Swamps, gators, hoodoo, voodoo. More than perhaps any other popular American musical genre, the blues comes with an entire closet of myths, associations and a palpable kind of mysticism. From the story of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at a Mississippi crossroads to songs about "mojo" and magic talismans, just uttering the words "Mississippi blues" evokes a cloud of legend.
I haven't always been immune to such mysticism. I discovered the blues as an impressionable teenager — awash in hormones, eager for excitement, swimming in borrowed identities. (I secretly believed, on occasion, that my gangly, awkward, white body was but an impermanent shell for the wise, world-weary black soul that must surely lie within.) I discovered the music around the same time I discovered Jack Kerouac's On the Road, and in the same place — at the local library. I checked out a box set and transferred the tastiest cuts to a cassette tape, which I nearly wore out, driving around in my 1982 Volkswagen Rabbit. Late nights speeding through the farmland, one headlight burned out, I exulted in the soaring riffs and propulsive rhythms — stretching like a rubber band from the one to the five and snapping back to the tonic — and drove myself into sweats playing guitar along with Albert King.
But the most common anthem to my late-night blasts between sweet peas and tulip fields was James Cotton's "Rocket 88," a painfully short, two-minute burner that leaves in its dust the earlier Ike Turner/Jackie Brenston recording, which is hailed as the first-ever rock 'n' roll song. Cotton's take on the song more passionately echoes its beloved subject: the 1949 Oldsmobile 88, an innovatively powerful V-8 machine that became a NASCAR favorite. It revs its engines with a driving rhythm section and blasts forward on the strength of Cotton's fluid voice. Two verses in, though, and it shifts into overdrive, as the frontman lets loose on a 50-second harmonica solo that nearly rattles the bolts out of the Rocket. By the time he gets to his second solo — lurching, veering, careening — you feel like you're stuck in the back seat with a driver on a suicide mission. (Slow down!) Then Cotton abruptly, adroitly downshifts and suddenly, you've come to a comfortable stop.
You're in good hands with James Cotton. The 72-year-old from Tunica, Miss., remains one of the greatest harmonica players of all time. As harp players go, he has perhaps the most respectable pedigree, too. He learned the instrument by listening to Sonny Boy Williamson's fabled "King Biscuit Time" radio program, broadcast out of KFFA in West Memphis, Ark. At the age of 19, he was enlisted by the great Muddy Waters (a blues legend) to supplant Junior Wells onstage and Little Walter on recordings. He played with Waters (born McKinley Morganfield) for 12 years. It was his arrangement of "Got My Mojo Workin'" that made the singer a star. Playing the song at the 1961 Newport Jazz Festival, Cotton's harmonica exploded from the stress.
In 1967, he went to work for himself and earned a reputation as a hard-working showman. (His onstage back flips were legendary.) Dubbed "Superharp" sometime in the 1970s, he went on to record scads of records, earn Handy and Grammy awards, enter the Blues Hall of Fame and sit in with everybody from Janis Joplin to Steve Miller to Led Zeppelin.
Of course, he's older these days, and a throat ailment has made a ragged rasp of his once-bold baritone. And he's not exactly doing back flips anymore. But he still wails on the harp. Still explodes onstage. Still terrifies impressionable teenagers everywhere.
The Blues Harp Blowout with James Cotton, Mark Hummel, Lee Oskar and James Harman at Mirabeau Park Hotel, 1100 N. Sullivan Rd., on Friday, Nov. 23, at 9 pm. Tickets: $32. Call 924-9000.