James Cotton is more real than everything else.
By Samuel J. Fell
Listening to most radio today can be an an exercise in banality, a sonic wasteland man, a neon signpost proclaiming this to be a time of musical recession where people are sonically poor and so have to recycle the same tired shit in order to survive. The ‘80s have already been reused twice in the less-than-a-decade I’ve been writing about music and it’s enough to make you vomit out the window of the car, driving down the highway with this puerile rubbish leaking from the speakers, streaks down the door, flecks on the side mirror.
Haven’t you heard anything prior to 1984? Don’t you listen to anything that came before disco? No, what? Why? What came before synthesisers and Jet? Dammit man, open your ears and your mind, don’t you ever get into rock ‘n’ roll, the real kind, the original kind? Don’t you listen to the blues, first thing in the morning and last thing before going to bed?
You know who Muddy Waters was and Robert Johnson and Sonny & Terry and Bukka White and all those old guys. Bah, what the hell? We’re making new music now, we have no time for that. Man, you need re-education, George Orwell would have a field day. Don’t you know about Sun Records? James Cotton man… a behemoth of a harmonica player, he’s one of the last surviving Sun recording artists, he’s still going, he released a new record last year at 78 years of age. He’s the real deal, don’t you listen to him? He’s even touring Australia this year for the first time, this is history, you can get a front row seat. Fuck it. Man.
Everything that happened in the ‘80s, stems from gospel music, jazz and blues. Everything that happened in the ‘90s, stems from gospel music, jazz and blues. The 2000s too, and the decade we’re in now. Own up to the fact that James Cotton is a giant amongst men, a true believer, one who has no other option in life other than to play the blues and it’s so pure, it should be bottled – not so much his music itself, but his belief in his music, the way his mind works. Put that in a bottle and sell it for $5.99 and all you young upstarts will get high on what was and what informs what’s happening now, even if you are inverting it and making no effort to energise it, let alone recognise where it was born.
“I have the blues before sunrise.” Cotton said that to me recently and he guffawed as he said it. He said that’s what gets him out of bed every morning, having played this music for nigh on seventy years. “[The blues] connected me to the outside world, got me off the plantation, and connected me to people all over the world.” He said that to me sometime early last year. That’s what the blues means to him, that’s the feeling. That’s where real music comes from.
“A young boy, he got started / Playin’ in the cotton fields / People shouted mercy / The blues cannot be killed.” This is from the title track of Cotton’s 2013 record, Cotton Mouth Man, and it’s a track that pumps with the energy of music made because the authors have no choice but to make it. It burns through their veins and so it burns on the record, sizzles through wires and speakers before exploding out and into your head. Makes everything else seem limp by comparison.
“If I don’t feel the music, I can’t play the music.” I can’t remember where I read that, but Cotton said it. He was recording at Sun before Elvis, Johnny, Jerry Lee, Carl and Roy. “The blues is a feeling.” He rasped that when we last spoke, he’d been battling throat cancer. And he’s still wailing like a possessed banshee from the depths of hades itself. “You’ve gotta feel it to play it. I feel it very deep, from my heart.”
Man, this is where it all comes from today, and the reason it’s still happening is because it was so real, so raw, so primal, so incredibly personal. You’d do well to recognise that, take it on board. You need to draw from the past, but you don’t need to recycle with lethargic impunity. You need to acknowledge and learn and respect. You need to go and see James Cotton and your life will change and music will sound different and things will have a sheen to them. Things will be real.
Cotton Mouth Man is available through Alligator Records / Only Blues Music. James Cotton plays Bluesfest, April 19 & 20.