As a fan of the blues, those deeply Southern, penetrating windows of the African-American soul, Rory Block has lived a life most of us can only dream.
As a barely teenage daughter of a bohemian Greenwich Village sandal maker, Block grew up learning guitar at the feet of legendary bluesmen, including Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Mississippi John Hurt, and Son House, who taught the great Robert Johnson how to play guitar.
The music has served Block well as one of the world’s foremost blues artists. It’s provided her with a sense of purpose and a handsome living, and she’s been rewarded with five coveted W.C. Handy Awards.
At 63, Block may have nothing left to prove. Instead, this is a time to give back, and Block is doing it one tribute album at a time. The project, which she calls her Mentor Series, will consist of five or six CDs, each dedicated to the music of one of the teachers she met and learned from as a teenager. To date, the series features the music of Son House and McDowell; her latest volume is “I Belong to the Band: A Tribute to Rev. Gary Davis.” Block is working on the yet-to-be-named fourth CD, and plans to release them all as a boxed set.
‘Time to give back’
“I felt it was time to give back, time to say ‘Thank you’ to the unbelievable blues players who inspired me and created a direction for me musically that’s lasted my whole life,” says Block, who brings the blues to the ArtsCenter tonight.
“I have quite a few great names to choose from. I realized this is a special part of my life. This is something I could have missed if . . . I hadn’t been in New York City, growing up at a certain time in a certain location where these blues masters were being brought in for concerts. People I knew were rediscovering some of the players. It was an amazing time and I was very lucky to be in the right place at the right time.”
The place and time was New York’s Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. Her father, Allan Block, owned a sandal shop on busy Fourth Street. The shop was a meeting place for musicians, including David Bromberg and Bob Dylan, who often dropped in to play music. A small but passionate circle of players and record collectors were seeking out blues musicians who had made brilliant recordings but had not enjoyed commercial success.
While her bobby-soxed age-mates were dancing to Frankie Avalon and Pat Boone, Block spent time with Son House and others, learning the intricate techniques and sensuous songs of the masters.
Block was 14 when she and her 18-year-old boyfriend, Stefan Grossman (who would found the blues-oriented Kicking Mule Records), took the subway to visit the Rev. Gary Davis, a former Durham street musician, at his home in the Bronx.
The following year, she and Grossman hitchhiked to California, where she performed in coffeehouses and met Mississippi slide guitarist Fred McDowell. More adventures and musicians followed, and by the mid -1960s she recorded an instructional album, “How to Play Blues Guitar,” under the name Sunshine Kate.
‘A reason to be happy’
Block credits the music with providing direction and belonging during a time when her life was anything but “normal.”
“Music was my life,” she says. “Music was everything. I didn’t have a solid family life. I was sort of a leaf in the wind. What kept me together was music. It’s really the only thing I can credit through the years as giving me a solid purpose and a reason to be happy through it all. That’s the way it was for me then.
“This is the intangible part. People say, ‘Why didn’t you become a Beatles fan like the rest of your contemporaries?’ I say, ‘I was a Beatles fan. I was a Rolling Stones fan. … I loved many kinds of music. But somehow the music that resonated with me the most deeply was country blues.”
Block has recorded more than 25 albums. Some consist of her original songs. Others, such as “The Lady and Mr. Johnson,” her award-winning Robert Johnson tribute, pay homage to the masters.
While the Mentor Series is her way of giving back, Block continues to learn from the men who mentored her as a teenager on fire for the blues.
“I feel like one of the most important messages is that the players who played the music did it without guile, without ulterior motives,” she says. “There was no Internet, no YouTube, no way to become an overnight sensation. In fact, they might not have been playing to a large market. It was really day-by-day.
“The most genuine reason to play music is for the joy, and I feel that every musician I learned from was distinguished by the fact that they played music for the pure joy from within. It was pure soul and pure, genuine emotion. That purity is a message in itself. I feel like that’s the most compelling thing, other than the genius level of the music. The purity of the motive – it’s for the mood and the joy of expressing those feelings.
“In retrospect, it was more rare than I realized. At the time it seemed that anyone could meet Son House and the Rev. Gary Davis. When I look back on it now, I go, ‘I really have to do something more concrete with that amazing experience.’ So that’s what this Mentor Series is really all about.”