A Cure for the Don't-know-nothin'-about-the-blues Blues

Chicagoan guitar player Mark Rashkow gives Tel Avivians a crash course on that most American of musical genres.

Every other Thursday night since the middle of May the Shablul jazz club has seemed closer to 1920s Chicago than 21st century Tel Aviv. Patrons of the Tel Aviv Port bar are transported in space and time to the bluesy windy city at a time when America was just starting to urbanize in earnest, and the soundtrack of that intra-continental migration was the first great American music form, the 12-bar blues.

Mark Rashkow, 60, moved to Israel eight years ago, but originally hails from Chicago, where he learned to play the blues from many of the acknowledged legends of the musical genre: Howlin' Wolf, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Mike Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield and others.

Mark Rashkow
Daniel Bar-On

Now he is on a musical mission to expand the Israeli aural palette and deepen its appreciation for long-neglected classical blues.

"Born in Chicago: The History of the Blues" is the result: a postwar-to-post-millennium musical tour that provides novices a solid grounding in blues history and gives hardcore fans a series of spirited performances of their favorites songs.

The show got a big boost from Yoav Kutner, one of Israel's premiere radio presenters and music historians, when he played a Rashkow track last week on his popular radio program HaOneg and pronounced the bluesman "really excellent."

"The essence of the show is not just to perform for them, but to give them the spirit, the feeling, and the knowledge of what the blues is all about," says Rashkow. "That's the show."

Rashkow recounts his first few concerts in the country, recognizing the cultural gap between the Middle East and the American Midwest. "When I started playing in Israel, the audience for blues in Israel was very small, because they're not really educated about it. They don't know a lot about the blues," says Rashkow. "They know what [Eric] Clapton does now, but they really don't know what the blues really means, what it is."

Rashkow says educating the Israeli ear to the sound of the blues can seem an uphill battle.

"I've been playing [in Israel] for four and a half years," he says. "And still, people, when they come to my show, they go, 'Wow! I didn't know this, and I didn't know that.' We play songs, and I tell them it's written in 1934, and they go, 'Are you kidding? Clapton did it in 1970' or 'B. B. King did it in 1990.' I say, 'No, that's the music of the 1920s and 30s!' So I decided to do a show called 'The History of the Blues.'"

Understanding where blues came from, Rashkow says, is the key to understanding blues today.

"Some people ask, 'Are you a cover band? There's no such thing as a cover band with blues! B. B. King wrote one song in his life, 'The Thrill Is Gone', and nobody is sure if he really wrote it," he says, his mouth widening into a smile. "He did everybody else's blues. That's what we all do. But we re-invent it to make it ours: a new sound, a new energy, a new substance. And that's what the blues is all about."

Having performed on stage countless times with his own musical heroes, Rashkow speaks on the topic with authority. He relates the tale of how he was first invited to play with the Chicago blues greats, given his break at age 14 when someone called his house saying they needed a replacement for a bass player with a broken hand, or drug overdose, as Rashkow later found out. Though the gig wasn't until 11 P.M., his mother finally relented and he learned the music in four hours.

That night, he shared the stage with none other than Buddy Miles. "He's one of the greatest blues guys of all time. He's blues-rock, he was the drummer for Jimi Hendrix in Band of Gypsies," says Rashkow. "So I got to play with him and I didn't even know who he was. I didn't even know who he was!"

Rashkow didn't know a lot about blues history at that tender age, but his musical mentors quickly brought him up to speed.

"The blues came from the cotton fields, directly from it," Rashkow says. "John Lee Hooker's father was a slave. And John Lee was, too. They didn't call it slavery at that time. They were sharecroppers, that was bullshit," he says, becoming agitated. "By the time they took out their living expenses and their food, they were slaves, they had nothing left."

Knowing the origins of blues music is important to understanding every kind of American music, says Rashkow. "It all came from blues. People don't understand the importance of it in the modern-day music: where it came from, what it is, and how all the music of today developed straight from the blues," says Rashkow. "And that's what I'm trying to do with this show. And that's what I've been trying to do for most of my life: to educate people on how great the blues is, and what it's all about."