Known for his politically driven music, J.B. Lenoir was a singer-songwriter and blues guitarist active in the Chicago blues scene throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s. Born in Monticello, Mississippi, it was Lenoir’s guitarist father who first introduced him to the sounds of the blues, Blind Lemon Jefferson in particular.
This music became a major influence for Lenoir and whilst he still very young he had already began working in New Orleans with artists such as Sonny Boy Williamson II and Elmore James. Moving to Chicago in 1949, he was introduced to a wider blues community by Big Bill Broonzy, and shortly after he began to perform with musicians such as Memphis Minnie, Big Maceo Merriweather and Muddy Waters. By 1951 he was recording for J.O.B Records, Parrot, Checker and Chess Records and, because his songs were sometimes controversial, he had (on occasion) to change the title; Eisenhower Blues, for example, had to be re-recorded as Tax Paying Blues!
Developing a strong interest in African percussion, Lenoir also recorded for USA Records as J. B. Lenoir and his African Hunch Rhythm, incorporating this newly found rhythmic interest into his music. It never ceases to surprise me that, despite his promising start and clearly natural flare for the blues, Lenoir struggled to find work as a professional musician. This gave him no choice but to to find work elsewhere and for a while he worked in a kitchen at the University of Illinois in Champaign. Thank goodness he eventually got the break he so deserved and, lucky for us, he was rediscovered by Willie Dixon in the late 1950’s. This changed his path and he began recording alongside drummer, Fred Below on his politically driven records (both inspired by the Civil Rights and Free Speech movements) Alabama Blues and Down In Mississippi.
Lenoir’s work had direct political content relating to racism and the Vietnam War, and in the 2003 a documentary film called The Soul of a Man was made. This venture, directed by Wim Wenders as part of Martin Scorsese’s The Blues series, explored Lenoir’s career, together with those of Skip James and Blind Willie Johnson.
Today’s song is a version of The Whale Has Swallowed Me which, I think, was recorded live sometime in 1965. The earliest album that features this track was recorded in 1970, but I believe this older than that? This version is so much better than any album version I’ve heard. It’s just J B Lenoir and his drummer, Fred Below….but what more do you need? I love the sparse, loose percussion and the way the shuffling rhythm entwines with Lenoir’s guitar and vocals. It’s just raw groove!