Blind Owl Blues reviewed by guitarist Barry Melton
I want to tell you about a most wonderful book I just read, “Blind Owl Blues - The Mysterious Life and Death of Blues Legend Alan Wilson,” by my facebook friend, Rebecca Davis Winters. I’m not entirely sure how I found Rebecca on facebook, but when I discovered she had written a biography of my old friend, Al Wilson, I wrote to tell her Al and I were friends and she quickly sent me an autographed copy of the book. If you don’t know who Alan Wilson was, he was the CANNED HEAT guitarist, harmonica player and singer that left us with the Woodstock theme, “Going Up the Country” and also the classic, “On the Road Again.” Of course, Al’s contribution to music was far greater than just those two songs; but I mention them as aides to memory, so that you will quickly remember Al and his story.
I think reading biographies is an essential part of growing up in our culture, as some part of how we set our compass in life is accomplished by familiarizing ourselves with the life stories of others. As we age, we use biographies as some kind of yardstick to measure such intangibles as happiness and success, by comparing our own lives to the lives of others. And sometimes – just sometimes -- a biography assumes literary proportions of such depth and detail that the biography stands on its own, almost independent of its subject matter, and creative force of the author becomes interwoven with the subject of the biography; and afterwards the two become inseparable. Forever after, our view of the subject of the biography is colored by the perception of the biographer. As a result, and by way of example, I believe it is no longer possible to study the life of Abraham Lincoln without acknowledging the influence of his greatest biographer -- the beloved American poet and folk singer, Carl Sandberg.
Al Wilson only lived to be 27 years old; but after reading “Blind Owl Blues,” Rebecca Davis Winters has convinced me that Al is almost single-handedly responsible for popularizing an entire genre of formerly inaccessible country blues styles into the American musical mainstream. I knew Al, and I knew his music came from an academic and scholarly understanding of the country blues idiom. It was also uncomfortably obvious that Al was an introvert and ill at ease in almost any social situation. But I never suspected that his life was so troubled. With extraordinary bravery, Rebecca Davis Winters peels away the layers of Alan Wilson’s troubled life and gives context to the remarkable contribution he made to the music we love.
As a musician and something of a blues scholar myself, it would be manifestly unfair were it to go unsaid that “Blind Owl Blues” also plainly demonstrates the spectacular musicological scholarship of its author, Rebecca Davis Winters. I can personally vouchsafe that her portrayal of Bukka White and other country blues musicians that I knew and befriended in my youth are uncannily accurate.
This is no “rock star biography” in what is becoming an almost shop-worn series of pandering tell-all books. Rather, “Blind Owl Blues” is a complex portrait of genius and psychological torment that comes to a tragic end, still shrouded in controversy. But there is also a higher part of this book that addresses the ennobling spirit of Alan Wilson, and the gifts he brought us all, despite his overwhelming inner turmoil. I shall be left with the imprint of this book for a lifetime. For me – a friend – although not a close friend, I am now and forever left wondering if there was anything I could have done to change the outcome had I known of Al’s true condition. “Blind Owl Blues” is a remarkable work, by a remarkable author, about a remarkable human being. It is well worth reading. Thank you, Rebecca.
Blind Owl Blues reviewed by Dana Todd
For the discerning blues listener, no post-war figure has remained more shrouded in mystery and intrigue than Alan C. Wilson, inspiration and founding member of Canned Heat. The “Blind Owl’s” untimely death in 1970 left this seminal group without its signature voice, the voice of a lonely and powerful mind, heart, and soul. His introspective, absolutely original and creative modern blues drive and contributions have inspired musicians, young and old, blues and non-blues, for the 35 years since his passing. “Legendary” is not too strong a word, and the truth behind the legend can now be known. At last.
Rebecca Davis Winters cannot be congratulated enough for her ten-years-in-the-making research and documentation project, uncovering the full story of Al’s childhood, contributions to blues music and scholarship, and personal struggle to create true art in modern America. Her exhaustive research and clear and calm narrative voice can be experienced fully in her most recent book, Blind Owl Blues, (2007) now available through her website at http://blindowlbio.com. Anyone interested in blues, unique musical expression, and the hardships necessarily endured by original creative artistic hearts and minds will find this book an indispensable addition to his or her collection. Blues is the true story told truthfully – do yourself a favor. Go out of your way to get this book!
Blind Owl Blues reviewed by The Rock Relic
They were one of greatest bands to come out of America during the Sixties; a combination of rock, blues and boogie that no other ensemble could ever rival.
If anything, Canned Heat knew the formula for getting into a generation's hearts: keep it simple, upbeat and fun.
But, thanks to their co-founders, Bob "The Bear" Hite and especially Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson, they also laid tracks that showed a great understanding and appreciation for the sounds that started it all -- the blues.
I just finished reading Blind Owl Blues -- The Mysterious Life and Death of Blues Legend Alan Wilson by vibrant author Rebecca Davis Winters (it's my third reading, by the way; that's how interesting this book is!). Within the pages, you come to know the man who, though enigmatic to many, produced some of the greatest music the rock world has ever heard.
Born on Independence Day in 1943, "Blind Owl" (he got his nickname due to his nearsightedness) was a bluesologist and conservationist who wrote most of the band's material. In fact, two of their best-known hits, Going Up The Country (aka Woodstock's Theme Song) and On The Road Again, were composed and sung by Wilson. Raised by a father whom he felt rejected him, Alan suffered from severe depression and varied emotional problems -- and his songs often showed a desire to escape from those troubles.
But there was so much more inside the "Blind Owl's" mind than music.
Alan was a man who loved nature so much that he often slept outside just to be closer to it -- in fact, in Rebecca's book, you can almost feel that passion yourself: his marvel at the California seascape and reverence of the Redwoods. As I was reading, I was struck at how many organisations claim to be preservationists whilst in Wilson alone one could find the purity and honour of that calling.
In "Blind Owl Blues", you'll also find that Alan was responsible for the world "rediscovering" legendary bluesman Son House (in fact, House had been out of music for so long that he'd forgotten some of his material. Wilson refreshed his memory ...). Even John Lee Hooker was amazed by "Blind Owl's" ability to follow his guitar-playing (anyone who worked with Hooker back-in-the-day knew how difficult that could be!).
There's so much to actually cover in this amazing book that I'm gonna stretch this out, in segments, amongst a few other posts. But, before we sign off for this edition, I've gotta give Rebecca an unusual "thumbs-up" (along with the two thumbs already wayyyy up for this amazing book! Yeah, I know ... three thumbs?? Well, ya haven't met me yet, have ya? lol):
She has a chapter called Blind Owl Behind The Wheel that tells ya about some of Alan's first driving experiences. Now, I've read loads of books and articles on music stars, but this is the first I've read that puts such a human side as this into the mix. This is one amazing writer, people ...
I'll be back within the next 48 with more on this book (including ordering information) ... and up-to-the-minute rock news. Until then ... see ya on the flip side!
This amazing work puts you inside the legend -- his thoughts, passions and goals, with-and-without Canned Heat.
In Chapter 8, for example, where Blind Owl introduces his friend, Roger Handy, to ... God! Actually, it was a recording by the blues legend (and father of the amplified blues harmonica) "Little Walter" Jacobs. Amidst Alan's apartment "furnishings" (instruments from xylophones and vibes to marimbas and congas), Roger listened to the record and realised that Jacobs sounded just like Al! Actually, Alan idolised Little Walter, and was impressed with the legend's distinct style. And, whilst Alan was influenced heavily by Walter and other blues-harp legends, he was determined to mix his own style into it ...