One of my hopes and goals for Catholic World Report is to have some regular reviews of not just books and movies, but also of good music. (Or, on occasion, of really bad music crying out to be exposed from empty note to empty note.) This post isn’t a review, per se, but a short note about Dion DiMucci and his new album, A Tank Full of Blues.
Although I’m something of a music buff (50,000+ songs in my iTunes library—don’t tell my wife!), I’ve never been much of a blues fan. And I confess, with some shame, that I only started to really listen to Dion’s music a few years ago. But I do enjoy Dion’s blues, which feature his impressively strong and clear vocals, economic and expressive guitar playing, a palpable sense of joy and gratitude, and a wry, knowing sense of humor. Some cuts, such as “Ride’s Blues (for Robert Johnson)”, have a more raw and gritty sound, while others, including “My Michelle”, harken back a bit to Dion’s blues-tinged rock music produced for Columbia in the early 1960s. In fact, the roots of Dion’s interest in the blues goes back to those fifty-year-old cuts, as evidenced by the songs “Troubled Mind” and “Sweet Papa Di”, as well as by the title of a collection of those cuts: Bronx Blues: The Columbia Recordings (1962-1965).
The final cut of Dion’s new album is “Bronx Poem”, a spoken word piece that is uniquely Dion: poignant, humorous (“Man, I’ve got a wife who drives me sane!”), thoughtful, and—again—joyful. It captures a man of faith who is also a musician full of life, love, and laughter. All Music Guide gives the album 4.5 stars out of five, stating:
Accompanied by his own haunting guitars and Robert Guertin’s quietly shuffling drums, Dion celebrates humanity in the light of his spiritual convictions. In doing so, he comes full circle to meet himself as a street corner poet in the 1950s, and reveals his wisdom as the result of his experiences in the past and the present. He has no need to romanticize or apologize; he remains the keen-eyed, tender-hearted observer he has always been. Tank Full of Blues may be the late entry in a catalog of great work by Dion, but it stands with his best recordings. In fact, it is the album he’s been waiting an entire career to make.
I recently e-mailed with author Mike Aquilina, who helped Dion write his 2011 book, The Wanderer Talks Truth and also co-wrote several cuts on A Tank Full of Blues:
CWR: When and how did you first meet Dion?
Aquilina: I met him seven years ago when we were speaking to the same group in Rome. We stayed in touch and got to know each other.
CWR: What led to you co-authoring some songs for his new album?
Aquilina: We had just finished working together on his memoir, Dion: The Wanderer Talks Truth. One day he called and asked if I wanted to work on a song with him. The next day he asked if I wanted to work on another. I’ve been getting those calls fairly regularly ever since.
CWR: How has Dion’s music changed over the years?
Aquilina: In some ways it hasn’t. People loved him in the 1950s because he had a complex persona. You have the swagger of “The Wanderer,” with his “two fists of iron” — but, he hastens to add, “I’m going nowhere.” Dion can still write and perform songs that are just plain fun. But he’s suffered, too, and his music has come to reflect that experience in light of his faith. Track his music through the decades and it goes deeper. I know him as a man of prayer, wisdom, and keen observation. It all adds texture to the art.
CWR: How do you see his faith influencing his music?
Aquilina: He talks about this quite a bit in his memoir. Since he was a kid, he’s always loved the blues. He used to look at it as an expression of despair, but he’s come to see it differently in light of his reading of the Psalms, especially the Psalms of lament. He’s described King David as his favorite bluesman.
Apparently Dion made the connection between King David and the blues because of a conversation with theologian and author Dr. Scott Hahn, as Mark Sullivan recounts in an April 2011 article for Catholic World Report:
Another reason DiMucci flies below the radar of pop culture is that even though he has one of the strongest voices in the history of rock-and-roll, his singing doesn’t have the stylistic quirks of an Elvis or Buddy Holly or the unique tone of Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash, which would make him instantly recognizable or easy to parody.
Further, his style has kept changing. Oldies stations play his last number- one hit “Abraham, Martin, and John,” but unless you were there, you would never associate the harps and strings in that song with the gritty singing and doo-wop accompaniment of “Runaround Sue.”
DiMucci says that as a musical form, the blues can be seen as a musical equivalent to St. Augustine’s often quoted line, “Love God and do as you wish,” in that the music’s boundaries actually give the musician greater freedom. Moreover, the simplicity of the blues makes them the first thing that all guitar players learn but then spend a lifetime trying to master. It’s notable that Di- Mucci gave up on the blues and then came back to them.
“After I first had a conversion experience back in the 1970s, I threw away about 300 blues albums by people like Robert Johnson, Skip James, Big Billy Broonzy, Fury Lewis, and Lightning Hopkins and started writing gospel songs,” DiMucci said. Compared to other music recorded in the 1980s, DiMucci’s gospel music holds up pretty well, but it still sounds like a forced combination of Christianity and popular music. With the blues, the fit with religious themes was more natural.
“At first I asked myself, what is a guy like me doing playing the blues? But Scott Hahn told me that another word for the Psalms are songs—and many of them would have to be considered blues,” DiMucci said.
“You don’t need to be from Mississippi in the 1920s to have the blues. John Paul II had Communists and Nazis in his neighborhood and his friends were dying. You could get the blues in Poland, the blues is the blues,” Di- Mucci said.