Reps. Cohen and Miller have their personal attachments to the blues

The 6th annual Congressional Blues Festival rocked the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium Wednesday night, transforming the ornate, cavernous event space into a hip concert joint filled with die-hard music fans. The event was organized by the Congressional Blues Foundation, and proceeds will benefit musicians and artists through The Blues Foundation. Headliners included Bettye Lavette, Memphis Gold, and other blues stars.

Among the fans were Reps. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) and event chairman George Miller (D-Calif.). Blackburn left early, but Miller and Cohen stuck around for much of the night. Maybe it was the bluesy vibe, but each told ITK a story that seemed straight out of a Muddy Waters blues album.

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First up was Cohen, whose tale centered around legendary guitarist Warren Zevon, and the album he made during the last year of his life.

"Warren and I were really good old friends," said Cohen, "and so when he knew he only had a few more months to live [Zevon was dying of mesothelioma], he calls me up late one night and says, 'Steve, what should I do?'"

"I said you should do an album of covers [songs written by other artists]," said Cohen.

"But Warren says to me, 'Man, I hate doing covers,'" Cohen recalled, "but I knew that wasn't the point, and I told him 'Warren, you know exactly who you should cover on this [album], too.'

"He said 'tell me.'

"You know full well that you should cover [Bob] Dylan," Cohen told the musician.

"What song?" asked Zevon.

"You know", Cohen said.

"Tell me," asked Zevon.

"You've got to do 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door,'" Cohen told him, choking up even as he recounted the exchange.

After a pause, Zevon finally spoke, "You know, [then-State] Senator Steve, you're right, and you're the only person who could have told me that." Zevon lived to record the song, but died less than six months later, in the fall of 2003.

Rep. George Miller had another angle on the blues; less personal but just as poignant.

"When I first got to Washington [in 1975]," Miller recalled, "my wife and children were in California, and it was pretty lonely, so whenever I had time to kill, I would go over to the Library of Congress's Congressional Reading Room.

"I would pretend I was doing research," he said, "but really, I was listening to old LPs of [blues singer] Bobby Womack's."

As if that wasn't enough, Miller added, "Also, a close friend of mine died when I was young, and he loved the blues, so part of me loves them for him, too."