Louisiana Red meets Arnhem Land blues

Wednesday, October 23, 1991

Louisiana Red and Billy Branch with special guests, the didgeridoo players of Bathurst Island
Paddington RSL, October 13
Reviewed by Norm Dixon

After a solid weekend's work getting Green Left ready for the printers, to be able to knock off and head over to the Paddo RSL to see a couple of US blues greats — one, a veteran of the '50s, the other, one of contemporary blues' top harp players — was a godsend.

What better way to wind down than to listen to some great blues music with a Bundy and Coke (or four), I thought as the taxi arrived. I fully expected a great show from the raves I'd heard about Red's tour last year, but what we saw in the next few hours was one of the most innovative and spontaneous blues show I've seen.

It began with a terrific acoustic set featuring traditional southern rural blues songs about work, prison, sex and loves lost. "I don't write songs, I just live through the catastrophes and sing about them", Red announced. Red's weeping slide guitar and Billy's moaning harp oozed the blues. The sad songs gave way to some driving acoustic boogie.

But it was the electric set that set Paddo ablaze. Backing the tourists, the Mighty Reapers hit top gear. No sooner had the set begun than Billy Branch and the Reapers' conga player were locked in a mighty duel. Red plunged into crowd to play on several occasions, playing blistering guitar solos from all over the hall.

But the most remarkable part of the show came when Red welcomed "my Aboriginal brothers" onto the stage. What followed was the most amazing synthesis of music styles. Four didgeridoo players from Bathurst Island blazed away at 40,000-year-old rhythms, and the veteran from Alabama and the harp maestro from Chicago followed along. In turn, Red and Billy's searing Chicago southside blues were accompanied by the driving didgeridoo beat. This incredible jam session peaked with what must be the most original version of the Chuck Berry classic, "Johnny B. Goode", ever played.

This solidarity with the Aboriginal people expressed by the visitors reflects the common experiences of black peoples and cultures struggling against racism.

Louisiana Red was born in 1932 in Alabama. His father was murdered by the Klu Klux Klan in 1941, and he lived in an orphanage for three years. As a teenager he joined a street gang to survive, was arrested for house breaking and spent a year on the chain gang. He joined the army and fought in Korea. In the '60s, he was active in the Black Muslim movement and also the antiwar and anti-nuclear movements.

Billy Branch, born in 1951 in Chicago and raised in Los Angeles, did not experience the extreme adversity of Red's life. But he too is an activist. Three times a week, Billy and other blues musicians visit the public schools in Chicago's impoverished west side to talk to young black kids about blues history and its position in black culture. He wants Black kids to be proud of their heritage. He teaches te songs. The kids' songs have included "Homework Blues" and "Math Teacher Blues".

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