Tell Me About the Blues

By Bill Benzon: What is the blues? It is a mood, a feeling, a sensibility. Feeling blue. Feeling blue?

It is a musical form, existing in its own tradition, but also as a form within the jazz tradition. The latter is what this series article is about, the blues as it functions within the evolving context of jazz.

The blues is also an object of wonder, fascination, and mystery. Back in the middle of the 20th century some curious and well-meaning white folks went looking for the blues. Marybeth Hamilton wrote a book about their quest, In Search of the Blues:

Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, Charley Patton-we are all familiar with the story of the Delta blues. Fierce, raw voices; tormented drifters; deals with the devil at the crossroads at midnight.

In this extraordinary reconstruction of the origins of the Delta blues, historian Marybeth Hamilton demonstrates that the story as we know it is largely a myth. The idea of something called Delta blues only emerged in the mid-twentieth century, the culmination of a longstanding white fascination with the exotic mysteries of black music.

Hamilton shows that the Delta blues was effectively invented by white pilgrims, seekers, and propagandists who headed deep into America’s south in search of an authentic black voice of rage and redemption. In their quest, and in the immense popularity of the music they championed, we confront America’s ongoing love affair with racial difference.

Illustration by Sadia Tariq, Lahore, PK

That’s from the publisher’s blurb. It sounds about right, though I’ve not read the book. I’ve read other books. I know a thing or two. In 1966 a man named Charlie Keil published Urban Blues. It blew the doors off that myth.

He wasn’t investigating blues performed by decrepit old men – dentures, crutches, tattered overalls, battered acoustic guitars and all, deep in the backwoods South. His bluesman played electric guitars, in cities, and often wore sharply tailored suits. Musicians like Muddy Waters, Bobby “Blue” Bland, B.B. King and even saints help us and preserve us! James Brown, self-professed “hardest working man in show business.” Amen. And yet it was the real blues, as authentic as sweet potato pie.

Nor is it just white folks who were buffaloed by the blues. In 1963 Amiri Baraka, then writing as Leroi Jones, published Blues People: Negro Music in White America. It wasn’t just about the blues, though it was that as well. It was about black music in general. And it is… Read the whole entry »

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