Issue 17-16 April 20, 2023 – Blues Blast Magazine
What blues artist wouldn’t wish to have a close enough relationship with Koko Taylor that an affectionate nickname was earned? Acclaimed Country Blues artist, (and seven-time Blues Music Award-winner), Aurora “Rory” Block, had such a relationship, and Koko used to call Rory “Little Miss Dynamite”. A reference to that relationship can be heard toward the end of one of the songs on Rory’s latest release, Ain’t Nobody Worried. Blues Blast Magazine had the opportunity to catch up with Rory by telephone recently, and learned more about how that nickname came to be.
“I met Koko in Germany when we were both on tour. I was the opening act for a couple of her concerts as well as on a TV show, and she started calling me ‘Little Miss Dynamite’. We crossed paths again back in the US, where it was clear that ‘Little Miss Dynamite’ was still my nickname. Once in the dining room at a festival we were sitting and talking about our lives— she told me her husband was very ill and she was grieved about being away from him. I felt so sad for her- the demands of the road can be brutal that way. I was recovering from a recent breakup, and my self-esteem was at an all-time low. She was incredibly kind, and said (from memory), ‘Just let him go- he’s a fool, because he just lost a good woman! You can do better. Don’t sit around pining- get up and get back out there.’ It was the ultimate pep talk from a woman of wisdom. I’m so grateful for that moment in time. Now that she’s not with us anymore, her awesome version of ‘Cried Like a Baby’ just jumped out of the speakers and spoke to my heart. I knew I had to record it as a tribute to her. It brought back the wonderful pep talk she gave me to hear her sing: ‘Yes I cried like a baby, when you left me last Friday night, but now I made me some new connections, and everything is really alright!’”
Rory grew up in Manhattan at a time when some of the most talented musicians in the world also lived there, including Bob Dylan, John Sebastian and Maria Muldaur. In addition, blues greats such as Son House, Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, Reverend Gary Davis and Bukka White were being rediscovered and brought to the area. As a teenager, Rory was introduced to these blues masters by her friend, Stefan Grossman, who knew all the musicians, record collectors and music historians in the area, and took guitar lessons from Gary Davis. Rory was also able to take lessons from Davis, was able to spend time with Mississippi John Hurt, and also had the chance to play with Son House, all at a very early age. Although she had this unique experience of having these masters as mentors, like most other artists, she did not have a mentor to teach her the business aspect of a career in music and about how to survive in the music industry.
“In the beginning I didn’t have a clue about the business side of things, but one is eventually forced to learn the ropes out of necessity. I did get fairly good at accounting over the years. As far as publicity and where you should market your music, it’s a very different world now than it was in the 1970s. Then you were in the hands of the record company. They contacted the radio stations and did all of the publicity. Now that many artists are releasing their own CDs, they have to do most of that themselves on social media. I’m not a social media person, so I would have difficulty if I were starting out today, thus it’s really great to have a label that does all of that for me.
As far as advancing my own career, on the one hand I was dealing with the insecurity and discouragement from my childhood (mostly from my mother), but on the other hand I somehow managed to become irrationally optimistic, believing that ‘the sky is the limit’, and I ultimately came up with some pretty wild ideas- things that made no sense- like my idea that Stevie Wonder could somehow play on my album. But I happened to know someone who worked as an engineer with Stevie, so I said ‘Jim, do you think Stevie might agree to play on my album?’ And Jim said ‘Well, it’s worth a shot.’ So I sent the song, and Jim called me in the middle of the night to say ‘Guess what, Stevie said yes!’ Later Bonnie Raitt, Mark Knopfler, Taj Mahal, and a number of other great artists have also been incredibly kind to me, and have played on my recordings. Honestly, I have exceeded my dreams in that regard and know I’ve been blessed.”
In addition to an entirely different method of publicity, there were other differences in the music industry back in the early seventies. Rory was asked if she endured much sexism throughout her career.
“In the beginning the sexism was bad. People used to tell me, ‘That’s not the way girls are supposed to play the guitar’. When I opened for my friend John Hammond in Australia, there were some people who were actually offended by my playing. Someone came into the back room and admonished me for playing aggressively and slamming the guitar like Charley Patton. I just said, ‘But that’s the way it’s meant to be played.’ The attitude at the time was (at least for some people), “girls don’t do that.’ But I never accepted that of course and have never altered my attack on the guitar for any reason.
Another example of this was when I was in California. I was 15 years old at the time and playing onstage with Fred McDowell, when someone jumped up and shouted, ‘She plays like a man!’ I have always had a strident guitar style because my dad played his instrument that way- with authority and power- and also, that’s the way country blues was written. But at the time I found that many people had a bias that women were only supposed to play soft little arpeggios and sing in a whispery voice.
