The voices of the children float through the music, the way light moves through a dense copse of trees at midday. The singer, John Lee Ziegler, is working through his repertoire, accompanied during a few tunes by Rufus Jones on spoons. It’s the late 1970s, somewhere in Georgia. We don’t know much else. Ziegler is in his late forties, or early fifties, and if he’s like the rest of us that age, he’s had more than a few intimations of mortality and loss. Perhaps he’s sitting on his porch, or in his living room. He’s been found by George Mitchell, a little-known musicologist, a colonialist of sound, for whom we have to give great thanks. Because there’s little in recorded music like John Lee Ziegler.
Not much is known about Ziegler, but we know that by the time Mitchell got to him, he was a plumber and no longer played regularly in public. Born in 1929, Ziegler would have heard, both on recordings and in person, the best products of an extraordinary flowering of American culture, one that coincided with the technological explosion that allowed recording to exist, from Havana through Chicago and on to New York. He would have heard Leroy Carr, and Walter Davis, and Count Basie and Duke Ellington and Jimmy Rogers and the Carter Family. He’d have to have known all sorts of music—country to play for white parties, and deep blues for black parties. He’d know the beauty of Saturday night vulgarity, and he’d know great, gracious songs of loss.
Speaking of loss: He sings—on Georgia Blues Today, the CD I’ve been listening to nonstop for a few months—the song “John Henry.” John Henry, it turns out, was not a fictional character; John Lee Ziegler probably didn’t know, or care. John Henry was a small man who worked in the coal mines of Alabama and had the misfortune of being there to witness the arrival of another technological miracle, the mechanical drill. He challenged the drill to a fight and won, killing himself in the process. In the song, he knows that he’s going to die, and he asks his wife some of the saddest questions in all of American music, questions sung by country singers and blues singers. He asks: “Who’s going to kiss your pretty lips, who’s going to be your man when I’m gone?”
Ziegler sings the lines in a falsetto, one of the most beautiful I’ve ever heard, fat and bristling with overtones. The words are almost unintelligible. He’s an abstractionist. The melody splits your heart. Childrens’ voices filter through the tune; they’re clearly indifferent to the scene that’s taking place, the white man recording the eccentricities of their neighbor, or their grandfather, or uncle. In the electric world of the 1970s, what’s an old man playing acoustic guitar? Nothing. And surely John Lee Ziegler, who used to play for parties, and has spent time in New York, and now is performing for a tape recorder, ignored or humored by his family, knows it too. Blues culture, one of the great inventions of the twentieth century, a culture of humor, of personal and musical swing and self-knowledge—in fact a whole blueprint for survival—was vanishing around him. He could be excused if he’d thought he was the last man standing.
There’s no rushing Ziegler; he plays and sings like only an older person can. Like all manifestations of older age—making love, talking, thinking, knowing—Ziegler understands the long-distance walk, how to stay alive. On all his tunes he’s completely aware of the impact of rhythm, and he shortens phrases, and lets some ring; some get funky and he never uses brute force, or the cheap intoxication of bald repetition; his patience, the subtlety of his gestures, are for a limited audience, for those who understand.
But back to where Ziegler stood, as the citadel collapsed around him. There’s a whole literature about the last Indian—a literature of remorse and false remorse, a big literature of “Oops! We killed them all!” There’s no such thing for blues culture, because in part its pure products are all available on disc, plus mountains of commentary that come with the culture, and keep on coming. We don’t know much about how the northeastern Indians lived for most of their history. But we know how Count Basie played, and Lester Young, and Leroy Carr, and a complete unknown like John Lee Ziegler. We know how they spoke, how they saw the world; we have interviews and biographies and oral histories.
Here’s an irony: We now live in a moment where more musical history is available on recording than in any other time in the history of civilization. You want gamelan recordings from the 1930s? Sure. Haitian field recordings from the 1950s? A rare Hank Ballard single? Gene Autry singing a weirdly filthy version of “Bye Bye, Blackbird?” No problem. But the conservation of styles of music, of a way of thinking, hasn’t happened.
Time stops for nothing. It didn’t stop for John Lee Ziegler, and it didn’t stop for blues culture, and it won’t stop for you or me, despite all the recording, photographing, and videotaping we do. So in “John Henry,” Ziegler tells us that everything passes. That love goes, the person you thought you were going to spend the rest of natural life with leaves, and the heartbreak of losing the person eventually vanishes too—that death passes, that everything you stand for vanishes, that John Henry’s wife will take another after his death, regardless of how valiant he was. And standing here, listening to “John Henry,” with its impossibly archaic singing style, it’s not hard to see the great glories of the twentieth century crossing the river in a boat, leaving those of us who saw and heard and felt it utterly alone.
If Ziegler’s to be believed, the only thing you can do is be responsible. In another song off the album, “If I Lose, Let Me Lose,” Ziegler seems to be taking responsibility for his gambling. “If I lose my money, let me lose,” he sings over and over. And there it is again: If you lose the woman, if you lose your place in history, if everything goes dead, accept it. In a rare moment where he’s not being introspective, he sings a good couplet: “Lose your money, don’t lose your mind / If you lose your woman don’t you mess with mine.” Things keep on going. Not the way you might want, but they do.
That sense of time continuing can also be found elsewhere on the album, in a few tracks that are without precedent in American recording. James Davis, a guitarist, was around Ziegler’s age. But he was still working, playing for elders. He played electric guitar, and he’d hooked up with two drummers who worked parties. They played the same sort of music Mississippi fife and drum bands played, except Davis replaced the fife with electric guitar. In Davis’s music, time is profoundly elongated. On the tune “Old Country Book” he’s not playing a song, he’s mulling over a series of improvised gestures linked together in the same way people improvise couplets in the blues, or in salsa. There is no beginning, middle, or end. There’s just a flow of imagination, a grind for dancing that’s mirrored in the slightly distorted electric guitar, a version of modernism writ in sound. It’s meant to keep grinding for as long as the magical dance moment’s going. Time like the one Davis uses existed once in jazz, where soloists in big bands would open up their improvisations, responding to the dancers, goading them to elegance with new rhythms, pushing them to ecstasy through play and melody and rhythm, and where improvised riffs kept a tune growing as long as needed.
But listen carefully and you hear something else: the sound of rhythmic brilliance when it comes in contact with capitalism, with regular, social work. It is profound. Davis and his two drummers are connected in a way that almost doesn’t exist today, the great works of the twentieth century having left the building. There’s a sensuality to the movement, the way the guitar and drums know how to react to each other. It’s immeasurably intimate, the intimacy of an old couple. That closeness, too, can break your heart, leaving you in a spasm of remorse over things you should have said and done, things that might have helped. That sense of time, of the warm, humid afternoon that lingers.
But there are interventions, too. They aren’t effective, but it’s hard not to cheer when someone tries to break out of time’s prison. At the end of “John Henry,” Ziegler puts himself in the role of John Henry’s wife. John Henry has asked her “Who’s going to kiss your rosy cheeks?” and she answers, “My brother’s going to kiss my rosy cheeks.” She continues, emphatically: “I won’t need no man, tell them, I won’t need no man.”
Ziegler must have been smiling while he sang that, knowing full well that it wasn’t true—that it couldn’t and wouldn’t be true, just as long as time keeps moving. He tried, he tried to stop time, and keep loss away, but it just didn’t work.
Watrous is finishing his novel, This Time the Dream's on Me.