By 1968, a lot of people were getting sick of progress and psychedelia. The music they’d grown up with was straightforward blues, R&B, and rock and roll, and there was no need in their mind for all the mellotrons, harpsichords, and songs about incense and flowers, when you could have straight-ahead no-nonsense boogie.
Two people who took that attitude were Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson and Bob “the Bear” Hite, two record collectors and scholars of the blues. Both were record collectors, who had spent years trading obscure 78s of people like Son House, Charley Patton and Tommy Johnson, all of whom were almost completely unknown at the time — their current fame comes largely from the efforts of people like Wilson and Hite to bring their music to the attention of a wider public.
Wilson was, more than anything else, a student of this music. It’s been widely speculated since his death that he was on the autism spectrum, and certainly he had the obsessiveness that’s often characteristic of that. He became such an expert on blues music, particularly 1930s blues, that in 1964, when Son House came out of retirement, Wilson was chosen to teach House his old songs, which the blues legend had forgotten, and to accompany him on a new album.
Wilson and Hite were introduced by a mutual friend, Henry Vestine, an accomplished blues guitarist. Wilson and Hite formed a band, named Canned Heat after a Tommy Johnson song, with Hite on lead vocals and Wilson on guitar, in 1965. After a few line-up changes, including a brief period with Kenny Edwards, later of the Stone Poneys, on guitar, and some abortive sessions with R&B legend Johnny Otis producing, the band settled on a line-up of Wilson, Hite, Vestine (who had not been a member of the band to start with, but had left the Mothers of Invention and joined Wilson and Hite’s band as he wanted to play the blues), Larry Taylor (formerly of the Gamblers and the Candy Store Prophets) on bass, and Frank Cook on drums.
The band’s first album, a collection of blues covers, was moderately well received, and got them a spot at Monterey, where their performance of Muddy Waters’ Rollin’ and Tumblin’ went down well enough to propel them to the top rank of LA live acts. After another lineup change, with Cook being replaced by Adolfo de la Parra, they went into the studio to record their second album.
This time, the tracks would mostly be originals, but “original” here was a relative term. On The Road Again, the band’s first big hit single, is instructive here.
The song has its roots in a 1930s Tommy Johnson blues, Big Road Blues, which the band had covered on their first album. That song had inspired Howlin’ Wolf to record a song Crying At Daybreak, which took the first line of Johnson’s song and stuck it over a one-chord pounding riff (Wolf would later rewrite that song as Smokestack Lightning).
Floyd Jones, a protege of Wolf, took Wolf’s song, and some of Johnson’s lyrics, added some verses of his own, and turned it into Dark Road, then a few years later rerecorded Dark Road as On The Road Again, with a substantially different set of lyrics.
Alan Wilson took the two Jones songs, Dark Road and On The Road Again, and pulled together bits of both sets of lyrics along with another verse of his own. He then replaced Howlin’ Wolf’s one-chord riff with a different one — the riff from Boogie Chillen by John Lee Hooker, staying on an E chord throughout, with just the notes E, G, and A in the riff.
Seeing that this is similar to the Indian drones that were popular in the psychedelic music of the time (and Indian music, like the blues, is roughly based on a pentatonic scale, though both use bends and microtones that are outside standard Western notation), Wilson added a tambura drone to the track. The result was something that perfectly captured the zeitgeist of 1968 — something that sounded fresh, new, and strange, but that was also going back to the roots of rock and blues music (and unlike many musicians at the time, Wilson was honest about his borrowings, giving Floyd Jones equal songwriting credit).
But what captured the ear more than anything was Alan Wilson’s vocal. Normally Canned Heat’s vocals were performed by Bob Hite in a gravelly voice, but here Wilson took the lead in a haunting falsetto, which matched the tone of his harmonica perfectly. It was strange, otherworldly, and quite unlike anything in pop music, though it had clear antecedents in the sound of Skip James or Charley Patton, and propelled an edited version of the track, with the extended solos cut down a little, to the top of the charts.
The track itself was wonderful, but what it said about pop music was less so. The musicians, and the audience, might have been on the road, but they were now going backwards, not forwards.
On The Road Again
Composer: Floyd Jones and Alan Wilson
Line-up: Bob Hite (vocals), Alan Wilson (slide guitar, vocals, harmonica, tambura), Henry Vestine (lead guitar), Larry Taylor (bass), Adolfo de la Parra (drums), Mac Rebennack (piano)
Original release: Boogie With Canned Heat, Canned Heat, Liberty LST-7541
Currently available on: Canned Heat/Boogie With Canned Heat BGO CD