Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
Fantasizing About Being Black
Trance Blues Festival Records
By Steve Jones
Otis Taylor is one of the blues world’s most creative and truly original artists. His music takes traditional African music and rhythms, blues and other roots music and blends them into an amazing sound. He uses topics and issues from our society to craft repetitive lyrics to join with the throbbing rhythms that move us. Their simplicity belies the emotions and feeling that they express.
Taylor offers explanations with his song credits, often just a sentence or two, that are always intriguing as they offer insights to why he is writing some of the tunes. He blends a mélange of instruments and modern themes to express the plight of the black man and the African American experience.
Seven of the eleven cuts are originals. He builds on the concepts of his works like the 2013 album My World is Gone, where he worked with native American Mato Nanji from the Nakota Nation, and the 2008 work Recapturing the Banjo, where he showed us the African roots of this important instrument in Americana music. All of his music is a marvelous compendium of African American musical roots and the experiences of the black person in our society. This is his 15th album.
The players here don’t vary a lot. Otis is on guitar, banjo and vocals, Larry Thompson is on drums, and Todd Edmunds is on bass throughout. Ron Miles is on cornet for many tracks and does a marvelous job. Brandon Niederauer is on guitar for a few tracks. Anne Harris serves up her enchanting violin on two cuts. Jerry Douglas adds lap guitar on a couple of tracks, too. The sound is bigger than the three to five artists who appear on each track.
The CD opens to “Twelve String Mile,” a song Otis tells us revolves around America of 1930 where in the deep South a black man would never look a white man in the eye. The cornet is haunting and the koa wood lap guitar is sublime. The lyrics tell us of a man headed to his death in one more mile; we can only suspect how he has brought this wrath against him. This song reprises from the 2000 album When Negroes Walked the Earth. The original version has vocals with a looping echo and is a more sparse production. Here the vocals are less haunting, but that feeling is retained by the cornet and other instrumentation.
“Walk on Water” is from his album Clovis People and it is a song of an interracial couple that breaks up and the man will walk on water to get her back. The original has a more chopped up and desperate vocal approach and more minimalistic instrumentation. Layers of cornet sound and a frenetic, almost Flamenco-styled guitar give this new version desperation. The vocals are more mature and forceful here than the original.
The first new song is “Banjo Bam Bam,” the story of a shackled slave who is slowly losing his mind. His enslavement is driving him crazy; the thought of dying when he wants to be free makes him distressed. The simple and repetitive banjo gives us a feeling of long term distress. Harris’ violin amplifies the distress as it subtly adds to the confusion.
“Hands On Your Stomach” is also from Respect the Dead and later again from Clovis People and trades brassy trumpets for driving guitars. A spirit tells a woman that her mind cannot be controlled if she allows spirits to enter her and help her. The dual guitars stir up a frenzy of the spirit world and offer an interesting contrast to the brassier original. The backline adds to the “confusion” and feelings here; it’s quite interesting. “Jump Jelly Belly” comes back to us with more depth, too. It’s a story about a soldier on a ship helping to move cargo between ships. The move required him to jump between two ships in heavy seas. The song is about the pleading to get the African American Soldier to take a chance and jump. The cornet adds depth that was lacking in the original on Respect the Dead.
The six remaining songs are all new. A man who finds a biracial son he gave up 48 years prior is the subject of “Tripping On This.” Otis showcases an electric banjo here, which is quite cool and has a distinctly unique sound. The song channels John Lee Hooker in a clumsy reunion. The topic of “D to E Blues” is the constant yearning for freedom. Harris’ fiddle comes in again for good effect. The song exudes the frustration of slavery but hope remains evident.
Taylor takes us into the hill country with “Jump Out of Line.” This is a song that reminisces about the fear of civil rights marchers from attacks. It never stopped them and they were resilient in their peaceful protests. It’s got a heavy, cool groove. The white Southern congressman who keeps a secret relationship with a black mistress is the topic of “Just Want to Live With You.” The juxtaposition of white supremacy and personal feelings and desires is more aptly expressed in the touching guitar work by Taylor and Niederauer. The hypocrisy of the relationship is evident as the man wants nothing to do with openness and honesty. “Roll Down The Hill” is a story about a black man who knows he will be pushed and knocked down repeatedly and roll down the hill. His tenacity to get up and go back up is demonstrated in the lyrics and a tenacious groove that Taylor plays.
He closes with Jump to Mexico,” a song about an interracial relationship that forces the protagonist to leave the country or get killed. The koa wood lap guitar is featured. The man is forced to leap from a second story window to get away after a conviction by an unsympathetic judge, Taylor’s impassioned vocals have great feeling expressing this tale.
The album is typical of Otis Taylor. Simple lyrics, repetitive grooves and melody lines help to make the point of the song. Sometimes the liner notes are needed to grasp the meanings of the songs and to assist with the understanding of the lyrics. The music is always spot on in delivering the emotions pertaining to the stories. While Otis’ music is somewhat of an acquired taste, it is always very interesting and full of feeling. His live performances expand on his recorded works and make for an even more emotional ride.
I love Otis’ music. It is often a roller coaster of feelings. It can be confusing to the uninitiated but once the light comes on and you go with the flow and feeling of each piece it becomes comfortable. The topics of his music are often disturbing and potentially hurtful, but those are the type of songs he writes. Here he moves from the slave ships to the cotton fields to the marches of the 1960s -- all a compendium of African American feelings in our American society.
If you are a fan, you will want to add Fantasizing About Being Black to your music collection. Musically, the sounds are complex and interesting and seem to be much more than the three, four or five musicians on each track. Taylor, Douglas and Niederauer are fantastic on their stringed instruments. Harris pops in and makes you wish she and her fiddle were used even more. Miles’ cornet is evocative, mysterious, mystifying and amazing. The backline of Thompson and Edmunds are solid and provide a backdrop to some really cool stuff. They are there out front when needed and subtle in other spots. All in all, this is a fine album that gives you are great set of new and reprised songs that showcase the feelings of African Americans.
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About the author: Steve Jones is president of the Crossroads Blues Society of Northern Illinois in Byron/Rockford.