"You can't explain why your soul resonates with something. It's just that you've fallen in love with that music."
Rory Block personifies that old chestnut about not judging a book by its cover. At first glance, she has a passing resemblance to Joni Mitchell or Lucinda Williams. You would almost expect a soft folk type of sound from her and her guitar. You could see her being very comfortable in a coffee house, making her way sweetly through some folk and easy listening standards.
But you would be wrong. Rory Block is the undisputed queen of acoustic blues and not just contemporary acoustic blues. She approaches her art as the anointed keeper of the acoustic Delta blues tradition, playing note for note renditions of the tunes of Robert Johnson, Son House, The Reverend Gary Davis and others. So many of her songs are blues classic and yet she performs them with her own distinct interpretation and flair. Watching and listening to her perform Johnson's "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day" or "Terraplane Blues" will easily stun and stifle any detractors to her huge talent. Watching her hands flying across the fretboard working a socket from a tool box as a slide, is enough to drop the jaw of the most snobbish critic.
Rory (Aurora) Block was born in 1949 in Princeton, New Jersey. Shortly after her birth, the family moved to New York City, settling in the Little Italy section of Manhattan. She and her sister roamed the streets innocently as children, taking in the sights and sounds of their new home. Her father, Alan Block, opened a small custom leather business in a small store front "no bigger than a lunch counter" according to Block herself. "Having no room inside, he stretched his materials out across the sidewalk and made sandals in front of the pedestrians." From there, the family moved to the West Village which, at the time, was the heart of Bohemian society in New York. Alan Block opened his now famous "Alan Block Sandal Shop" on 4th Street, an area where it was no uncommon to see a young Bob Dylan and John Lennon wandering the streets.
According to Block, her first instrument was a Galiano guitar that her mother had picked up at a yard sale for $4.00. It was love at first strum and music became the center of her life. By the age of ten, she had learned the song "Froggy Came A Courtin'" and from the moment on there was no turning back. She began studying classical music and by the age of 14, Block was playing at an informal Sunday Jam in Washington Square Park along musicians diverse as Maria Muldar, John Sebastian, John Herald, Eric Weissberg, Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder.
But her real education came at her father's sandal shop. According to Block, her father, a "fiddler" himself who often played at local folk festivals, began hosting a jam at his shop on Saturday afternoons after the jam in the park had been cancelled due to "anti-loitering laws". The jams were so crowded, the people who came to watch and listen spilled out onto the sidewalk in front of the store while the musicians sat huddled together in the middle of the store. Block admits that her own idiosyncratic habit of stomping her foot while she plays came directly from her father who was the unofficial band master of those Saturday afternoon jams. He would keep the time for the group of musicians by driving his foot rhythmically onto the floor, occasionally chastising a musician who may fall behind with shouts of "Keep the time" and "Speeding up!"
But everything changed for Block when she heard the record Really the Country Blues
. "From that moment, my life was dedicated to learning how to play the blues," Block has said in several interviews. She spent countless hours with her ear pressed up to the tiny speaker of a tape recorder listening over and over to the recordings she had made of the Delta greats. She and fellow blues guitarist Stefan Grossman often made the trip to the Bronx to visit with the Reverend Gary Davis who had relocated there later in his life. Davis would often give tips and lessons to Block and Grossman although Block laughingly recalled that Reverend Davis would play "at you with lightning speed and had a lot to say if you could catch it."
She had sat at the feet of Son House, who as many have said, was the Godfather of the Delta Blues (even making the claim to having taught a young Robert Johnson how to play the guitar). As a teenager while visiting with House and Grossman at Grossmans' parents' home, Block had a chance to play Willie Brown's "Future Blues" for House. According to Block, House kept looking over at Grossman and asking "Where did she learn to play like this?"
