Doc Maclean is a rare creature. He lives for his music in a deeply tangible way, gigging across Canada and the world for upwards of 250 days per year, every year.
He does this with little fanfare or payment and thrives instead on performance of his craft, the Delta blues, accompanied by his ancient National guitar.
When he toured Cape Town recently, I showed up at Alma Café before his show with a whole list of questions. These were quickly abandoned when he started talking about his firsthand experiences with Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf.
Stian Maritz: How did you get into Delta Blues?
Doc Maclean: This music was given to me by the grandchildren of slaves. They were the first people I played with… the older folks in the south. They adopted me in a sense. They were like surrogate grandparents to me. The young black kids were not interested in this kind of music at all and I think a lot of the older players were quite flattered that anybody still cared about it. And I happened to be pretty good at it, or got good at it.
Myself and my partner were a very aggressive young duo and we worked our asses off to boot. We got to play and tour with everyone that was still alive, make records with them, jam with them in clubs. It was a gifted kind of experience. Opening for Muddy Waters was always an experience.
SM: That’s unbelievable, to be in the presence of such a blues legend.
DM: I mean, Howling Wolf was like a grandfather guy to us. We never played with The Wolf, but we used to go and hear the band all the time. We brought him a birthday cake one time, we went down to the club with this birthday cake and you could just see that it was really cool for him that we’d made him this cake. It might’ve been his 69th birthday or something. Seeing Wolf in the clubs and all… when he was playing on stage he was quite imposing.
The first time I saw him I was at a little club and by the end of the first set he was on his hands and knees on the floor. He’s on his hands and knees and he’s pounding the stage with those giant hands of his. Dust and crap’s coming off the stage and he’s singing and pounding and my heart was pounding in my chest too at the same time.
He had a lot of what Son House had. You see a little bit of it when you watch him on films but Son had a way of going to another place when he played. He was like one of those Shaman you see from the northern tribes that kept the whole history of his people in his brain and would go into a trance and recite these things. When Son was doing blues he was in a trancelike state a lot of the time. He’d play, his eyes would roll back in his head and you’d get little shivers. The amazing thing was that he would take you with him. You’d be transported for those moments. That was really the magic and intensity of Son.
In his later years Son had given up that life and he was working on the railroad, living in a little house in Rochester. The first thing I did when I was 16 is set out for Rochester, New York. When I got there I just looked him up in the phone book. I phoned him and said, “Hi, I’m a blues player. Can I come over?” [Laughs]. So he invited me over and we got to be friends. He wasn’t even allowed to play much music at that time because they were afraid he was going to have a heart attack. But I’d bring him a carton of Neopolitan ice-cream because that was his favourite and we’d hang out. If his wife was there we’d watch TV but if she went to church we’d get guitars out and play some music.
SM: And this guitar that you’re always carrying around… does it have a name?
DM: I just call it The National, nothing specific beyond that. I’ve played that guitar for 35 years. My best friend, Chuck, who was my guitar player for many years was killed and when he was killed I got his guitars. He was also left handed so we had one of these blood pacts, “If anything happens to me brother, you get all my guitars.” So I got the better end of that deal.
Chuck was seven feet tall. We’d play these wild little joints and after a few drinks Chuck would swing that guitar over his head. Man, he could clear a room in an instant if there was some fight going on or something. That’s why Yhe National has got dents in it. Chuck came to my hotel room one day and said, “Doc I had an accident with my guitar last night” and there was a massive dent in the back. So we went next door to the auto body shop and beat the steel body back into shape with a hammer.
The sound guy approaches our table as Doc finishes his glass of wine. Our time has run out for the time being.
He spends the next few weeks travelling the country before jetting off to his next gig in an endless line of gigs.
A true travelling bluesman in the flesh, one that may very well return someday with more stories to tell.
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