If you drew a map of American music, ailment where would its capitals be? Well, the Mississippi Delta, where the blues had its bloody birth; Memphis, Tennessee, where a young hillbilly truck driver brought rock and roll to life; Harlem, New York, where Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie sired, in Jack Kerouac’s phrase, “the children of the American bop night”. Oh yes, and of course, London.
It was in southern England in the mid-1960s that the blues, the quintessential African-American music form, was reborn in the hands of young white art-school types. Here was a generation that might seem to lack a birthright to this music of slavery, but earned its claim to it by sheer dedication and musicianship. The British Blues stands out for a constellation of exceptional guitarists who between them created the lingua franca of popular guitar, and not only that; Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, adopted Londoner Jimi Hendrix and our own Rory Gallagher gave to popular music, just as Louis Armstrong had once done, the daring and verve of virtuoso improvisation.
These are the guitar players I grew up with. Maybe it’s something about being male, or being young, that always has attracted me to musicians who are like test pilots, who can seemingly do the impossible. The blistering stream of notes is a kind of victory over nature, an act of heroic hegemony that utterly engrosses me. I know there’s much more to music, but still I’ve never shaken this fascination with technical flash. But recently I’ve come under the spell of an overlooked player in this era of blues – a master whose playing had little to do with ostentatious flourish, but typified nuance and the lightest of brushstrokes. That player is the tragic, and the magic, Peter Green.
Before Fleetwood Mac were a polished multi-million selling Californian pop-rock band, Green led them as a group playing the purest blues. I recently bought a compilation of theirs, and I’ve assigned it to the car, to listen to while driving. At first, sitting in traffic listening to two hours of this playing, it seemed a little repetitive; certainly, like a lot of blues, the formal structures are very prominent, and are adhered to quite strictly. But I know this is music that will demand contemplation to release its flavours. This is the real blues, and the blues can be coy. It won’t yield up its secrets just like that. And sure enough, when I listen a few times, the apparently restrictive formula begins to reveal music which is rich with both art and craft.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Peter Green’s interpretation of the blues is the beauty of his tone. Among aficionados, the sound of Green’s guitar is legendary, and now I see why. While his contemporaries played with powerful, sustaining and overdriven sound, Peter Green’s tone was delicate, and in fact not that loud. His notes had a brittle, narrow sound, but never strayed into harsh treble; the sustain and power came from his consummate control of the string. This is a style of playing which demands precision and authority, and its lifeblood was Green’s vibrato – the subtle fluctuation added to each held note. Green effortlessly demonstrated very secret knowledge among great musicians, and that is the ability to play quietly, and to explore the texture of his instrument’s response at different levels of volume and attack. What Peter Green has (or at any rate, had, before his life took a very sad turn, which I won’t dwell on here), is what all instrumentalists strive after – a magic touch.
More than many of his contemporaries , Peter Green also had a fascination with the minor blues – that version of the form imbued with the dark, sombre quality of minor chords. If you want to know what I’m talking about, give yourself a treat and search on YouTube for his recording “I Loved Another Woman”. It’s a short song – it won’t take you long – but it’s a great demonstration of Green’s mastery. Like Bill Evans’ piano caress on Miles Davis’ “Blue in Green”, or the preternaturally pure sound of Jeff Buckley’s voice singing “Corpus Christi Carol”, the guitar here creates a haunting kind of beauty out of economical melody played with the softest of touches, and seems to incorporate the introspective space of memory and anticipation. The minor blues is really nothing but a dry set of changes, a structure written down in books of music theory, but the genius of Peter Green brought it to life with a profound sense of mystery. Using really very little, he seems to invite you into some inner world of reverie that ripples with an enigmatic rhythm.
Discovering Peter Green was definitely a couple of hours well spent. In the modern era of compressed sound and compressed files, when we listen to more and more music through earphones, laptop speakers and other affronts to the musician’s art (I’m no exception), you have to wonder how often you can come across someone with such subtlety. By no means have I lost my love for the rebellious flurry of notes that you’ll hear from the gunslinger players – and you’ll hear that in Peter Green’s music occasionally, along with plenty of exuberantly swinging shuffles in the best tradition of the blues. But where I think this overlooked craftsman of the guitar distinguished himself was in the depth of his understanding that a musician controls not only sound, but silence.