Sunday, 8 May 2011

Down by the River

(Written for ITV's Perspectives website, originally published here.)

Why has House star Hugh Laurie suddenly become a blues musician? He tells us about his love of the blues.

For many, the recent foray of House star and British comic stalwart Hugh Laurie into the blues has come as something of a surprise. As the actor himself puts it: "I've broken the cardinal rule."

"Actors are supposed to act," he says, "and musicians are supposed to music. That's how it works. You don't buy fish from a dentist, or ask a plumber for financial advice, so why listen to an actor’s music?"

But for Hugh himself, his latest incarnation as a blues musician and performer is the inevitable result of a lifelong love of blues and jazz that began when he was just 10 years old.

"One day a song came on the radio," he recalls. "I'm pretty sure it was I Can't Quit You Baby by Willie Dixon – and my whole life changed. A wormhole opened between the minor and major third, and I stepped through into Wonderland.

"Since then, the blues have made me laugh, weep, dance and… well this is a family discussion, so I can't tell you all the things the blues can make me do.

"The question of why a soft-handed English schoolboy should be touched by music born of slavery and oppression in another city, on another continent, in another century, is for a thousand others to answer before me: from Korner to Clapton, the Rolling Stones to the Joolsing Hollands. Let’s just say it happens."

Now Hugh is indulging that love in a road trip to the birthplace of blues and jazz – New Orleans – for the Perspectives film Hugh Laurie: Down by the River. We follow the actor as he goes on a journey – both literally and figuratively – into blues heartland.

Not only does he explore the city where blues and jazz grew legs and started tapping its feet, he also records and performs blues classics, songs he’s loved for years, and in the process, works with some of his musical heroes.

"At the centre of this magical new kingdom [I discovered as a boy], stood the golden city of New Orleans," says Hugh. "In my imagination, it just straight hummed with music, romance, joy, despair.

"Its rhythms got into my gawky English frame and, at times, made me so happy, and sad, I just didn't know what to do with myself. New Orleans was my Jerusalem."

Now he's keen to share his love of blues with the world, to use his fame as one of the highest paid TV stars in the world to spread the word about a music he is unwaveringly passionate about.

"I could never bear to see this music confined to a glass cabinet," says Hugh, "under the heading Culture: Only To Be Handled By Elderly Black Men.

"That way lays the grave, for the blues and just about everything else - Shakespeare only performed at The Globe, Bach only played by Germans in tights. Its formaldehyde and I pray that Lead Belly will never be dead enough to warrant that.
"I love this music, as authentically as I know how, and I want you to love it too. And if you get a thousandth of the pleasure from it that I've had, we’re all ahead of the game."