Doc Maclean brings Narrow House to SA

“Blues Rock Review once said my songs are only about death and dismemberment. That’s not true at all. They’re also about addiction and heartbreak” – Doc Maclean

This is the first time I’m reviewing an album of a Delta blues legend. Not to mention that I had the opportunity to meet the bra and to hang out with him alongside a variety of old and new friends, at three live shows, in my home province, over a period just short of a week. We all enjoyed his vibes man! Doc Maclean is now resident in Canada but his roots lie where the blues was born. The Delta. Doc is from Hollandale, Mississippi to be precise. I was amazed at how humble and approachable he is. I’ve only seen and heard of southern hospitality on TV but I think I understand it much better now. And yeah, I know Canadians to be friendly people.  Maybe too friendly! No wonder Doc loves the place so much. Before I met him there was a part of me that thought he can’t be the real McCoy. “Why is he here man? A real blues man? In Pretoria? Maybe he’s some fake dude”. Canada? Do they even get the blues in Canada? It was difficult to picture a delta bluesman in Canada until I met Doc.  And yeah his first gig was at die Canadian Hiiiiiigh Commission, a block away from my alma mater, so I knew he had to be legit. But I was still sceptical. I can testify he’s the real deal people! It was only the effects of years of isolation from the rest of the world messing with my mind.  I can’t think of one delta blues legend that visited our shores. But I don’t blame them either, I also wouldn’t have come to South Africa if I were them back in the day. At the first show Doc and I clicked immediately and after less than a week I can truly call him a blues brother. His music, stories and conversation helped flare up my passion for the blues and the amazing talent we have in SA again. I bought Narrow House from the man himself. What an honour. Over the last year or so I reviewed the music of many SA blues legends on and I know they have the chops so it was really great to hear Doc say he already checked out a great deal of SA blues musicians and connected with a few of them before his visit. Gotta love the internet! Not only is he a fan of SA blues music but he has a lot of hope for South Africa. With everything that’s going on globally and locally we’re going to need all the blues we can get man. I can tell you that! Good Lord, when he sat down and started playing that 1929 Steel National guitar all my suspicions disappeared like mist before the rising sun. And when he started plucking his 1951 Stella I was just smiling. You can’t fake those vibes. It’s like he smuggled a bit of delta juke joints into Pretoria. Or maybe he has the hoodoo to teleport people to another time and place. Maybe both, I don’t know.  It took me back to the old days in the South of America. The days when sharecroppers lived hard impoverished lives. Poor oppressed people doing hard labour for the rich folks on the cotton fields. Doc says he’d rather not talk politics. But I love to talk politics. He is the son of a civil rights lawyer and a fiddle player. I can just imagine that he plays in front of mostly black audiences in the States. When I came out of the delta blues haze in between one of his songs I thought about all the shit in our own country. Slavery might not be lawful here but poor people are still slaves of poverty.  Politicians, the whole system and big corporates are the new slave driving cotton farmers. And global economics tries it’s best to direct the whole cacophonic mess like a shitfaced conductor. I wonder if anyone knows what they’re doing anymore. But I’m pragmatic and I told Doc he will probably play before mostly white audiences. The remnants of Apartheid still holding many people back. It’s difficult to explain it to someone from a first world country. Most people here don’t even understand it. The different cultures in SA are vastly different and it still has us in shackles and keeps us far away from each other in many respects. Poor people in the rural areas don’t have enough money to travel far and go and see shows in the suburbs. And that goes for poor people in the city townships too. Poor people in SA sing the blues but not all know blues music so well. There is a different kind of musical history in SA. Marabi, Kwêla, Mbaqanga and Kwaito or the gospel church music which the older people love so much. But it doesn’t sound like the blues nor the gospel from the South of America. While I’m writing my domestic worker, Koekie, is busy in the kitchen and I ask her for some help with the review. I play her a few tunes from Narrow House and her face lights up. “Jazz and blues!,” she shouts.  She’s six years younger than Doc. She tells me that in die townships there are Jazz and Blues Stokvels where the “ou bras” (old bros) come together to listen to jazz and blues. Although its more jazz than blues, blues is also thrown into the mix sometimes. She also listens to Jazz and Blues on her community radio for two hours on a Sunday. When they get together the “ou bras” wear “Florsheim” shoes and “Dobbs” hats and then they boogy the night away. A Stokvel is like a community society or club. It is used for savings, investments, hobbies, buying groceries and for parties. I knew about it from an investment point of view but I never knew people used Stokvels to enjoy jazz and blues. Just another example of how we don’t understand each other’s cultures here in SA. But it’s only the older bras. In the big city townships most kids listen to kwaito. It’s like a form of viby African style R&B dance music. Koekie says the pantsulas (who listens to Kwaito) doesn’t really like jazz and blues. Sounds quite familiar. The situation is not very different from our middleclass suburbs. Blues is only a niche market here. I try to avoid the Afrikaans pop music at all costs. Doef doef doef. Shallow bokkie baby shit. So it’s true that most people who listen to mainstream music (black or white) won’t get into the blues.  They just think it’s grim and depressing. Or boring.  But they’re all missing the boat. Blues legends like Doc Maclean sing stories to us. Stories about life, interesting people and legends he met over the years. It’s a musical legacy that has to be kept alive and preserved for the whole world. It’s heartbreak and happiness wrapped up in a few hoodoo bones. Doc throws them to the fans at every show. Mostly it makes people feel good! What do you think? Graves, death, bad woman and good whiskey? Doc tells me on facebook yesterday:

