Singing the Blues
America's original folk art that celebrates the triumph of the spirit is now more popular than ever
When John Lee Hooker received a lifetime achievement award from the Blues Foundation a few weeks ago, it was a milestone not only for "the Boogie man," but for all of blues. One of the few old-time players still performing heartily today, Hooker represents the enduring, even flourishing, appeal of the blues.
He sold his first million records with "Boogie Chillen" back in the 1940s. Today, he is still enjoying commercial success, churning out albums, appearing on television, and performing with the likes of the Rolling Stones, Robert Cray, Van Morrison, and Bonnie Raitt.
Ah, but "Hook" knows just as well as the next bluesman that his musicianship is a testimony to where American music all began. Rock, jazz, pop, hip-hop. All roads lead back to the blues.
Blues is an original American folk art, perhaps the only original roots music in this country, save native American music. Regional and stylistic differences abound, but in general, most people identify blues with Mississippi Delta blues. Blues originated in slaves' call-and-response work songs. The music was a blending of European form (12-bar structure) and African traditions (rhythm), accompanied by narrative lyrics.
At the heart of blues is emotion-driven human experience. Lyrics often tell a story of hardship and sometimes of resolve. "My baby left me, but I'm gonna find another one," for example.
"Blues reminds us that we make a decision to keep going, to keep on steppin'," says Michelle B. Jackson, self-proclaimed "Blues Goddess" and former marketing director for the International House of Blues Foundation in Cambridge, Mass. "It's a celebration of the triumph of the spirit. How do you survive the darkest moments of your life? It touches a place we all can relate to."
The 1990s have turned a spotlight back on the blues - from Eric Clapton's recent work to a slew of reissued albums to the opening of House of Blues nightclubs, the newest of which opens in Chicago this weekend. The current interest may not approach the revival in the 1960s (when a mostly white audience embraced blues in the folk movement), but it serves as a substantial blip on the screen.
"What's wonderful about the current scene is more people are listening and joining blues societies," notes Mai Cramer, producer and longtime host of "Blues After Hours" on WGBH radio in Boston.
Fans often point to the discovery process that leads them on a musical treasure hunt back in time. "The cool thing about blues is there's so much history," says Anton Glovsky, product manager for Tradition/Rykodisc in Salem, Mass. "You could forever be going back further and exploring the roots."
Insofar as historical figures, no one more fitting could have presented Hooker with his lifetime achievement award than B.B. King, the most prominent figure in blues today. Described in exalted terms by almost any blues fan, King has become synonymous with blues. If anyone deserves credit for elevating the art, it would be King.
"He has incredible charisma," Ms. Cramer says emphatically.
King and other artists such as Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Son Seals, Otis Rush, and Taj Mahal share a healthy circuit with relative newcomers Corey Harris, Keb Mo, Mem Shannon, Kenny Neal, and others.
The death of guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, who was influenced by Albert King and others, has also fueled interest in blues, especially among young wannabe guitarists.
Bruce Iglauer, who founded Alligator Records in Chicago 25 years ago, has kept a finger on the pulse of the blues, watching interest in it steadily grow. Mr. Iglauer fell in love with blues in 1966 after seeing Mississippi Fred McDowell. "It was as if he reached out and grabbed me by the collar, shook me, and spoke directly to me," he recalls.
Today, Alligator is the largest independent blues label in the world. "A good blues record sells for a long, long time," Iglauer says. Awareness is a far cry from when people used to say "Blues? Yes, I love jazz." Still, Iglauer says some myths need debunking:
*Blues is all hard-edged and abrasive. "Some of it is extremely sweet, mellow, and romantic," Iglauer says.
*White folks can't sing the blues. "[Race] is a nonissue. The question should be, is the musician good or bad?"
*Blues is important because it provided the roots of rock-and-roll. "So what? Rock-and-roll doesn't make blues legitimate any more than country music makes the Carter family legitimate."
