“It was always shocking that people started caring after three albums,” White admits, a decade after White Blood Cells turned him and then wife Meg into superstars overnight. “What, now people are getting it?! We’d assumed it was a style of music that nobody would be into and had resigned ourselves to always playing to 50 people. It was good for us, because we’d made up our minds to never care about that, and that’s when success happened. It was sorta weird like that, but I think if we’d have watered it down it wouldn’t have worked.”
The Atkinsons, meanwhile, are also fans of bands such as the Fall and the Stranglers, and Gary relishes the more apocryphal blues mythology — tales of precious master tapes being used to repair chicken coops, and artists such as the Mississippi Sheiks’ Walter Vinson, who gave up his job in the fields and took off with his guitar proclaiming: “I’m not going to spend the rest of my life behind a mule that’s farting.”
White got the blues bug in his mid-teens. While his peers in his Detroit neighborhood listened to chart music and the grunge/rap music of the early 1990s, the future White Stripes/Raconteurs/Dead Weather musician grew up in a house with six older brothers and three older sisters, being subjected to old-country music and rock ‘n’ roll.
“Then someone died, and their family sold their entire blues collection to a Detroit record store,” he remembers. “They were all numbered, in the corner. I got there a coupla days late. A lot of the better records had gone, so I got to buy a lot of records I’d never seen before, by Tommy Johnson, Blind Boy Fuller, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Willie McTell and all these people. I bought as many as I could — 30, 40 of them.”
White soon realized that he could just buy any record on Document without having heard it because he trusted the label. “I could learn so much about songwriting and the blues from those records. So I did whatever I could to get hold of that stuff.”
As he tells it, the enduring appeal is simple. “As a songwriter, even if you’re singing about other people or making up characters, it’s still your job to be against the world and that all began in the 1920s and 1930s with these blues singers. It was the first time in history that a single person had been recorded to tell whatever story they had to the world. Before that you had to be in a German polka band with a tuba, or jazz orchestra ...” He honks with laughter. “But suddenly anybody — they didn’t even have to be good singers — could have their own voice.”
White is still in awe of the process by which events came together in America’s deep south to create the blues. There was the Great Depression, the technology of recording music and the fact that furniture makers had started making record players, and needed something people could play on them. So they started recording the poor black singer-guitarists that were emerging in the Mississippi Delta. “Something magical just occurred to create a moment in history that changed the world.”