”those two (bad woman and good whiskey) are always an interesting combination” And then he adds an LOL. I agree Doc! Man I love the dark, dark kind of music. I have never experienced a blues artist that takes me as far deep into the dark side of the blues as Doc.  He’s basically “metal” and delta original all in one. With his Mexican skulls & roses Day of the Dead black shirt on.

“The guys there from Texas wear em’ all year round,” he says.

On the album Doc’s voice reminds me of Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull but with a helluvalot more soul. Go and listen to Bone Train, By Degree and Charley James’ Blues. I’ve never had gumbo but I can just imagine his music is like a big pot of gumbo. The old original delta blues is the main ingredient. Add some Texas blues, some American folk and country too. But most of all the spices that makes this pot is Doc’s own signature ingredients. It’s darker than Johnny Cash but as fun as John Lee Hooker’s boogies. Doc is only in his mid-sixties but he’s stories will make you think he’s lived more than 200 years. He sings about hoodoo witches and tells stories about those who put a spell on you only to sell you another spell to take the first one away.  Sounds like some of the sangomas we have in SA. Those quacks are just as good as Doc with business. Only Doc is an honest man. He says he doesn’t like the business side of the blues but he’s good at it. Something a lot of SA musos can learn from him.  He manages himself, negotiates his gigs, recordings, media appearances himself. He’s his own roadie too!  He loves to play but if you think he lives a glamourous life then you’re gravely mistaken. He travels light like JJ Cale used to sing. Oh, but the company he keeps…..and kept in the past. I’ll get there don’t worry. Keep your pants on. What do you mean? I AM reviewing the album! It’s called Narrow House. You’re not concentrating. The album was released in 2006 abroad but Doc brought us a special one with extra goodies on. It was reprinted on SA soil.

“Bunch of kids thought Narrow House was a pretty funny name for a blues album until I told ‘em it’s just another name for a grave” – Doc Maclean.

Fucking legend. You must picture a wily grin like laugh at the end of that quote. Does that give you a better idea?  Wait I forgot tell you Doc hung out with legends like Son House, Muddy Waters and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Back when you could lose your life in the blink of an eye if you pissed off the wrong people in the juke joints. It was dangerous. Just a shack and drum in the middle. A lot of boozed up people enjoying the blues.  If you looked at someone’s woman you might end up getting your head blown off. Doc’s partner in crime all these years is Colin Linden (The Band, Keb Mo) even though they didn’t play together all the time. Colin plays electric guitar, bass and mandolin on Narrow House. The man is now part of Bob Dylan’s band. No, for real, no jokes. My favourite tune on this album is Angola Prison Rodeo. It’s about an actual rodeo in Lousiana State Penitentiary – the longest running prison rodeo in the United States. It’s still going strong. One of the bras that gave Doc some guitar lessons from Louisiana got parole there in 1958 of 1959 for singing to the Governor. Wonder if Zuma can sing? Maybe if he sings in Parliament they’ll let him go free. Nah, he sings about just as good as he can count. Back to the song. Doc wrote this song and recorded it with members of the Tom Waits band, Mavis Staples Band, Canned Heat and the Fairfield Four. Narrow House was produced by Colin and features Larry Taylor (Canned Heat) en Stephen Hodges (Mavis Staples band) who at that stage were the core of the Tom Waits band. Man, the company Doc keeps and kept in the past. Put that in your pipe and smoke it. Angola Prison Rodeo sounds like a chain gang singing it. Soulful and hypnotic. You can feel the spirit of the slaves – and their pain. The title track is another favourite of mine. “Digging the narrow, Digging the narrow houuuuse!” You can’t help but sing along. This SA print has a few extra tracks on that’s not on the original print. On one of the songs Doc sings about jelly rolls. It’s a cover of Charley Patton’s Shake it, break it but (don’t let if fall). Legend has it that Doc Maclean played Charley Patton songs in Son House’s living room. Mindfuck, huh? And if you think this song is only about a jelly roll then you don’t understand the blues. I still don’t know if it’s about sex or addiction. Maybe both!


It was a real blessing to see Doc live no less than three times the past week. I’m busy writing another piece about the live blues experiences I had the past week. I saved a few Doc Maclean quotes for that one and I also want to look at the Blues Scene in Gauteng! So watch out for it!