Marsha Music

A Grown Woman's Tales from Detroit

John Lee Hooker – No Magic, Just Man

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I was interviewed, in 2001, by a young man who was writing about Detroit Blues. A central focus of his research was my father, Joe Von Battle, who had recorded dozens of Blues and Gospel artists, from the mid-40′s through the  mid-60′s, including John Lee Hooker.
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In those days, John Lee Hooker recorded under different names and at different storefront studios. He hung out around Daddy’s store and backroom studio – Joe’s Record Shop – for weeks at a time; sometimes sleeping on the couch in the back of the shop.

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He is posed in the album cover photo above in front of the record shop, in the same spot where my father, mother and her sisters stood for photos back in the day, some of those photos are posted in this blog. The camera faces North, up Hastings Street, the spire of St. Josophat on Canfield is in the background on the left. That church is still there, one of the few remaining structures adjacent to Hastings St., from back in those days.

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The young writer who was interviewing me had decided to travel from Michigan to California to interview Mr. Hooker, who had become a very old man. As he prepared for this trip, I gave him a copy of an old photo to take with him, of John Lee and my father hanging out at a bar in Detroit, back in the day.
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As the writer prepared to leave for San Francisco, we were both aware of the advanced age of Mr. Hooker. We understood the import of this San Francisco trip. We had a sense, unspoken, that this young writer might be one of the last to have an audience with this great blues man; that Mr. John Lee might not have many more interviews to give.
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I asked the young writer to relay my familial greetings to Mr. Hooker, and bid him farewell. He visited San Francisco, Mr. Hooker’s adopted home, for about a week.
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Upon his return, Jeff told me that Mr. Hooker was frail but remembered many things, and that he had great memories of my father, long ago on Hastings St. He remembered well the times they used to have, at Joe’s Record Shop, and he asked about my elder brother and sister, whom he had known quite well.

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I had cautioned the young man, before he left, not to fall into a common trap in his writing; in which Hooker, and other Black blues artists, are diefied into mystical, mythical figures – mojo men, hoo-doo men, all.
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For the elevation of these men in this way, even if well-meaning, can be dehumanizing, separating them from their existence as real men, like other real men enduring the challenges of survival; attributing their genius to shamanic, magical powers, and not the profound strength and wisdom of that generation of Black men.
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He was not a sorcerer. It was not magic that allowed him to continue despite great obstacles. He was not mystically protected from the pressure-cooker of life in segregation, on urban streets and around the robber barons of the music business.
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To turn him into a mystical figure is to deny his essential humanness, is to make him somehow exempt from the particular indignities and powerlessness that Black men of his generation experienced. He was not exempt, he was not magical – he was a man.
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He drew from the same deep reservoir of pain and strength as did all other Black men of his time who lived lives with extraordinary humiliations and unspeakable challenges. Yet they persevered with courage, intelligence and savvy, and gained the admiration and respect of their communities – and some, the world.
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Now, that is not to say that a Divine Power was not at work in and around him all of his many decades, catapulting him to stardom as the urban voice of the Delta.
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There was surely such a Power – I’ll call it God, and so I think, would he – that put people in his life who understood his talent and others who looked out for him in his old age.
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But he was there was nothing magic, about him, really.
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Many years before my friend’s San Francisco visit, I went backstage to say hello to Mr. Hooker where he sat, post-concert, surrounded by dozens of young, adoring White kids at his feet.
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They sat raptly – blissfully even – listening to him as if he were an oracle (while calling him by his first name, as if he were their age) though they could barely understand his cryptic, whiskeyed Delta speech so familiar to me.
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I couldn’t help but imagine that they had walked right past many similarly aged, wizened black men on the streets on the way to that concert who were invisible to them – if not on that day, on any other day in Detroit.
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And it never ceased to amuse my late mother – and probably others their age – that Mr. Hooker, words strung together in sometimes incomprehensible, Southern non-sequitors, was regarded as a magus, a shamanic, voodoo man.
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No, he was just a man, like other Black men on the streets of the city, a man with a guitar and stories about life in America that all old Black men have. Though being so made him more a man than most of those who worshiped him as godlike, of course.
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Mr. Hooker died within days after the San Francisco interview. His memories of my father were the last he would ever share.
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Maybe he and Daddy are having another Johnny Walker Red in that blues joint in the sky, like they were doing in that picture of mine taken so long ago, when he was not magical, but just a man.

