Last week John Lee Hooker, one of the last great living legends of blues music, died in his sleep at the age of 83. I was truly hit with the loss of this man, whom I had never met, in the bizarre and detached way that the words and music of a total stranger can so powerfully affect a person. You see, the Hook was a fundamental aspect of my childhood.
My father is lifelong jazz aficionado; I was raised on jazz and blues, literally listening to John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Muddy Waters while in utero. When I was 6 years old, my father began hosting a jazz radio show on WEMU. One day, when my attention was momentarily diverted from “Sesame Street,” he played a John Lee Hooker song for me, “Bottle Up and Go.” The first lines of the song are: “Mama bought a chicken/Thought it was a duck/Put it on the table with its legs stickin’ up/Ya gots to bottle up and go.”
For some reason, my 6-year-old mind found this incredibly amusing. Like, funnier than the Swedish Chef on “The Muppet Show.” From that point on, I pestered my father every day to play “the duck song” on his show. At the time, his show was exclusively jazz, so he explained to me that the Hook’s song didn’t fit in his genre. I failed to grasp this concept and mercilessly begged, whined and cried until he finally broke down and played it for me on my birthday.
My junior year of college I did a semester at Eastern Michigan University, got a job at WEMU, and got my own overnight jazz and blues show. The very first song I ever played as a jazz DJ was “Bottle Up and Go.” I prefaced it by explaining my infatuation with the song as a child, and how I used to beg my father to play it on his show. “Well, Dad, I’ve got my own jazz show now,” I said softly into the mic, “and I can play whatever I want. And this one is for you.”
My father, not an emotional person, got positively teary-eyed.
I’m sure the Hook has touched many others in similar ways, with his deeply profound yet simple music that spoke of universal pains, heartache and perseverance. The blues was born from the days of slavery, the mournful tales of struggle put to haunting, somber and sometimes joyful melodies. As a blond-haired, blue-eyed white girl who grew up in the suburbs, I may seem like an odd choice for an avid Hooker fan, but the Hook truly spoke to us all. Although the origins of his work are deeply rooted in identifications of class and race, the sheer brilliance of Hook’s music is that it transcended any kind of niche, making him accessible to a diverse audience with his heartfelt laments and rejoicings on emotions all humans have felt. Who hasn’t felt the same torment he lays out in “Just Me and My Telephone”? — “I took my telephone to the operator/It must be broke/Cause my baby don’t call me no more.”
In high school when I was stood up for the homecoming dance, I didn’t mope in my bedroom to the mournful sugary ballads of the latest boy band; I holed up with the Hook.
It’s a horrible cliché to say that although the man himself is gone, his music will always live on — but in this case it’s poignantly true. And I can’t even imagine the jam session that’s going on in heaven right now.MT columnist Sarah Klein contributed to The Hot & the Bothered, which is edited by MT arts editor George Tysh
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.