A Painful, Personal Look At "The Blues"
. . .Only a Few Blues Legends
Muddy Waters Was Only One Of The Many Blues Legends Who Helped To Shape Our Country . . .
Bo Didley, "I'm A Man," Perfect Blues Song
Blind Arthur Blake, 1926, Ragtime Blues Guitarist
Right now I feel very awkward. Out of place. Nervous. And hoping that I can get this right. You see, this story is about the blues. Not the St. Louis Blues, by Louis Armstrong. Blue Cheer washing powders. And certainly not Blue Suede Shoes by Elvis Presley. This is about the gut-wrenching, stomach-churning, heart-broken, lump in the throat, can’t-see-the-bottom-for-being-so-low, blues. The blues that only someone in real pain of the soul can experience. In song. And story. Yeah, that kind of blues.
Why I feel so awkward, out of place and yes, very nervous, is the simple reason that I cannot find one single Caucasian who can write about the blues, much less sing them. Elvis couldn’t. He tried as hard as any singer could, but a true veteran of the blues, who has not only had the blues, but lived the blues, could easily tell that there was definitely something missing in Presley’s attempts to sing the blues. I give Elvis credit. He did have a love for the blues. But loving the blues does not make one who has or lived the blues a blues singer. Do I make sense? Can I get a witness in here?
Where was the real blues born? No one knows for sure, but I can lend an uneducated guess that the real blues were born in some obscure cotton field under an unmerciful August sun when a laborer’s burdens of the heart weighed more than their pick sack--and they began to moan that distinguishable, incomparable sound that only comes from a hurting, torn-apart, tortured heart. Then, after a few trembling words of the original, “Wayfarin’ Stranger,” the blues had its first birthday. And the blues grew fast. Some contend that the blues caught on faster than an unfaithful woman’s choice of men.
Greenville, Meridian, the Delta, even lower parts of Mississippi can lay a wanton claim that the blues belongs to peoples of their areas. And maybe that’s true. I am not one to argue with where America’s true musical art was born. Actually, I don’t care where real blues was born, for the only thing I know is that the blues was born. And real blues is the only remaining real art form left to our country. This statement is true. Sadly, every word of that begrudgingly-written sentence is true. I hate it. Really hate the idea that one day soon we will wake up to a society that has not only forgotten what real blues is, but didn’t bother to appreciate this perfect music form that gave America her soul. As well as her heart. I call this non-learning of the blues a lazy, sorry, waste of time.
Just what are real blues? Do you actually know? Be honest. Look in any mirror of your home, face yourself and dig into the place in your soul where you live and summon the answer to my question, what are the blues? Don’t give me the blues are a just a passing case of feeling down, bad, and sad. That will not fly. Anyone of any race can feel down, bad, and sad, but not everyone can truly give a true definition of real blues.
Some of the older generations from the aforementioned areas of Mississippi, Memphis, Tennessee, and Chicago, Illinois can almost agree that the real blues is liken to being hit by an Illinois-Central freight train at full-speed going down a mountain grade. Then there are those who laughingly argue that real blues is losing a true love of many years to a low-life with a dingy past and topping off this humble pie is the loss of a brother and a good job that was given to someone who paid to get hired--taking the very bread out of your wife and children’s mouths. All of this in the same God-given day. That, my friends, to some, is real blues.
Major fortunes were made in the early blues days when real men with real blues channeled their pain into 78 RPM records. Names like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and the very-famous Robert Johnson, who’s song, “Crossroads,” tells the supposedly-true saga of Johnson as a young musician traveling to some forsaken crossroads in Greenville, Mississippi to meet the Devil to trade his soul for ‘the coveted-touch’ on the strings of his guitar that would give Johnson the sudden fame and fortune that he craved.
The saga, or folklore, ends with an elderly Johnson, now retired and barely living on what money he has left after a life of fame and pleasure, and has forgotten his deal with the Devil, is visited by none other but the Devil who comes to collect on the deal made by the young Johnson one blustery night at the Greenville crossroads. This story, which I will not categorize as urban legend, only added fuel to the fame of the Robert Johnson blues legacy as his blues songs were recorded and re-rerecorded by noted stars of latter musical forms after Johnson’s demise. To show you just how powerful Johnson’s mastery of the blues really was, his song, “Crossroads,” was recorded by one super group in the mid-60’s, Cream with a young guitar genius, Eric Clapton, making Johnson’s guitar riffs sound acceptable on his electric guitar.
Now, frankly to the core, there are degrees of the blues. One person’s blues may not be as painful as the next guy’s blues. Or the next woman’s blues. Oh yes, women have the blues as much as men. I knew that at age eight when I saw my mother sit and sob over not having proper funds to clothe me for school. It wasn’t that my dad didn’t work. He did. All of his life, but never “made it,” as our blurred society has taught. My dad was a day-laborer, carpenter, and later on, a machinist. Hidden in his occupational duties, was his gift of the fiddle. Yes, culture, I mean violin. No, I am not going to change that. Fiddle. That is what he called it. But talking about blues, my dad often had a case of ‘silent blues,’ when I could tell from his silence, that he was bothered about not pursuing his dream of being a professional fiddle-player. It must have hurt him down to the soul.