Then there was also sexism on the radio. Programmers used to say, ‘we don’t program chick singers back-to-back, we have to space them out and have a certain number of male artists in-between’. That was totally weird. It was as if people might get annoyed, or maybe lose interest, if there were female voices one right after the other. It never made any sense to me, and I would bring it up frequently to anyone who would listen. I remember asking ‘why is it OK to play ten songs by men and only one or two by women?’ Thankfully over time this has changed. Now I often hear that promoters are specifically looking for female artists to feature in their lineup. So perhaps it has evened out.”
Rory is currently on Stony Plain Records, her third record label. She discussed how it can be difficult to find a label that is willing to give artistic freedom to the musician.
“I was with Rounder Records for fourteen recordings. In my prior experience record labels always tried to dictate what and how I would record. As a result, I was amazed when Rounder said when I first signed with them, ‘don’t worry about making a radio-friendly record’. They said, ‘just make a record that you think is beautiful.’ I was blown away- they gave me complete artistic freedom right up to the 14th release. But then they started coming up with themes and assigned me a producer. I know they had the best intentions, and I probably should have followed through, but I felt confined. I’m a free bird that has to have total space artistically. That said it was not a negative parting, I just understood that it was time to see what else was out there. After working with a few different labels (all great people and all good experiences), I connected with Stony Plain Records- and they are really fantastic. They are completely supportive and give me total artistic freedom. I can truly say that I have 100% support from them.”
Rory realized she had some exceptional experiences in her life and decided to write her memoir, detailing the opportunities she had to meet and work with some of the legends in the business. She published the book but found that she had to push past the effects of her upbringing to allow herself to talk about her experiences.
“When I first started to play guitar, my mother was very discouraging. She told me I was being ‘loud’ and ‘pushy’, and that I was just trying to call attention to myself. Of course as a child with a burning desire to play music this devastated me- I ended up with a little voice in my head telling me to tone it down, stay out of the limelight, and not draw attention to myself. I even stopped playing for almost a decade because of this. It still affects me today, but I have managed to come to terms with the reasons my mother felt this way. She was simply repeating what she had been told when she was growing up. She was an excellent singer herself and had once auditioned for The Weavers. Family rumor later confirmed that she had been accepted, but that she declined to tour because she was pregnant with my older sister. And that was 1948, an entirely different world. She later tearfully apologized to me, and we came to a deep understanding. As I got older, she made it clear how proud and supportive she had become, which gave me much joy. But despite all of this, when I wrote my book, it was difficult for me to recount my experiences- meeting the blues masters, growing up among the many famous and great artists who walked the streets of Greenwich Village. A pesky little voice in my head said it would be boasting. I felt I couldn’t say that I knew Mississippi John Hurt or Son House, Skip James, Fred McDowell, and Reverend Gary Davis. I felt I couldn’t say that Bob Dylan lived two doors away from my dad’s sandal shop (the Allan Block Sandal Shop) and was sometimes inside talking with my dad when I walked in after school. I constantly had to push past the feeling that I should stay in the background. But at the same time, as per what I explained earlier, I also had another part of me that believed in great big dreams, in asking Stevie Wonder to play on my album, and this desire to believe in the power of thought, to seek anything at all that you can envision, has probably ultimately moved me forward.”
Her own experience in pushing past discouragement and insecurity has helped her mentor others when she teaches students. She found that she was not alone in being hesitant to be the center of attention, and it was not just other women that she had to encourage to take advantage of the spotlight. She also became skilled at teaching people how to play slide guitar, a technique she initially struggled to learn.
