Exploring the art and science behind 'The Blues Time Machine'

Aug 9, 2011

"Morning Edition" host Kirsten Kendrick and “All Blues” host John Kessler discuss the creation and inspiration behind Kessler’s new KPLU series: “The Blues Time Machine.”

Each week the new series follows one song through history – from its earliest recordings to its latest and, sometimes, most surprising interpretations. “The Blues Time Machine” airs on KPLU 88.5 on Fridays at 12:10 p.m. and on Saturday and Sunday at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m.

Here’s the interview:

Kirsten: John, to give folks a feel of this new feature we’re going to take one blues song through time the same way you do in the series.

John: Let’s start with this 1929 recording of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” It’s the first one we know about from Hambone Willie Newbern.

Kirsten: Okay so that establishes the song. That is the blues song we are talking about. And now fast forward about twenty years and Muddy Waters did his own version of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.”

John: Muddy Waters probably is the person that defined Chicago Blues, so choosing a version by him really lets us know how the new Chicago players were interpreting this material from the ’20s and ’30s and it sets the tone for everything that was to follow.

Kirsten: And now John, before we play these last two versions of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”, I wanted to talk to you a little about the concept behind the "Blues Time Machine" because I’m coming across these blues songs from a lot of the more modern artists and it’s interesting to hear the history.

John: Well, for a lot of us, our first encounters with music and blues was from groups like the Rolling Stones, Cream and the Allman Brothers.  At least for me coming up in the late ’60s, I heard “Stormy Monday” and “Crossroads” and I had no idea they were blues songs.

Kirsten: So is that a hallmark of a great song, if it can have many incarnations?

John: With all the songs that we have looked at so far on the "Blues Time Machine," you kind of have to jump to that conclusion from hearing them in all of their different forms, from the 1920’s or forms from 2010. It’s the same song, but wow, does it sound different.

Kirsten: One of the interesting things that I have found is, at least in the early twentieth century, a lot of groups were covering a song shortly after it came out.

John: “Blues in the Night” came out in the early '40s. Probably a dozen versions came out within a couple of years of that. In another example in 1964, Irma Thomas released “Time Is on My Side," which started to be a big hit for her but a few months later the Rolling Stones came out with a virtually identical version. It knocked Irma’s song way down the charts. They kind of owned that song. So yeah, it was more of a model rather than, “let’s try to be our own original band.” It was more, “Let’s take a good song and try to have success with that.”

Kirsten: With the Blues Time Machine, you’re really looking in different decades, and tracing a song through those decades, so let’s get back to the song that we were featuring, “Rollin’ and Tumblin’," originally done by Hambone Willie Newbern back in 1929. We heard Muddy Waters do a version of it in 1950. Elmore James did his version of it in 1960.

John: Elmore James really brought in the electric era of blues. 1960, that’s really the beginning of the electric era. He’s arguably the most well regarded slide guitar player in the blues, so he really puts his stamp on it.

Kirsten: And quite a different take, John, from 2001 – Jeff Beck and singer Imogen Heap.

John: Jeff Beck is always kind of known for taking songs and twisting them into unimaginable forms and this version of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” is truly mind-bending.

Kirsten: So, given that version, and that’s just amazingly different from the one from Hambone Willie Newbern back in 1929, we can’t really put a label on that kind of music or on a particular song, can we?

John: Putting labels on things just doesn’t seem to make much sense because, what do you call that Jeff Beck version?  Is it blues? No, but it came from the blues. And so, I guess, it leads you to realize, whether we are aware of it or not, this music is connected.

Kirsten: And really learning about the history connects us to the music.

“The Blues Time Machine” is a weekly feature tracking one great blues song through time. The series is hosted by John Kessler, from KPLU’s  “All Blues,” and is published here every Friday and airs on KPLU 88.5 on Fridays at 12:10 p.m. and on Saturday and Sunday at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m.