Real blues, like God, are not a respecter of persons. Real blues can attack anyone of any race, background, national origin, and musical tastes. Blues don’t care who it hurts. Blues just does what blues does, hurt. And hurt some more. Today’s “enlightened” psychologists have a softer name for blues. It’s called ‘depression.’ Depression. Blues. It’s all the same entity to those who carry around this real disease every day.
Did I really say disease? Yes. Depression and blues are so closely-matched, they could pass for twin brothers. In fact, depression has learned a lot from its twin brother blues for it hurts as bad as blues does. I fume with disgust when uneducated onlookers spew, “Oh, it’s (depression and blues) only in your head. Snap out of it. Get up and get going,” this is no cure, folks. Cheap talk never cured anything. Take a course online and learn as much as you can about depression. And the blues. Then you and I might get a deeper feeling for those who live with these “monsters.” Could be, that something we have learned might give someone who has the blues or depression, an easier day.
But, according to these same enlightened psychologists mentioned above, there are cures. Real, bona fide cures for depression and blues. Prescription medications and talking to intelligent, college-branded psychologists and therapists are only two ways of dealing with depression and its twin brother, blues. Some people do better than others with these “cures,” but the ones who never find relief, are the ones I worry about. Yes, I said worry. No one else seems to be concerned in this laser-speed, make-a-buck-at-any-cost-society that is taking the lives of people even at ages of 35 and 40--from heart attacks born by stress and fatigue. To just stay ahead in “the game.” Make that extra sale. Make that extra quota. No wonder real blues has never taken any time off. Real blues, like depression, is a booming event. Similar to a state fair in it’s vast reach to people all over our world. Vast, I say. Please listen.
I think I finally understand. I understand in my own way of thinking and mortal rationalizing, why our ‘real’ elder ancestors who helped form our country with the sweat of their brow and an aching back that was often whipped by an unmerciful “master,” were silent inspired by the ‘real” Master, to express their depressed and hopeless state in music and song. Honestly, I believe that. What would we have done in the same cotton field on a hot August day?
And folks, while I am at it, that term, ‘master,’ when used in relation to fragile, weak, and thin hearted, mortal man, makes me very angry. So angry that I say, “no mortal man anywhere at any time is no one’s master! No one!” I am not going to apologize for that honest outburst. Or this paragraph, for we all know that it’s the Gospel truth. We, all the members past, present and future of mankind, the human race, were made by one “Master,” and it wasn’t ourselves who made us. Or governs the universe in such a simple-but-delicate fashion, that we human beings can only grope and hold to that we can only see with foolish-dimmed eyes. Man is not to be in any position of “owner” or “master” to any living man, woman, or child. Mankind, let me repeat, is not livestock. That should be enough to get my personal opinion across.
I love the musical contributions made by all of our blues legends which are too many to list. That may sound strange coming from a Caucasian man, but I cannot lie. I literally love to hear blues singing and music. And if you ever get a chance to visit YouTube, call up a group from Fairfield, Alabama, called The Fairfield Four, and you will see quickly and understand at once, what I am struggling so hard to say.
As for the hurting, aching, tormenting, blues of the soul, I now understand that as well. When your life is changed overnight, by what you thought was a simple surgery, and later found out that you had severely-painful, incurable diseases of the muscular and skeletal system that work on the mental as well as physical, then you start a tough, painful learning experience of real blues that remind you that your working, productive days are over. You can only look for monthly doctor’s visits, pain shots and daily medications to just cope with daily life.
I am sorry I said that. My personal afflictions are in no way to be compared to those in that forsaken cotton field under an unmerciful August sun with a suffering of heart (and body) that I will never know.
Jimmie Rodgers, the Father of Country Music, also wrote several blues songs
John Lee Hooker, "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer"
In Personal Respect And Appreciation . . .
. . .to all, and I do mean that in all personal respect and honor, blues men, women, songwriters, musicians, directors, producers, talent scouts, and those, like you and I, who love blues music and it's roots.
. . .THANK YOU also, to those nameless, faceless men and women on that certain day in August in some nameless, unimportant landowner's cotton field under an unmerciful son, you have truly accomplished more than just sing your way out of your personal struggles, battles, and defeats.
. . .YOU, the ones that this piece is dedicated to, will always be held in high-esteem by me as I grow and learn while in this uncertain world.
. . .YOU knew something that the rest of us really "poor" souls didn't. You knew just how to listen to "that" special, silent voice that formed the planets as well as the hard earth beneath your hurting feet in that tangled and burdensome cotton field, and followed so obediently and we were given, more blessed than given, a true music from the soul . . .
. . .THAT will last forever. And endure all the eternities it encounters.