The Blues. Unexpectedly joyous, uniquely American; from backwoods to nightclubs, it thrives
Jonathan Swift's is almost full. Knots of students, casually dressed, gather around the small round tables in this small Harvard Square basement club, anticipating the excitement of an evening with the Buddy Guy/Junior Wells Blues Band. At the end of the room is a small stage awash in dim red and blue lights, crowded with amplifiers and drum sets. In front of the stage a large video screen shows scenes from the recent Live Aid concert for African famine relief. With few exceptions the audience is white, under 30, and obviously excited about what they're about to hear.
After two warm-up numbers by Buddy Guy's band, the star himself walks on stage to an eruption of applause.
The performance alternates between fast-tempoed numbers resembling rock-and-roll and slow rhythmic pieces retelling the story of a romantic adventure or a lesson learned. In most of the songs, there are solos, somewhat like those of a jazz group, improvised spontaneously and exploring aspects of a very basic melody.
The show is casual, almost like sitting in on a rehearsal. Junior Wells, the harmonica player and principal singer, jokes and clowns with the audience as though they were all old friends.
The sound is rough and spontaneous, with unexpected twists and turns that hold the attention of the entire room.
Nearly everyone is familiar in some way with ``the blues'' as a casual term for depression or sadness. Yet despite a long and surprisingly influential history, blues music remains obscure.
In 1964, when the Beatles came to the United States for the first time, they told the press they wanted to see Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley. ``Muddy Waters? Where's that?'' one reporter asked. Paul McCartney laughed and replied, ``Don't you know who your own famous people are here?''
Over 20 years later, many Americans still haven't heard of Muddy Waters or Bo Diddley, and even fewer know of Sleepy John Estes, Koko Taylor, Roosevelt Sykes, Mighty Joe Young, or Elmore James -- all of whom are creators of a uniquely American music -- blues.
Developed out of a combination of slave chants, spirituals, work songs, and other influences, blues are an invention of American blacks, which began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and is still very much alive today.
Many of the most popular musicians of recent years have been avid blues fans. As a teen-ager, Bob Dylan used to stay up late at night to tune into far-away radio stations and hear Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed, B. B. King, and other bluesmen. The Rolling Stones took their name from an early Muddy Waters song. Janis Joplin began her musical career imitating Bessie Smith (the ``empress of the blues'') in small Texas coffeehouses. And the king of rock-and-roll, Elvis Presley, made big hits out of ma terial originally written and played by legendary blues musicians like Arthur (Big Boy) Crudup and Willie Mae (Big Mama) Thornton.
Contrary to popular belief, blues music is not always sad. As the late Lee Jackson, a blues guitarist from Mississippi, once told me, ``It's not just a worrisome thing. There's happiness in [blues] too.'' Indeed, many blues are exciting and energetic -- perfect dancing music. Because of this, blues have always been a major influence (some say the major influence) on rock-and-roll. Rock borrowed so much of its rhythm and lyrics from blues that one could argue that without blues, rock might n ever have been created. Today's popular music is still flavored with bits and pieces of blues.
In structure, blues songs generally consist of 12 bars, with a first line that is repeated, followed by a third, final verse. This follows the traditional call-and-response pattern, so common to slave chants, work songs, and the black church.
Nobody ever wrote a ``moon-spoon-June'' blues song, and probably nobody ever will. Blues are direct, immediate, and often lyrically blunt, speaking of life's joys and disappointments in a way that anyone can understand. Often the blues musician takes on the role of storyteller, relating a past event in a poetic, musical form. For example, John Lee Hooker's ``House Rent Blues'' tells of his troubles with his landlady after losing his job. B. B. King's ``Lucille'' tells the story of how he dec ided to name his guitar Lucille.
Like most other types of folk music, blues are more often the result of a creative urge than a financial incentive. Many blues songs have been written out of a need for emotional release after a moving experience. Viewed from this perspective, they are a poignant, beautiful art form -- an earthy poetry with a universal appeal.
