Monday, June 15, 2009
The Fascinating Legacy of Robert Wilkins
The aesthetic debt that so many rock musicians carry as a result of their appropriation of traditional roots material, be it country or urban blues, rockabilly or soul music, is nothing short of astonishing. This trend was most pronounced in the 1960's, when solid musical reputations were being forged in part with help from much earlier recordings like Blind Willie' McTell's "Statesboro Blues," covered by the Allman Brothers, Robert Johnson's "Crossroads," and Skip James' "I'm So Glad" by Cream, Memphis Minnie's "When the Levee Breaks" by Led Zepellin, and, the most interesting case of Robert Wilkins' "That's No Way to Get Along" covered and even renamed "Prodigal Son" by the Rolling Stones on their Beggar's Banquet album. Interestingly, Jagger and Richards did not credit their cover to Wilkins until legal action was threatened. It must have been an oversight by producer Jimmy Miller.
The recording career of blues legend Robert Wilkins is strikingly familiar: born in Hernando, Mississippi, early exposure to Delta blues of Charlie Patton and later the minstrel and jug band traditions of Memphis, initial recordings in the late 1920's for the race record label Vocalion, additional recordings in 1935, religious conversion and finally, thirty years of complete obscurity living in Memphis. During this period, Wilkins alters the tenor of the lyrics to his songs for religious purposes, yet his remarkably gifted guitar picking style remains intact. As was the case with many "rediscovered" blues legends like Furry Lewis, Sleepy John Estes, Skip James and Fred Mcdowell, Wilkins' career is resurrected with the country and folk blues renaissance in the early 1960's. Wilkins is invited and performs at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival the same year Mississippi John Hurt appears.
A fine example of the Wilkins technique can be heard in his number "I Do Blues" , listen to the fine alternating thumb work and fascinating vocal style. The more upbeat "Alabama Blues" displays Wilkins' familiarity with the minstrel based traditions which he worked in with equal facility. Check out "Get Away Blues" to hear another technique altogether, unique phrasing and train imitation is remarkable. Finally, the Stones' debt to Wilkins doesn't end with their "Prodigal Son" appropriation, for Wilkins was also the first to record the song entitled "Rolling Stone," which undoubtedly served as the basis for the later Muddy Waters version here. The Water's version is generally credited as being the inspiration for the name "Rolling Stones" of the famous rock band.
Appreciation for Robert Wilkins has continued in recent years. Country blues guitar magician John Miller has put together an instructional on the guitar style of Wilkins which is a testament to Robert's unique guitar technique. Watch Miller perform and explain Wilkins' "Police Sargent Blues" here. Simply outstanding work by Miller who captures Robert Wilkins' style better than anyone I have heard to date.