Ted Drozdowski is a conjurer. With a burning guitar in his hands, fronting his rocking blues band Scissormen, Drozdowski calls out for the dark, joyous and seething spirits, and not just any shadow, but the lowdown, nasty devils you can find in the dirt and the mud and along the back roads of Mississippi. He summons the phantom blues of the Hill Country and the Delta.
Through a radiant guitar, and a laid-back and haunted vocal approach, Drozdowski — tall and mutton-chopped, and capable of bringing gutbucket guitar heat — calls forward those ghosts.
Drozdowski could be little else than a shaman when you consider his path. He was born in Pennsylvania into a family one generation removed from the coalmines, and moved as a boy to Meriden, Conn., in the industrial center of the state. Somewhere along the way he developed a love for old, classic movies, especially of the horror variety, and would hang out in blue-collar Polish bars with his grandfather. After attending the University of Bridgeport, he took a job in Boston with Purchasing magazine, a trade publication for purchasing professionals. Not the prototypical trail for blues work, but Drozdowski did understand the working life.
“Before I moved to Boston, my friends and I were already into Muddy Waters, Ike & Tina Turner, Aretha, Sly & The Family Stone — anything we thought was cool, and anything punk,” Drozdowski says. “I had discovered, and fallen in love with the magazine Musician. Shortly after I was in Boston, I found the book Deep Blues by Robert Palmer. I’d always been a fan of his — he was the top critic for The New York Times — and I liked the first chapter so much that I went and bought every used LP I could find out of that chapter. And that’s how I went through the whole book. After reading it I had about 200-something really good blues records. I just immersed myself.”
Ultimately, Drozdowski would write about music. He’s been an editor at Musician and the Boston Phoenix, and he has written for many magazines including, Guitar World, Premiere Guitar, and Musician. He was a consultant for PBS’ Martin Scorsese Presents: The Blues, and he co-authored Billboard’s Jazz & Blues Encyclopedia. Among other honors, Drozdowski received the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive Award for Journalism in 1998.
Though Drozdowski would be ushered into the world of a living and breathing blues player by none other than R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, he is steeped in rock, punk and psychedelia. He cut his teeth in the 1980s, carving a place for himself in the Boston music scene.
“I was getting better and better on the guitar — jamming with friends,” Drozdowski says. “I started playing out with punk rock bands in Boston, kind of coming up the ladder. I figured I was way behind the curve at that point. I didn’t really get into trying to learn other people’s songs at that point. I was kind of just developing my own vocabulary.
“I just loved the sound of the guitar, how expressive it is, and I always really liked the slide. I was into that early on. I always thought of music as texture. I was into the avant-garde thing. I was into that whole Knitting Factory school. I was a regular commuter to the Knitting Factory while I was living in Boston. It was about a fourhour drive, but I would make a show and be back at work in the morning. It was the epitome of the creative guitar world at the time.”
Still, for Drozdowski, it was all about the blues.
“I kind of thought of every band I’d been in as a secret blues band” he says. “I was in a punk rock band, but pretty much playing blues licks. Really nasty. We’d do our own material, but also things like Ernest Tubb’s ‘Thanks A Lot.’ We’d approach the song the way X might.”
It was through the bands Vision Thing and Devil Gods that Drozdowski began to realize himself as a guitar player. “I realized I had my own thing,” he says. “A style that was my own sound as a guitar player.
Tectonic blocks of sound that collide and come apart. Sometimes they form melodies. Sometimes they are dissonant. Then the whole slide thing really started happening in the Devil Gods in the early ’90s.
“I saw Deep Blues [the film from brothers David and John Stewart, in collaboration with Robert Palmer and the acclaimed roots music filmmaker and documentarian Robert Mugge] around then, and I saw Junior Kimbrough. I thought, ‘That guy is the best rhythm guitar player I’ve ever seen.’ And R.L. Burnside. I thought, ‘I’ve got to figure out how to get down there.’”
Although he didn’t realize it at the time, Drozdowski and the Scissormen would one day become the subjects of the film Big Shoes: Walking and Talking the Blues, produced by Mugge.
Working as a front-line editor at Musician, Drozdowski got an interview with Palmer that would change his life. Forty-five minutes turned into three hours and a friendship forged through the love of the blues. “I became friends with him,” he says. “One of the great pleasures of my life.”
Palmer connected Drozdowski with Matthew Johnson of Fat Possum Records in Oxford, Miss. He and his wife soon found themselves in Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint in Holly Springs, watching and listening to R.L. Burnside. Three years would pass before the two discovered Drozdowski played guitar. Then, at a gig in Boston, recorded for the House of Blues radio hour, Burnside invited him onstage to play.
“I came off stage and my legs kind of gave out, and I felt like something important had happened,” Drozdowski says. “After that, I played with them any time I could. And doing so really made me get my shit together. R.L. opened the door, and then kicked my ass through.
“I felt connected to Mississippi blues. I didn’t feel the same connection with Texas blues or Chicago blues, though I love them both. But hearing the North Mississippi blues, I made a connection to that immediately, and with psychedelia, which I’m way into. To me the blues down there feels like the mud and the dirt — it’s incredibly rooted and deep. It’s like a natural resource.”
As a songwriter, Drozdowski has been the primary force on all the Scissormen originals, a band entering its 10th year, which includes bassist Sean Zywick and drummer Pete Pulkrabek in its present incarnation. He has co-written songs with others, including blues guitar great Ronnie Earl, which were cut with Irma Thomas and Kim Wilson.
“With writing songs, I’m feeling like I’ve finally hit my stride,” Drozdowski says. “I’ve written some good ones, I think, over the years — even had some other artists cover some of my songs — and I’m always trying to grow and evolve as an artist.”
The latest Scissormen record, Love & Life, to be released this year, has powerful material throughout. “Beggin’ Jesus” is a searing blues prayer, and especially haunting are “Let’s Go To Memphis” and “The River,” the latter a song Drozdowski wrote from the spirit-laden view on a rusted-out bridge in Mississippi.
“‘The River’ is a Mississippi ghost story,” Drozdowski says. “We were driving down from Junior’s place to Oxford, and I stopped on an old rusted railroad bridge going over the Tallahatchie River, and there was fog everywhere, and like gauze and muddy water — that song is what I took away from that.”
For a descendant of Polish coal miners who found a natural home deep in the hallowed ground of the Mississippi blues, being drawn toward the spirits of the past is only natural.