Around this time, her home life was falling apart. Her father had left and re-married and her mother had started up a relationship with a man with whom Block and her sister never developed a close relationship. All of this threw Block further into her music. At the age of 15 with her guitar in hand, Block took to the highways with Grossman. The pair of guitarists set out for California along with two others, swinging through the Deep South and winding their way through the Rocky Mountains to the west coast. At the end of their cross country odyssey, they stopped in Berkely, California where they stayed with Ed Denson (founder of Kicking Mule Records) and continued to play in coffee houses and bars. Block recalls one specific incident at the Jaberwockie Café where the musicians all took turns performing. "When I played 'Big Road Blues' by Tommy Johnson, someone in the audience jumped up and shouted 'She plays like a man!' I didn't understand what 'men' played like, what 'women' played like, I didn't comprehend whether I was black or white, 14 or 40, or that where I lived could have anything to do with loving or not loving deep music. Those things felt irrelevant, I learned the music because it was around me when I was growing up and that's how it happens."
The pair returned to New York where they recorded a record in Peter Siegel's bedroom which became an instructional record known as How To Play Blues Guitar
(on which Block was credited as Sunshine Kate). Block has said that she had felt "cheapened" by the project and wanted just to put out a blues record but the label didn't believe it would sell without a catch of some sort. The record was released complete with a tablature book included.
Block dropped out of music completely from 1966 until the mid-70's, concentrating instead on raising a family. When she decided to return to music, the blues were on one of their cyclical down slides and the labels were not interested in producing any straight up blues records. While under contract for both RCA and Chrysalis, she was boxed into writing fairly straight up records and disco which the label felt had more commercial appeal. After a few R&B, pop and disco albums were released, Block became disgusted with major labels and left for Rounder Records (a folk/blues label out of Massachusetts where she was not only accepted for her blues playing and singing but actually encouraged to record blues records.
Her initial record for Rounder, 1981's High Heeled Blues
(produced by producer and performer John Sebastian) got Block her first national notice when it was hailed in Rolling Stone Magazine. The review practically glowed with accolades. "Some of the most singular and affecting Country Blues anyone, man or woman, black or white, old or young has cut in recent years …" Block through herself into an intense period of touring in support of the record, all the while still balancing her life with her two sons, Theile and Jordan.
Block continued to record and tour through the early to mid-'80's, even managing to pick up the pieces following the death of her oldest son Theile. In a quiet, understated way, in her own blog Block states simply that in 1986, "eight days before his 20th birthday, Theile skidded off the road, hit a tree and was killed. Nothing has been the same …" Her 1987 album House Of Hearts
was dedicated to Theile. And yet Theile remains close to her heart and mind. In a 1994 interview with Westworld, Block said "I'll never totally put it away. That would dishonor my son totally if I sort of went past it. I feel like it honors him when people talk about him or ask me about him. It may make me sad, but then I needed to get sad. If he was not mentioned again, I would probably be sad about that. It's a part of our living experiences that people die, and to deny it would be unhealthy."
Block's reputation as well as her fan base continued to grow through the rest of the '80s but her fame practically exploded in the 1990s as she began to win awards as well. 1996, 1999, and 2007 she won Acoustic Blues Album of the Year for When a Woman Gets the Blues
, Confessions of a Blues Singer
, and The Lady and Mr. Johnson
respectively. She also won two W.C. Handy Awards – 1996 for Best Acoustic Blues Album of the Year for When a Woman Gets the Blues
and in 1998 as the Traditional Blues Female Artist of The Year.
As she continued to tour and record, Block began to gain confidence as a songwriter as well and her more recent efforts contain several Block penned tracks and are not necessarily all out and out blues efforts. But the blues remains her mainstay. "It's still a blend. I can't imagine a show without a bunch of blues in it … it's just a part of me. Even if I have a total songwriter album, there's blues influences throughout," Block told Spokane, Washington's News Tribune in 1994.
Rory Block is more than just a singer and guitarist. She's a performer and as a performer she gives her all every time she takes the stage. In an interview with Tab in 1996, Block explained her approach to her stage show. "I go directly into this performing mode with a massive amount of energy. I may even be sick beforehand, and I go out there and have this huge amount of energy, I play hard and go into another dimension. Then I come off stage and I get almost (sic) hypothermia. I cool off too fast and start shivering". And you can hear and practically feel this energy in her recordings.
As Blues Revue Magazine once said "Rory Block is one of the greatest living acoustic blues artists … she can hold her own with the legends who inspired her." I can think of no truer words than can be said of her.