So it seems a good time to maybe tell you my thoughts on what the blues is and what it is not. I want to do this before I get to one of the many great blues artists that I might want to write about and I don’t want to get distracted by explaining my thoughts on the matter then.
Right now blues music seems as popular a genre of music as it has ever been. Every day I see someone post or hear someone say what a great blues man Eric Clapton is, or Johnny Winter or Joe Bonamassa or maybe fifty other guys that aren’t bluesmen. They all play a blues based highly electrified rock and roll, some better than others but not a one of them are or will ever be a blues man. Now that doesn’t mean they don’t play some great music. I love a lot of music that many categorize as blues that doesn’t fit my definition. Whatever you might believe myth or fact about Eric Cllapton locking himself in a room and doing nothing but playing blues music for weeks months years decades eons, whatever you believe none of that made him a blues man. He learned the notes, he learned the chord structures the scales and he learned the slide. There is no doubt that he loves blues music. All these guys do. That’s great music and it should be loved and cherished but loving something does not gve you ownership. You see not a one of these guys or gals out there shredding guitars in venues of all sizes have done a single thing to create or forward the blues. All the work all the creation all the sorrow sadness and hope was given by others, Many of these guys died paupers, forgotten. Many have a fraction of the fortune that Clapton has. And not a one of these men or women because there were women too ever pointed at themselves to say look at how great I am.
The Blues is a lot more than notes on a page, a lot more than some scales a lot more than some chords put together. Someone once said that the blues was nothing but a good man feeling bad. I can tell you the blues is a lot more than that. You see the blues comes frm a place that no white man in Hurst, Texas, or Austin, Texas and certainly no Englishman has ever been or could ever go. The blues so universally loved by many was actually just another thing stolen from a black culture without ever understanding the cost it took to create it. Its music and there is no way you are going to hide music forever so it was bound and even determined to make its way in the world and it was needed. Blues has given country and rock and roll needed bursts of energy. The blues was born in the fields born out of that hopelessness that started before the sun came up and usually ended when the sun went down. It was little better than the slave conditions that their fathers or grandfathers endured. If you were lucky you might have enough time to work your own small plot of land but more than likely your day ended with more debt than when it started. the blues was born in the towns where a black man would walk with his eyes averted and quickly step off the sidewalk to let a white man pass any white man. The blues born in the night when you might have to walk a lonely stretch of road alone praying to God that you would not encounter anyone. It was born from the cold dread of seing those headlihts and hoping that this night they would pass you by. The blues was born in that place, a place that could see you pulled from a street or even your home in the middle of the night for no crime at all other than being black. You might only get a beating your house burned or maybe they would castrate you and leave you to maybe bleed to death because no white doctor or white hospital was going to save you or even try. You might end up with a gang of ugly white faces around you a rope tied around your neck and tossed over a tree and those would be the last things you would see on this earth. You might be fourteen years old and beaten to death and dumped in a swamp because someone said you whistled at a white woman. The blues was born there.
It was also born of finding hope to do it all again even amidst all the hatred and despair. Not all blues musicians sit around playing sad songs. B.B.King sings my favorite ever blues line in the song “How Blue” and it goes, “I gave her seven children and now she wants to give them back.” Blues had to have a sense of humor a sense of hope a sense that there could be better tomorrows. Most field workers worked six days a week but were generally let off a little early on Saturday and many of these workers would find their way to local juke joints to hear whatever musicians were playing. They were crowded loud and dangerous places to be but living was dangerous. They wanted to dance they wanted to drink and for a couple of hours they wanted to be among their own kind not worrying about what awaited them on the outside world. No white man could feel that or even understand it.
Robert Johnson wrote one of the greatest saddest blues songs ever. Its not any that you might know although the Rolling Stones have a great version and they were careful not to come close to what Johnson did because they could not. Most of Johnson’s life is as much myth as fact and this could be myth but it has that tinge of the real about it and I have always believed it true. Johnson rattled around the blues circuit for years mostly playing harmonica and he might earn a few nickels or dimes on the corner but playing in a juke joint was really beyond him, in fact he was frequently laughed at. He might have given up or he might have worked harder but in Johnson’s case he fell in love and soon married and began working in the fields next to his wife who was soon pregnant. Around this time he also lerned how to play guitar, again he wasn’t very good. Robert tried. He worked. When it came close to her time to deliver Johnson’s wife went by train to where her family could take care of her after the baby was born. Robert promised he would be there for the delivery. He got a little side tracked trying to be a blues man. It was in his blood. Robert was a little late and his wife delivered a little early so that by he time he arrived they were both dead having never made it out of childbirth. Johnson never worked in the field again and the story is the source for Love in Vain.
That’s my thoughts on the blues. Now I don’t really care who you listen to or what music you enjoy. Most of my dislike for Claptin has little to do with his music. Its who he is as a person I don’t like the reprehensible things he has done. I also think he is one of the most overrated musicians ever but I will get to Clapton later I promise.
What i really want, if i had 2 wishes for the blues and how you listen to them would be 1. Have a little care on what you call the blues and who you call a blues performer. Most of what you are listening to is just good old fashioned rock and roll with a blues twist which actually describes all rock and roll. The origins of rock is the blues. I know none of you will do that but that’s my wish. My other wish is that you go out and listen to real blues music. My love of the blues began with listening to Billie Holiday. That was my first exposure. Then I heard a song by Howlin’ Wolf, Killing Floor and from there it was an easy journey. The blues, that first time you hear Muddy Waters sing Mannish Boy. That first time you see Freddie King or Albert King and you begin to see what all those English guys in the 60’s fell in love with. I leave you with a quote from an 80’s movie horribly miscast but the music is great Crossroads. Joe Seneca looks at the old beat up guitar and tells Macchio that he probably thinks it makes him look like a blues man. They go to a pawn store and buy an electric guitar “Muddy Waters invented electricity.”
Those are my thoughts those are my wishes.