“The most common issue I find with students is insecurity. I urge aspiring players not to be apologetic— to play louder and with more confidence. I tell them to harness their own personal energy: ‘Play so people can’t ignore you’. I think of a particular student who was learning play Son House, but thought he wasn’t good enough to sing. In fact, he was an excellent player with a fine voice, and really just needed to sing louder and play with more authority. He has since formed a duo and has a solid following. Regarding teaching slide guitar, I think of it as being completely personal to each and every player. Finding ‘the pocket’ is a little bit like mastering a tennis back hand. You simply have to do it your own way. In the beginning I tried to play Robert Johnson without a slide, just using my bare fingers. But finally, I realized it was going to be a necessary part of my style. So, I struggled with it for the longest time. For years there were no slides in stores at all. You simply had to find a way to create your own. My guy friends would make them out of wine bottles, but I never found anything small enough to fit my hand- they would just fall right off my finger. Then people started bringing me custom-made slides: glass, porcelain, brass- and I built up a nice collection, but still, nothing ever fit me. Finally, John Hammond said to me, ‘go out and get yourself a socket wrench—they come in all sizes’. So, I tried on a bunch of sockets until I found one that fit, and they sanded the end off for me right there, and I started practicing. Still, I didn’t find that ‘Zen’ place right away. Then when Bonnie Raitt played on one of my albums and we were mixing, the engineer soloed her playing in the speakers, I could immediately hear that I had been doing it all wrong. She had a beautiful relaxed style- I say it was as if ‘she was taking a stroll up the neck.’ I was racing around nervously overshooting and undershooting, and my vibrato was razzing and buzzing, and just not in the pocket. Her vibrato was easy and funky. She would also make these incredible leaping notes, jumping right off the neck with the slide. So cool, so much blues energy… and that’s when I started practicing for real, listening to Bonnie, Ry Cooder and Brendon Croker (an excellent British guitarist who was in a band with Mark Knopfler at the time called ‘The Notting Hillbillies’). One day I was practicing and all of a sudden I thought, ‘hey—I think it’s working’. Something must have just clicked. That’s the ‘Zen’ thing— a peaceful feeling just descends along with an out-of-body experience. You let in other energy. Most of what I play and write is through this out-of-body state. Townes Van Zandt once said, when asked how he wrote Poncho and Lefty, ‘I have no idea. It just flew in through the window.’ And that’s how it feels when you’re in this creative space.”
In addition to ingeniously interpreting songs she covers, Rory is also a gifted songwriter. One of the more intriguing of her original songs is “Father and Two Sons,” which tells the tale of the prodigal son. Rory revealed that she was commissioned to write and perform this song.
“Some years ago, a film producer named Merle Worth contacted me about a video project she was producing for the American Bible Society. They were doing modern translations of well-known bible stories and wanted to put them out in a music video format because they believed that young people were moving away from reading and would be more likely to watch a video. The producer, Merle, had heard me singing ‘Walk in Jerusalem’ (on one of my early Rounder Record releases), and felt I would be right for the project. They needed me to write a ten-minute song, and I would be required to use the exact words that they provided. In much the same way I mentioned above, the song just ‘came in through the window’, and somehow, I was able to create the full ten minutes. Merle loved it, I felt proud of my accomplishment, and the American Bible Society gave it the thumbs up.
So, we all went down to Marietta, Georgia to do the video. It turned out to be a major production, filmed over several days on a beautiful horse farm, with a large crew and multiple actors involved. In one of the scenes, I was going to be riding a white stallion bareback just as dawn was breaking. We all arose in darkness and were in place with the horses awaiting the morning light. There was a mist coming off the water as dawn started to break. This is exactly what they wanted, so they started filming me riding bareback along the water, when all of a sudden, we heard a rumbling sound which got louder and louder. Then a herd of horses appeared, racing towards us, and it turned out they were coming to kill the horse I was riding! My horse was a stallion, and they were geldings, so this was just some kind of instinctive call of the wild. There was complete hysteria as the herd surrounded my horse, banging up against us from all sides while my horse reared and snorted. I was scared out of my mind and knew I was about to die. If I had fallen off or received a direct hit with a hoof, I would have gone down and gotten trampled. Luckily, I was an accomplished rider and stayed on my horse. The expert staff from the stable somehow managed to drive the horses away and run them back up the hill. My life was spared. I realized this is what actors must go through when they make action films. It can get dangerous. It turned out to be an amazing video, and no one got hurt. Although the song wasn’t intended to be on any of my records, I showed the video to Rounder, and they loved it. They wanted to put it on the recording I had just completed, so we asked permission from The American Bible Society, and ‘A Father And Two Sons’ ended up on my ‘Angel of Mercy’ release.”
Rory often finds that people in the audience feel a certain bond with her over songs she had written, such as “Lovin’ Whiskey”. People who have loved alcoholics find that song resonates strongly with them, and it can be healing to hear in the words that they are not alone in the pain they are experiencing. Rory was asked about this and about whether there were any songs where the actual process of writing was therapeutic for her.
“While almost all my originals are therapeutic for me when I write them, ‘Spider Boy’ was probably the most intense of all. It was about the death of my oldest son, when he was eighteen, in a car accident. He was a new driver and was following another friend when he lost control around a curve. This is a loss you never get over, and the comfort it brings to others in the same situation can’t be estimated. The song ‘Rosaline’ was about a miscarriage, so it’s another one about loss and grief. ‘Lovin’ Whiskey’ is my most famous original, and many people have told me it helped them through the hardest times in their lives. ‘Silver Wings’ is another one that people say is personally healing to them. It’s about the loss of a dear friend. Then there’s ‘Mama’s Blues.’ I probably can’t think of all the songs I have written that are about the things we all struggle with in life, which is most likely how they end up helping others. If it’s personal to me, it’s probably personal to someone else too, or maybe even many other people. A lot of my songs are about life and death struggles and what it all means. There is much spiritual content. When a person needs healing, just knowing you’re not alone is incredibly important.”