*Blues is dying. "It's the most popular it has ever been," Iglauer says. There are more blues festivals and touring blues acts than ever, and more clubs are booking blues. Blues chat groups are active on the Internet, too.
Bruce Talbot, executive producer of "Mean Old World," a Smithsonian collection of blues recordings from 1940 to 1994, has noticed a "renaissance" among young musicians."They are reflecting on blues as an evolved music," he says, and "at the same time there seems to be a purer stream focusing on old-style blues." It shows the indestructibility of blues, what powerful music it is, Mr. Talbot says.
Ms. Jackson and other aficionados are working toward broadening the blues audience. She would like to see it integrated into music curriculum, for example. "We have the opportunity to build and educate about this made-in-America art form. I think it belongs in Carnegie Hall."
BLUES STARTER KIT
Mai Cramer, host of "Blues After Hours," a radio program on WGBH Boston, offers these CDs as important historical works. "I have just scratched the surface," she says.
*Chicago/The Blues/Today (Vanguard) Three CDs. Class 1965 recordings by Otis Rush, James Cotton, Junior Wells, J.B. Hutto, Johnny Shines.
*T-Bone Blues (Atlantic) Amazing jump blues by T-Bone Walker, including "They Call It Stormy Monday."
*Live at the Regal (MCA) B.B. King live in the mid-'60s. Includes some of his biggest hits.
*Freddie King Sings (Modern) Includes "Have You Ever Loved a Woman."
*Chicago Bound (Chess /MCA) Jimmy Rogers is one of the few bluesmen still performing today who worked with the great Muddy Waters and Little Walter in the 1950s. One of his best early recordings.
*Sufferin' Mind (Specialty) Reissue of Guitar Slim's "Things I Used to Do" with additional tracks.
*Miss Rhythm Greatest Hits and More (Rhino) Ruth Brown.
*The Original Hound Dog (Ace) Big Mama Thornton.
*Whose Muddy Shoes (Chess/MCA) More blues from the Chess archives. Elmore James and John Brim.
*Black Magic or West Side Soul (Delmark) Magic Sam.
*Two Steps From the Blues (MCA/Duke) Bobby Bland.
*The Essential Little Walter (Chess/MCA).
*The Chess Box: Sonny Boy Williamson (MCA).
*The Chess Box: Muddy Waters (Chess/MCA).
*The Complete Recordings: Robert Johnson (CBS).
*The Complete Recordings: Bessie Smith (Columbia/Legacy).
*The Father of the Delta Blues (Columbia/Legacy) Son House.
*King of the Blues Guitar (Stax) Albert King.
*Moanin' in the Moonlight/Howlin' Wolf (MCA) Two great Howlin' Wolf LPs on one CD.
*Atlantic Blues: Piano (Atlantic) Anthology with Jimmy Yancey and Van Walls.
*Hoodoo Man Blues (Delmark) Junior Wells and Buddy Guy.
FURTHER READING ON 'ROOTS MUSIC'
*Deep Blues, by Robert Palmer (Penguin/Viking, 1981, 310 pp.) Readable and insightful history of the blues and its evolution, by a renowned music critic.
*Feel Like Going Home (Harper Collins, 1989, 272 pp.), Lost Highway (1979, 384 pp.) by Peter Guralnick. Essays on major early stars, unique interviews, by roots-music journalist.
*All Music Guide to the Blues: The Experts' Guide to the Best Blues Recordings, edited by Michael Erlewine, Vladimir Bogdanov, Chris Woodstra, Cub Koda (Miller Freeman Books, 1996, 415 pp., $17.95). The extremely valuable and exhaustive resource offers lively writing not only on recordings, but also style descriptions, history, profiles, reflective essays, music maps, and more.
*Nothing but the Blues: The Music and the Musicians, by Lawrence Cohn (Abbeville Press, 1993, 429 pp.). Eleven essays give "expert overview" of the blues; illustrated with superb photos.