Chicago transplant Jon McDonalds’s link to the titans of Jazz
By John Wolfe
“The blues is a rusty nail,” the great singer Etta James once said. What exactly she meant by that, I’m not sure, but I can tell you where to start looking. There’s a bar of the same name down by the train tracks on South Fifth, near Greenfield, and on Tuesday nights they host an open-mic jam, run by the Cape Fear Blues Society. A good place to start asking might be out back on the smoke-wreathed patio, where the musicians shoot the breeze between sets. Or maybe up by the pool table at the entrance, the clacks of cues striking intermingling with the upbeat crack of the snare. More than likely you’ll find answers at one of the tables in front of the stage: There are people here from all races and backgrounds and social situations, people at varying degrees of economic security and mental health. This is a place where everyone becomes the same shadow-draped figure watching the dazzling lights and the musicians sweating to create the sound which fills the low-ceilinged room.
They’re playing the blues — classic, timeless, yet still relevant; a uniquely American form of music that inspired almost everything that came after it. Your standard blues song has four measures of the root note, two of the fourth, two of the root again. The real exciting part: a measure of the fifth, where the music reaches up to heaven, then one of the fourth again, falling from grace, then back to the root again for the last two, back to Earth, back to where it all started, down low. But at the very end of the phrase, a sting, a beat of the fifth again, to remind us what this music can do. Twelve bars in all. So simple anyone can play it, but complicated enough that only a handful can play it well.
At eight o’clock the musicians start to shuffle in, lugging their instruments down the room’s left side to an alcove beside the stage, where a whiteboard hangs, conspicuously, on the wall. The board is divided into a grid; on the horizontal axis, the sets of three songs (or 20 minutes, whichever comes first). The vertical column is split into instruments: lead and rhythm guitar, vocals, bass, drums, harmonica, keys, brass. The musicians make their marks at the intersections. Chatting, casual, they hang a bit, drinking their beers, but one eye always watches the board to see who’s playing when, or if a new set will open up before the jam master decides it’s getting late and he needs to get home to his wife. They never know who they’re going to play with until they take the stage. Anyone could walk through that door and sign his or her name. The creation all happens in the moment, extemporaneously, which leaves it both vulnerable to colossal flop, or capable of actual magic; sorcery, even, when the right group of shamans walks up there.
One such magic player is guitarist Jon McDonald. He’s a fairly recent Wilmington transplant, from the Windy City originally — as was said of Luther Allison, “You can take the bluesman out of Chicago, but you can’t take Chicago out of the bluesman.” Jon grew up there, on the south and west side of town, until his parents separated when he was 8. Then he lived with his mother, on the 19th floor of a north-side housing project in Al Capone’s old neighborhood, with windows from which he could peer down at his city — something he says gave him a different perspective. There was a lot going on outside that window. It was poverty, he says, but he was meant to be there. Lots of musicians lived in that neighborhood — a good place for a young boy who got his first guitar at age 12 (his parents originally gave him a cello to keep him from getting in trouble in school. It didn’t work).
Growing up there and watching great musicians on Wells Street, near where he went to Catholic school at St. Michael’s, eventually led him to getting up on stage. “I had a way of putting myself into, finding different situations,” Jon says, sitting next to me on a barstool, watching the world. “It was more fun to be close to the action musically than it was to be in the audience.” (Interesting side note: There’s a photograph of him standing behind Allen Ginsberg onstage at the ’68 Democratic National Convention.) He saw artists who influenced him — to name just a few, Rory Gallagher, Jon Rindborn, Major Lance and Hubert Sumlin — many of whom he played with later in life.
This makes Jon part of the direct lineage of blues musicians that can be traced way back to the very beginning. He’s one degree away from Chicago blues titans like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, but the music goes back to the Mississippi Delta with players like Robert Johnson and Son House; back, back, all the way back to the slaves crossing to the Caribbean from Africa on the middle passage, unwilling passengers who communicated clandestinely through beats tapped out into their captor ship’s bulkheads. That’s where the blues began, says Jon. With the beat. “The beat — just the sound of it, you actually feel the word as well as hear it: beat,” says Jon. “And it’s the same thing with the blues: blues. It’s not always what you hear. It’s what you feel.” I say the words out loud, reaching for that feeling. Beat. Blues. And I do start to feel something: down low, in my chest, in my heart. “That seems to be a lost essence, as well as (a lost) art,” Jon says. “Without that feeling, you got nothing.”
The man who was the connection between Jon and Muddy Waters is an accomplished blues guitarist named Morris “Magic Slim” Holt, who had enough of that feeling to go around many times over, and he wasn’t shy about sharing it. Slim’s obituary in Rolling Stone magazine credited him with “help(ing) define the sound of post-war electric blues in Chicago.” Jon played with Slim for 13 years as the rhythm guitarist for Slim’s band, the Teardrops, recorded six albums, and toured with him extensively, playing gigs in the Netherlands and throughout Europe, Brazil, Asia, Canada, Mexico and nearly every state in America. Jon calls him his “Dutch Uncle,” and says Slim treated him like “a little brother.”
When Slim played guitar, he played without moving his hand up and down the fretboard, staying in one spot, but finding everything that was there. His style wasn’t about technical proficiency, or trying to cram as many notes as possible into a solo. It was about pulling people into his own experience with his music. Most of all, Jon says, a bluesman has to connect with his audience. “Slim was really great because he could play one note — and that was the point. In that one note, he was really expressive.”
The other thing Slim taught him, Jon says, was to stop trying to sound like Magic Slim. Take the music, make it your own. Do your own thing; tell your own story. The blues, first and foremost, has always been about the story, the history, of the person singing the song. When Jon steps onto the stage and picks up his guitar and plays, you hear a man who has spent a lifetime refining his voice. He sings in a smoky, booming baritone, textured as granite; when he lays down notes, they are bricks in the house he is building, the solid structure he then paints with wild wails of pure expression. Jon is a craftsman — a master. All his notes are as big as his personality, his presence — he picks up the guitar like it’s a lost part of himself, and there he is, suddenly, drawing you in with the kind of natural gravity all great players have.
There are people on stage at the Rusty Nail for whom this is their Tuesday night, and there are people on the stage for whom this is their entire life. Amateurs with shiny strings on their guitars get the chance to trade notes with pros who have played on stages much bigger than this one, across the country and the world. But everyone comes together to speak a common language, united against the shared sorrows of human existence, of life’s basic tragedy, and still find joy in those in-between moments which are magic, plain and simple.
John Wolfe studied creative nonfiction at UNCW. When he’s not in the water, he wishes he were.