[Dixielandjazz] 2003 - The Year of The Blues.

Stephen Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Sun Sep 21 11:12:21 PDT 2003

It appears as if the Blues & OKOM live in a parallel universe. Check out
this NY Times Opinion.

September 21, 2003

Is It a Happy Birthday for the Blues?


       Can a media blitz save the blues? Do the blues need to be saved?
And if the blues were to be saved, what would be their 21st-century

Those are some of the questions raised by the Year of the Blues, which
began, by Congressional proclamation, on Feb. 1. Concerts and club gigs
have been tied to it all year, and beginning next Sunday, PBS is to
broadcast "Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: A Musical Journey," a
weeklong series of documentaries. Meanwhile, recording companies have
been reissuing every blues track they can digitize, blues-concert DVD's
are appearing and the Experience Music Project rock museum in Seattle is
about to begin its own Year of the Blues series on Public Radio

All this history mongering suggests that the blues needs preserving,
though it hasn't disappeared. A few younger rockers have made their own
discovery of the blues, particularly jam bands and the White Stripes.
But most contemporary rock and pop is at least a generation removed from
the classic electric blues that inspired musicians like the Rolling
Stones, Aerosmith and Bonnie Raitt. Lead guitarists tend to prefer
heavy-metal shredding or punk blare to the patient tension and release
of the blues. And the street-level perspective once claimed by the
blues, along with the hard-living gangster and hustler archetypes that
date back to Stagolee, have long since moved into hip-hop, which has its
immediate roots in funk and rarely even samples a blues track.

Still, any night of the week, in big cities and rural outposts, blues
bands continue to play. The 12-bar, three-chord structure of the blues
feels ingrained and familiar; it shows up every so often in a pop hit
like Tracy Chapman's "Give Me One Reason." Proficient blues singers like
Shemekia Copeland (the daughter of the bluesman Johnny Copeland), Corey
Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Keb' Mo', Chris Thomas King and many
others still work a circuit of clubs and colleges. In Mississippi, blues
and Southern soul are still regular radio fare.

Yet their audience isn't getting any younger. And the blues, once fierce
and disquieting music, is often marketed as something comfortable, good
for selling jeans and beer. The Year of the Blues risks becoming another
attempt by baby boomers to enshrine the pleasures of their youth, as
they have with rock and soul museums in Cleveland, Seattle and Memphis.

But the blues should not be a nostalgia trip. The music is imbedded in
American and world culture, and it earned its place with beauty and
guile, gaining traction with every misreading. Guitar solos and letting
the good times roll were part of it, but by no means the whole story.
The blues was once as audacious as hip-hop, as intimate as emo and as
insubordinate as punk.

So there's never a bad time to recognize the blues. The pretext for
declaring 2003 the Year of the Blues is that in 1903, a bandleader and
cornet player named W. C. Handy heard a man at a train station in
Mississippi, playing slide guitar with a knife and singing a plaintive
blues about the railroad junction "where the Southern crosses the Dog."
(The Dog was the Yazoo Delta Line.)

To judge by the description Handy published years later, all the
hallmarks of the deep Delta blues were already there: the lines of
lyrics repeated, the European instrument that had been taught new ways
to moan, the uncanny vocal style, the thoughts of distance and
loneliness. The song even invoked a crossroads.

Handy later described it as "the weirdest music I ever heard," and he
didn't forget it. He became the first composer to publish a blues song
when he reworked his "Mr. Crump," a 1909 mayoral campaign song, as "The
Memphis Blues" and published it in 1912. Handy's 1903 discovery was the
beginning of the blues' relationship with the music business, as vexed a
liaison as anyone has ever thought to celebrate.

The paradoxes of the blues begin with its very existence. It was born
twisted, as music that repaid a bitter historical injustice Ñ slavery
and racism in America Ñ with generous gifts: a contagious joy and a
profound transformation of what art can mean. And it grew up to teach
America, and the world, about mixed messages.

The blues came out of a particular place and time, yet spoke to an
audience that would never pick a cotton boll. It was a remnant of
African cultures among people forbidden to express those cultures
openly. Yet the blues is also unmistakably American music, linked to
hymns, parlor songs, country tunes, military bands and dance combos.
That's because it had the ability to infiltrate nearly anything in its

In the PBS documentaries, fans and musicians describe the music as "the
truth." Yet despite the blunt, unvarnished lyrics and elemental
structure, the blues is rarely a straightforward confession or
chronicle. Sharp-dressed men sing about hard times; threats arrive
sweetly, accusations with a laugh, sorrow with matter-of-fact
acceptance. In Mr. Scorsese's documentary, "Feel Like Going Home," the
bluesman Willie King says that the early blues' tales of mistreating
women may well have been veiled complaints about the boss.

Compare the blues to the straight-faced Tin Pan Alley pop from before
World War II, and the blues may use fewer chords, but it sounds
infinitely more wise and adult, full of secret clues and sly sexiness.
The blues' legacy is not only its unflinching stories, but the levels of
subterfuge and indirection that were essential to its survival.

The blues has found itself on various sides of America's divisions of
race and class. It has been treated as a symbol of innovation and of
backwardness, of evil and of righteousness, of times best forgotten and
of lore that should never be lost, of frivolity and of revelation. It
has been repeatedly discarded by listeners both black and white, only to
be reclaimed by unlikely benefactors. The makers of the PBS series long
to join the ranks of blues disseminators from Handy to Alan Lomax to

Every artistic revival repudiates the present by creatively distorting
the past, and the blues revivals that carried the music out of the
backwoods and ghettos were no different. In the 1950's, earnest
collegiate folkies heard a lost rural purity in the blues, and they
enforced their vision of the music by pressuring plugged-in bluesmen to
abandon the latest styles and go back to their acoustic guitars. In the
1960's, the next bunch of blues converts embraced the noise. They heard
raunch and rebellion in electric Chicago blues, and responded with crude
imitations, histrionic frenzies, extended guitar solos and, when Jimi
Hendrix came along, psychedelic fantasias.

