Blues and trouble, that's the cliché. The reality is: blues and chaos. Blues is supposed to be—what?—nurtured by trouble? So is most art that reaches deep inside and demands unflinching honesty. Is blues about trouble? No more than it is about good-time Saturday nights and murder most foul, sharecroppers' servitude, and sweet home Chicago. Is blues a cause of trouble? Not directly. But what sort of thing almost inevitably causes trouble in our oppressively regimented world? You guessed it: chaos.
The blues-and-chaos equation first presented itself to me back in the mid-'60s, when a bunch of us in Memphis—mostly musicians, artists, and a smattering of smugglers and dealers—organized and presented the first Memphis Blues Festivals in the Overton Park Shell. For years I believed the remarkable levels of chaos in everything remotely connected with those festivals resulted from a bunch of hippies trying to turn elderly blues singers into anarchist father-figures. Now I'm not so sure. In any case, that was some years before I met R.L. Burnside.
R.L. was an outstanding disciple of one of the greatest of all bluesmen, Mississippi Fred McDowell, who had been a Memphis Blues Festival regular. By the early 1970s, R.L. had really come into his own. The juke joints he ran, in Coldwater and elsewhere around the North Mississippi hill country, were as famous for their level of violence as for R.L.’s outstanding music, which rolled out of his jacked-up guitar amp in dark, turbulent waves—sometimes punctuated by gunshots, especially on Saturday nights. In fact, R.L. himself has been reported waving a (presumably loaded) pistol in at least one crowded joint. If that strikes you as akin to yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater, well, that's R.L. The man is a connoisseur of chaos; he attracts it, admires it, and then absorbs it, like a black hole sucking reality itself into the chaos of Nothing.
Back in 1993, when I found myself producing a Burnside session for the album that became Too Bad Jim, a succession of chaotic eruptions seemed to threaten the entire project. A wooden string bass fell to pieces in the studio. Then the drum kit collapsed into kindling after being given a single light tap. Then a heavy glass door fell out of its mounting and gave me a skull-rattling knock upside the head. Out of the corner of my eye I glanced over at R.L.—he was enjoying himself like a kid at a Disney movie. The performances he recorded that day were highlights of the album.
I decided, out of near-desperation, to fight fire with fire. Using objects and materials you can find in any good botanica (a shop that sells candles, herbs, and various Santeria/Voodoo supplies and accessories), and dedicating them with a simple, made-up ritual I thought appropriate, I made myself a chaos-buster, a post-Heisenberg-Uncertainty-Principle Mojo hand. And the next time I went in the studio with R.L., I made sure the mojo was secreted on my person. The session went well. Toward the end we were taking a break, standing around in the studio, when it happened again: a tall screen or "baffle" began to tip over, as usual for no apparent reason. It fell, and on the way down it hit stalwart engineer Robbie Norris on his head. This time, I was all smiles. "It works!" I crowed, giving my mojo charm a surreptitious rub. Robbie was gingerly rubbing the top of his head. "Yeah," he said, "it works for you."
But of course, that's just what you expect from magic: if it affects the practitioner’s reality, and in the way desired, it works. Chaos theory is one way of explaining the mechanics involved. Another, more poetic, and perhaps wiser way of explaining it is called "the blues." Rarely have chaos and uncertainty been so listenable; and I'll almost certainly be listening for the rest of my life. If I choose to pack my mojo, well, once again the blues says it best: "Ain't Nobody’s Business if I Do."