Rory lives in a very small town in upstate New York, and she and her husband bought an abandoned church building. They have used it as a venue for music events, and Rory also became ordained as a minister and has held services there.
“There is a beautiful old church building on my street. It was an active church with services, weddings and a wide range of events when I first moved into my house. Gradually it fell into disuse. I heard that it had been ‘decommissioned’ and had come onto the market as ‘residential’ (think condos and permanent historic changes to the building). Through an amazing series of unlikely events, it eventually became possible for me to purchase it to save the building. So, I put down a binder, but then someone else immediately outbid me. To make a long story short, they later withdrew the offer, and the building ended up with me and my husband. Although we were really in no position to buy it, I am a preservationist at heart. It gives me joy to have saved it, and quite a few people in the community thank us for this.
At first, I thought my friends at the local AME church might be able to use it, as they needed more parking spaces. But they were not able to move at the time, so, I wondered, who would run the services? I’ve always said I am a ‘blues preacher’- so I decided to get ordained. The pastor at the AME church recommended a worthy organization, and I wrote a thesis and stated my reasons. Then their board looked over my application and evaluated my goals. I got approved and ran services until the shutdowns, but unfortunately, we haven’t been able to open since then. We had a very small but faithful group, and I quickly got a profound education in what it means to be the pastor of a little flock. I did a wedding, and a funeral, and someone brought their child to the church for healing. She had a rare condition where she was regressing instead of getting older, and it just kept getting worse. They asked me to lay hands on her and pray. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was supposed to do, but I jumped in, and I can say they were encouraged. If I can help someone through music, or through the church- anything that is positive and supportive- then that’s what I want to do.”
Like most musicians, the pandemic took a toll on Rory. But she and her husband started doing home broadcasts to keep connected to fans and raise some income.
“The power of fear is really unfathomable. We were all terrified we’d catch this horrifying disease and choke and die. As a singer this was beyond frightening to me. And as we all know, tragically, many, many people did die, and there was so much suffering! During this time lots of people got deeply depressed. We lost friends to suicide during the shutdowns. And it was overwhelming to have all the shows cancelled. Three different times we rescheduled just to have everything cancel all over again. We realized we were going to have to reinvent ourselves to survive, so we started doing home broadcasts, and it had an amazingly healing effect. We formed a community and kept in touch that way. We are still doing these broadcasts and have done 198 shows thus far, with March 27th having been our three-year anniversary since starting the home broadcasts. During shutdowns I also was able to continue making records at home because my husband is my engineer. It saved my life— gave me a way to continue doing the thing I love most on earth— music.”
Rory tends to avoid the use of social media, so was unaware of recent discussions during which some artists criticized white blues musicians for appearing as if they were attempting to appropriate Black culture.
“I always say, ‘it’s not your skin, it’s your soul. You can’t control what inspires the human heart.’ I fell in love with the music that was around me when I was growing up. It was the most haunting and powerful music I had ever heard, and it spoke to what was in my heart. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and as such was able to spend in-person time with blues giants like Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Reverend Gary Davis, Fred McDowell and others as a teenager. There was always a feeling of deep connection. None of these great artists ever treated me with disrespect or disdain and I always treated them with total respect. I loved them. They were blues gods, and I was in awe. I never had a feeling that I shouldn’t be doing this- the connection was so strong I really had no choice. Music- country blues, old timey country music, gospel, classical, folk, and a little bit of jazz- is simply a calling on my life.
I have always credited the original songwriters, and not because it was politically correct (that didn’t exist then), but because it is the right thing to do. I’ve always been upset when people fail to credit those who wrote these old songs. In the beginning there was a trend towards thinking that this music had faded into the background, and that nobody would care who may have originally played or written it. I say give proper credit to the artists who wrote and performed the songs. I honor the people who wrote the music and love the original arrangements, which I play as faithfully as possible out of respect.”
One way in which Rory has honored them is through creating tribute albums. She has released albums paying tribute to Son House, Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, Bukka White, Bessie Smith, and Son House. Rory Block was taught by the masters and is truly a legendary acoustic country blues artist. She is currently nominated in three categories for Blues Music Awards. If you witness her live performances, you will quickly see how she came to earn that nickname, “Little Miss Dynamite”. To find out more about Rory’s tour dates and albums, (or to purchase her autobiography), visit www.roryblock.com
Writer Anita Schlank lives in Virginia, and is on the Board of Directors for the River City Blues Society. She has been a fan of the blues since the 1980s. She and Tab Benoit co-authored the book “Blues Therapy,” with all proceeds from sales going to the HART Fund.