The latest blues revivals are more limited. They treat the blues as a
throwback, a way of making music by hand in an era of technology. Jam
bands have been salvaging the blues along with other American roots
styles, tossing them into a party mix. And back-to-basics rockers like
the White Stripes Ñ whose drums-and-guitar lineup echoes Mississippi
juke-joint holdouts like T-Model Ford Ñ prize the blues as something
primitive, to be reclaimed alongside garage-rock and country.

None of the revivals have captured the subtleties of the blues
originals. That, along with the racial barriers that early blues
recordings faced, is why these revivals had so much more commercial
impact; they spelled out implications for an audience that wouldn't
sense them otherwise. The blues has always slipped free of definitions.
It's a set musical structure Ñ three basic chords, 12 bars, a line of
lyrics repeated and answered (AAB) Ñ that the greatest blues musicians
often ignore. It's a lexicon of recurring lyrics and of musical
inflections that have traveled far and wide. It's a feeling and an
attitude; it's also an exacting discipline. It's easy to find blues
songs played at the local club, but it's far more difficult to hear them
played right.

The PBS series doesn't offer guidelines for what makes great blues, or
for what makes the blues great. The films are not made for novices who
don't have at least a vague idea of who Robert Johnson or Howlin' Wolf
were. And they seem likely to satisfy no one. Unlike Ken Burns's
chronological PBS overview of jazz, "The Blues" is fragmented and
impressionistic: seven auteurs rambling through more than a century of

THERE are overlaps (an irresistible clip of Son House singing "Death
Letter Blues") and broad swaths of omission. Apparently by
coincidence, the series does bring out the kinship between blues and
gospel, which deliver contrary messages in a shared style.

All that unites the PBS documentaries is their adherence to the series'
subtitle: "a musical journey." Mr. Scorsese's film follows Corey Harris,
a dreadlocked blues singer and preservationist, on two trips. He goes to
Mississippi to visit Otha Turner, a nonagenarian farmer whose family
preserves an ancient African-American tradition of fife-and-drum music,
and to Mali to visit Ali Farka Toure, whose electric-guitar music is
clearly kin to the blues. Mr. Toure heard Malian roots in John Lee
Hooker's modal boogies.

Richard Pearce and Robert Kenner's "The Road to Memphis" takes the tour
bus with Bobby Rush, who's in his 60's and still singing his cheerfully
raunchy blues on the chitlin' circuit of Southern clubs. He puts on his
Sunday suit to go to a gospel church, where, he says, he sees the same
people he saw at a club on Saturday night. The directors Charles Burnett
and Wim Wenders both ruminate over early Mississippi blues: Mr. Burnett
with a stiff childhood reminiscence framing history lessons, Mr. Wenders
with stylized, sepia-toned silent-movie-style recreations of Blind
Willie Johnson and Skip James that end up looking more like alienated
Europe than desolate Mississippi.

Too much of the series focuses on intermediaries rather than the
musicians themselves. Marc Levin's "Godfathers and Sons" visits Chicago
to reconvene the 1960's psychedelic-jazz-funk band that made albums with
Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. Trying to forge a contemporary blues
hybrid, they cut some new tracks with the rappers Chuck D and Common.
But the segment's central figure is not a musician but a producer,
Marshall Chess, whose father Leonard and uncle Phil started Chess
Records, the label that made pivotal recordings by Muddy Waters, Howlin'
Wolf, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and others. Without rebuttal, Marshall
Chess rationalizes the low royalty rates the label paid those pioneers,
saying: "It wasn't about record royalties. If we got it on the radio you
could work that weekend." Mr. Diddley might disagree.

Mr. Wenders spends excruciating minutes with a couple that made
well-intentioned films in the 1960's of Mr. Wenders's favorite bluesman,
J. B. Lenoir, which were rejected by Swedish television. (Luckily, an
album of Mr. Lenoir's recordings has been reissued on MCA/Chess.)

Mike Figgis's "Red, White and Blues" is a historical survey, but it's of
British blues, which were a crucial but second-rate intermediary. In the
1960's, British musicians helped introduce Americans to their own
heritage. But British blues rarely stand on their own, and the glimpses
of American blues and soul performances in the segment easily overwhelm
their British imitations.

The best parts of the documentaries are the finds from the archives:
films and videos of musicians like Skip James, Muddy Waters, Sister
Rosetta Tharpe, Big Bill Broonzy, Pinetop Perkins, Lenoir and others at
work. And the impact of the series may register best offscreen in the
flood of CD reissues. The branding is oppressive; does a Robert Johnson
reissue really need "Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues" above the
title? And yes, that Robert Johnson collection is mighty skimpy, a mere
42 minutes of music. But the five-CD set named after the series, on
Hip-O Records, and the inevitable spinoff book add up to a more
organized introduction to the blues than the documentaries themselves.

With the reissues, listeners can discover the blues on their own,
without intermediaries. In the desolate, otherworldly voice of Skip
James or the feral growl of Charley Patton, in the virile arrogance of
Muddy Waters and the pain masked as joviality in Fats Domino, in the
flirtatiousness of Memphis Minnie and the regal ease of Bessie Smith,
the blues still sounds as magnificently weird as W. C. Handy thought it

And it still has lessons to teach. In the wake of the blues, hip-hop's
"keeping it real" and indie-rock's scruffy purism seem one-dimensional,
even naive. With its cunning and adaptability, its complex emotions
encoded within a basic structure, the blues shouldn't disappear without
a fight.

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