Blues music covers a myriad of human situations, but like most popular music tends to focus primarily on romantic situations and all of their complications. Preoccupation with romantic infidelity and competition over a woman's (or a man's) affections is as frequent a feature in blues music as suspense in Alfred Hitchcock movies. For example:
I walked all night long, with my 44 in my hand. (repeat)
I was lookin' for my woman, and I found her with another man. Vicksburg Blue s-- Little Brother Montgomery Many blues songs have been written about migrating North, usually in search of employment:
I'm goin' to Detroit, get myself a good job. (repeat)
Tried to stay around here with the starvation mob.
I'm goin' to get me a job, up there in Mr. Ford's place. (repeat)
Stop these eatless days from starin' me in the face. Detroit Bound Blues -- Blind Blake Blues lyrics are seldom mere laments, and often express a sense of hopefulness in times of trouble:
Trouble in mind. I'm blue.
But I won't be blue always.
The sun's gonna shine in my back door some day . . . Trouble in mind -- Traditional And not all blues songs are serious:
I bought a spray last night 'n' I sprayed all over the house. (repeat)
Mosquitoes all around my door won't let nobody come out.
Mosquitoes all around me, mosquitoes everywhere I go. (repeat)
No matter where I go, they sticks their bills in me. Mosquito Moan -- Blind Lemon Jefferson
Blues is primarily black music. Whites have often imitated it with varying degrees of success, with some (Paul Butterfield or Eric Clapton, for example) achieving a high level of virtuosity but making no important innovations or creative contributions to the music. Like jazz, blues remains dominated by blacks, though people of all races can identify with the universal joys and sorrows of which it speaks.
Performers say they play blues because they feel the blues, and their music communicates these feelings.
``The blues to me are the true facts of life,'' says singer Koko Taylor, winner of a Grammy Award in 1984. ``It's delivering a message. It's something that I feel from my heart, not just from the lips. . . . To me, it's like a spirit.''
There is an intangible, emotional element to blues that is essential to its successful performance. Without this sincere, genuine quality, even the most technically competent performance would fall flat. Guitarist Lonnie Brooks, reflecting on 30 years as a musician, says, ``When people hear somebody play blues from the heart, they will be touched by it. I always get more response when I play what I feel.''
Blues have always been vocally oriented, with some instrumental styles that mimic the human voice. The guitar and the harmonica (sometimes called a ``blues harp'') are both peculiarly adaptable to such mimicry. (B. B. King and Albert King are both so adept at making their guitars ``talk'' that they have named them -- Lucille and Lucy.) Bottleneck and slide guitars, which involve the use of a glass or steel ``slide'' to produce rough and distorted sounds, were popularized and refined by such blues players as Robert Johnson, Blind Blake, and Fred McDowell. The amplified style of harmonica playing (often heard in rock music), which produces a swooping, saxophonelike sound, was originated and developed by Little Walter (Jacobs).
Nobody can mark an exact date for the beginning of blues music, except to say that it developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Like many other artistic forms, it evolved gradually. Unfortunately, little is known of the early blues musicians who predated the advent of the phonograph.
Much of the earliest recorded blues developed on the plantations of the South, with the most well-known and influential style developing in the Mississippi delta area. Texas, Georgia, and Tennessee were also rich breeding grounds for blues. Some of the more noteworthy early practitioners of this style include Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, Skip James, and Son House, all of whom were recording by the 1930s.
Probably the best known female blues singer is Bessie Smith. Subject of the recent musical stage production ``Champeen,'' she produced many hits in the '20s and '30s, and was known to be a hypnotically fascinating stage performer.
As many blacks migrated North in the '30s and '40s, blues music was adapted to big-city life. Amplified instruments and microphones became popular, since they were often needed to allow bands to be heard over the din of crowded urban nightspots. The pastoral air of the country blues gave way to the faster, more sophisticated, yet still bluesy sounds developed by innovators like Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, and Muddy Waters, among others.
Chicago became a major center for blues music and remains its strongest base of support. Numerous clubs and nightspots there provide work for blues musicians, and the city occasionally holds blues festivals.
