Blues Here and There

(An Observation, June 18, 2011)
            My wife Gerri and I were in Silver Spring, Maryland, during the weekend, for the Farmer’s Market and a Blues Festival. We sat under a tree sipping a mocha frappe near the stage set up on Fenton Street, which had been blocked off to cars for the market. We had come to hear the Blues. Watching the performance, I had the opportunity to ruminate on the presence of Blues today in our highly commercialized culture, and the awareness people have of the Blues.
We are a far cry from the poor young black transient male, guitar slung over his shoulder, singing for coins. The first band we heard was a group of skinny white 15-year-olds from a DC School Blues Awareness program. We sat and listened to them do creditable covers of songs like “Crossroads”, “Tied to the Whipping Post,” and “Pride and Joy.” Their frames of reference, obviously, were Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers, and Stevie Ray Vaughn. That’s not a bad lineage, but it didn’t go far enough back for me. What about Jimmy Reed? His stuff is easy to play and good for bands. What about Robert Johnson, who inspired Clapton’s version of “Crossroads?”  What about the growling of Son House, or Big Mama Thornton? What about Muddy?
            I came to the Blues a couple of generations before these kids, through the influence of black Rock n’ Rollers, (either a corrupting or liberating influence; take your pick,) like Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and his New Orleans shuffle,  and Bo Diddley, who couldn’t play lead guitar, so he established his famous rhythm, famously called “Jungle Beat.” Each one of these guys has cut Blues albums independently from their Rock and Roll fame.
            I like folk music that people spontaneously create, and that’s where Blues comes from. Out of my own interest, I pursued the origins of Rock and Roll, and it led right to Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Big Joe Turner and Memphis Minnie. I became more immersed in it, when I prepared and taught a class called “Blues and American Popular Music” for the bi-national center in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I had to learn much more to do this, and was happy to. I feel I understand American music better as a result of that.
            Part of my discovery was an answer to the questions I began with – why has Blues become so popular, here and around the world? When you have a world-class slide guitar player from Iceland, and another from Australia; a Japanese Blues shouter, and a group in South Africa called “The Blues Broers”. What accounts for that? In my understanding, it is the liberating effect of a music that arises from poverty and an isolated black community, trying to hold its ends together, that evokes such responses. It is a music of survival. The singer can sing about crushing poverty, drug addiction and alcoholism, spouse abuse, and other human tragedies, because he or she survived ‘em. Everyone can identify with the joy of survival.
            Magazines like “Living Blues” celebrate only the black Bluesmen, and I agree that it’s a needed resource. They raise the argument that only black musicians can make the Blues. That hasn’t been true since the 30’s, and the music itself has spread all around the world as of today. Some of that is due to Blues ambassadors like Big Bill Broonzy and Leadbelly.
            I agree also that Blues should be taught in schools, and learned as an American cultural heritage. It’s a great and influential part of American music, and we need to celebrate that. But hearing a 13-year-old girl scream and growl like Koko Taylor, it becomes a little disconcerting.  Is it a little fraudulent, a little fake? “Maybe it’s a question of authenticity,” my wife says. “Maybe that’s what they’re looking for.” Maybe so.
            But it’s hard to argue for the authenticity of anything in our commercially exploitative culture, which eats itself alive. Everything is marketable, a tool for selling product; even our tragedies and national sins. Blues becomes a theme song for a TV show, or is used to sell us toothpaste, sugar-coated breakfast cereal, and $40,000 luxury cars. Remember the kids singing “I got the Blues” to sell us macaroni dinners? Are we just a bunch of suckers? Are we so blindly led, swallowing whole President Herbert Hoover’s  depression-era statement that “The business of America is business.”? Is there nothing else for us but the yearning for profit?
            Maybe by learning about the Blues, some kids will understand better America’s racial past. Maybe they’ll learn about our slave history, and see what that has done to us and for us. But the Blues is experienced as a way of life, for whomever claims it. That’s why I feel disconcerted when I watch a six-year-old white kid, holding his mom’s hand as they’re walking past us in the market, listening to the music, and he growls “Oh yeah!” like some seasoned church elder who has grown up in the call-and-response tradition of a Baptist church.