  

Photos:

1. John Lee Hooker, on album cover, in front of Joe’s Record Shop (posing on same spot where my mother is standing on another post in this blog). The spiral of St. Josophat, on Canfield and Hastings (now Chrysler Freeway) is in background.

2. “The Blues Man” by John Lee Hooker, album cover, on Battle, on of my father’s several record labels.

 

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8 thoughts on “John Lee Hooker – No Magic, Just Man

  1. Marsha,

    Once again thanks much for dropping by The “D” Spot earlier, and for your nice words. But especially thanks for turning me on to your wonderful site. This is outstanding material you have here, and you are a phenomenal writer. Seriously.

    You said Joe Von Battle was your father…? I wrote a piece for the Metro Times years ago on the history of Detroit Blues – it was a two-part series – and I remember reading about your father when doing my research. Wow. Small world…

    Anyway, you have a good one. And keep up the great writing.

  2. love this post–you are a wonderful writer. must be the hoodoo…lol

  3. Back at ya’ from Marsha:

    Thanks Michael for stopping by, reading, and leaving the lovely words about my post. They are very encouraging.

    And btw, that’s a very tight site you have, blackpower.com, I’ll add it to my blogroll.

    As far as the hoodoo goes….that made me laugh!

    Anyway, Thanks!! Marsha Music

  4. Marsha,
    What a wonderful summation of Hooker’s legacy. You’re right, there is all too often tendency to make these artists into demigods and the like. What people often don’t realize is that artists shape their persona to the situation at hand. If you’re looking for a shaman, they become a shaman. If you need a hoodoo man, well, guess what?

    I really enjoyed meeting you earlier this year and I look forward to reading and responding you more of your excellent writing and insights.

  5. Reply from Marsha:

    Well…talk about an admired musical figure!! I gasped out loud when I saw your comment, Rev. Jones. I had to laugh at myself.

    What you say is true; I watched, quite amused, as Mr. Hooker would settle back into his chair, an inscrutable magus surrounded by adoring acolytes, he created just what they expected of him.

    You [Rev. Robert Jones, minister, singer, guitarist, musical teacher and WDET broadcaster] are one of my Detroit musical heroes, and I have the greatest admiration for the work that you and your gifted Wife are doing to teach the world about Roots Music.

    I look forward to meeting you both again. I hope you check out the article in this blog on JVB records. I have included a link to your site in my blogroll.

    Thanks and Blessings! Marsha Music

    I thank you for your kind words about my writing. I do love to write.

  6. Marsha:

    I truly enjoyed the pieces on John Lee Hooker and your father. In 1947,
    Detroit bandleader Paul Williams recorded “Thirty-Five-Thirty” for Savoy Records and it became one of his big numbers. I think the Hooker titles that appeared on Savoy (issued under the pseudonym Birmingham Sam)and Regent (issued under the pseudoymn Delta John) were purchased from your father. They were later collected and reissued on both LP and CD. I’m looking forward to your next essay.

  7. Thahks Bob,

    The “3530”, the Hastings St. address of the first Joe’s Record Shop, became a bit famous around Detroit at that time, due to the record that you recall. Which is amazing.

    Hooker is also remembered in my family for hanging around the shop, for days at a time; to me, he was just one of “my Daddy’s friends from Down South”; it took me years to connect the iconic figure that he became – and even was becoming, even at that time – with one of the folks around the shop. Probably one reason that I resist the phenomenon of elevating him to some transcendence of humanity.

    Thanks for writing, and keep checking this site for more of my stories.

    Marsha

  8. I am only 43, but I remember the stories about Hastings St. My family knew Sunnie Wilson, Joe Louis, the Mills Brothers just to name a few. We still have the pictures….and I was the adopted god-son of Mr. Wilson, who was the unofficial mayor of Hastings. Wish i could have been there. Love you JL Hooker story. Keep sharing and posat old Hastings St. Photos.

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