Blues enjoyed a revival of popularity among young whites in the 1960s, as they discovered and began to copy the music. The Rolling Stones began as a blues band, as did Savoy Brown and Fleetwood Mac. Cream and Led Zeppelin became rich and famous playing electrified and fast-tempo versions of songs (``Killing Floor,'' ``Bring It On Home,'' ``I Can't Quit You,'' ``Spoonful,'' ``Crossroads Blues'') written 30 years earlier by Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson, Memphis Minnie, and others. Blues festivals in San Francisco, Newport, R.I., and Ann Arbor, Mich., gathered thousands of people to hear performers who had never before been able to support themselves through their music nor receive such widespread attention.
The popularity of some blues artists rose considerably, often through the support of popular white artists. Interest in Fred McDowell rose considerably after the Rolling Stones recorded his ``Got to Move'' on one of their best-selling records; Bonnie Raitt helped Sippie Wallace relaunch her musical career; and support from Johnny Winter helped boost Muddy Waters in his final years.
Few of the early blues musicians are still living. With the steady urbanization and the growth of mass entertainment of the past several decades, there are few country-blues musicians left. The music continues in some rural areas, but is difficult to find nowadays.
The urban blues live on, however, as popular as ever. There remain such seasoned talents as Otis Rush, John Lee Hooker, B. B. King, Lonnie Brooks, Albert King, and Koko Taylor, and younger performers such as Son Seals and Stevie Ray Vaughn are coming along. While some in the black community see blues as outmoded, many others support it as a valuable part of black heritage.
According to Bruce Iglauer, owner of Alligator Records, a blues label based in Chicago, ``the blues is alive and well in the mid-'80s.'' He expects his company, started on a shoestring 15 years ago, to gross over $1 million this year. While a typical blues record seldom sells more than 20,000 copies -- peanuts for a large record company -- several small companies like Alligator thrive on such sales.
Like jazz, blues are popular in Europe. Some performers, including Memphis Slim and Luther Allison, have moved there permanently.
Most people have probably heard blues music and didn't know it. Blues programs can be heard on college and public-radio stations -- sometimes with musicians as announcers. And besides Chicago, blues performances are held from time to time in various cities throughout the country.
Locating blues records is like treasure hunting. Even the most well-stocked record shops often have little if any space reserved for blues. The best places are shops specializing in rare and hard-to-find records, or used-record shops (popular in college towns), which often have out-of-print records in good condition. Blues magazines, such as Living Blues (2615 North Wilton, Chicago 60614), sometimes have mail-order advertisements for blues records, as well as lots of other useful information.
Some of the record companies originally involved with blues music have gone out of business, but frequently their records are available as imports re-released through foreign record companies. Scarcity makes the search even more fun, and a good blues record found after a long search sounds even better.
Here are some of the ``classics.'' King of the Delta Blues Singers, I/II -- Robert Johnson (Columbia) Any Woman's Blues -- Bessie Smith (Columbia) Chester Burnett, a.k.a. Howlin Wolf (Chess) The Story of the Blues -- various artists (Columbia) McKinley Morganfield, a.k.a. Muddy Waters (Chess) Fathers and Sons -- Muddy Waters (Chess) Live At The Regal -- B. B. King (ABC) Back in the Alley -- B. B. King (ABC) Chicago: The Blues Today (5 volumes) -- various artists (Vanguard) The Living Chicago Blues (6 volumes) -- various artists (Alligator) Whose Muddy Shoes -- Elmore James (Chess) Hate to See You Go -- Little Walter (Chess) Lightnin' Hopkins (Prestige) Texas Songster -- Mance Lipscomb (Arhoolie) Fred McDowell (Arhoolie) Shake 'Em on Down -- Furry Lewis (Prestige) I Got What It Takes -- Koko Taylor (Alligator) Natural Boogie -- Hound Dog Taylor & the Houserockers (Alligator) Hoodoo Man Blues -- Junior Wells and Buddy Guy (Delmark) So Many Roads: Otis Rush live in Japan (Delmark) This is My Story -- Sonny Boy Williamson (Chess) Electric Sleep -- Sleepy John Estes (Delmark) 1972 Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival -- various artists (Atlantic)