of the bus or anything like that [laughs]. They seem like easy things to fit in storage bins under the bus.
You've written that audiences give you the gift of feeling valued, but that you never felt valuable. Considering everything you've done, that sentiment comes as a surprise. Do you still feel that way?
Thank you for saying that. That's very kind of you. I have always been on the shy, insecure side, in my own way. I think that -- not trying to say, "go to the book" -- the first third of the book is about my childhood, and it details all kinds of memories and the things that happened to me that made me who I am. There was a lot of insecurity there. If you think about it, the field of music that I loved the most was not at all mainstream. In addition to feeling insecure as a child, and kind of very much an outsider, everything that I was interested in was always totally different than the things my peers were interested in. So I was an unusual personality to begin with.
My choice of music was very eclectic and, as far as I was concerned, it was the best music on earth. But it wasn't at all mainstream, so it made it that much harder to get established doing that form of music when everyone was saying, "Why don't you just sing rock and roll? Why don't you just do this? Why don't you do that?" I guess I always felt like I was on the outside looking in, and it has taken me forever to feel a little bit more secure in what I do and the fact that I have won some awards -- the nice things that have happened, all a surprise to me, quite frankly. You could almost say I'm more grateful for it because I never expected it.
People nowadays all seem to think the blues is really mainstream, but when you were starting out? Not at all.
Exactly. I was advised not to even consider making a career out of singing blues. So I was discouraged by a lot of people that it was something you could never make a career out of, but over time it slowly came together.