There is something of a contradiction in the term “blues music” because, most of the time, there is nothing sad (or blue) about it. When I’m listening to some blues in a rockin’ Chicago style or a pulsating jump tune, there is nothing somber about the mood around me. To quote the late Billie Holiday, “There is sad blues, happy blues, going to church blues. All kinda blues.”
Holiday, a jazz singer with blues in her voice, could bring a listener to tears with her rendition of “Good Morning Heartache,” or “I’m a Fool to Want You”. On the other hand, Janis Joplin, a rock singer with blues roots, could blow you off your chair with “Piece of My Heart.”
Yes, there are many shades of blue in the music made in America. That rich, colorful, story-telling music had its in the beginning in jute joints of the deep southern states. In the early 1900s, musicians such as Blind William, Howlin’ Wolf, and Hubie Leadbetter traveled way North to speakeasy clubs in Chicago, New Orleans, and Kansas City. They made themselves heard from Harlem to Memphis. It was mostly black people’s music until the 1960s when rock and roll musicians began to copy their style. British bands such as The Beatles, Rolling Stones and Cream appreciated and copied from the style of Muddy Waters and his counterpoints. Even Elvis Presley borrowed from the blues influences.
I wasn’t always a blues fan. In high school during the late 1950s, when my friends were dancing to Fats Domino, I discovered the Beat Generation and its chosen music: jazz. The Beatniks of San Francisco drew me to the celler cafes of that city by the bay, just across the bridge from my parents’ home in Alameda. As a college student in middle of the 60s music revolution, I was a jazz snob. You would find me listening, head nodding discreetly, to the trumpet of Miles Davis or Chet Baker. The sometimes mournful, sometimes swinging, styles of June Christy, Anita O’Day or Chris Connor were usually spinning on my hi-fi record player. I spurned the likes of BB King for the abstract style of Thelonos Monk, even though I had no real understanding of his work.
Then, about 10 years ago, I became friends with a man who owned a popular blues club. He had learned to love the music when he was a teen-ager in Houston and continued to promote it when he made nightclubs his business. It was impossible not to catch the mood on a Saturday night when I sat with him, Tangueray and tonic (in a short glass) in front of me, a blues band on stage, and guitars and harmonicas sending an infectious raucous sound that filled the room and burst out onto the street.
I was converted. New jazz students and Latin sounds now bored me. Blues,(there is that contradiction again), made me feel good. I learned the musical format from bluesman Johnny Heartsman: “state your problem, say it again, then resolve it.” How simple is that? And that simpliness, I find, is what mades the art form so attractive to listeners.
The earthy everyman connection is what bonds the blues to an audience. Moreover, (unlike jazz) people can dance to it, in couples or alone, in complete abandon.
Today, people are paying attention the this musical form and a community of followers is growing. Rowdy blues, front porch, sun going down blues, going to church blues. Each style has its fans.
If you are one of them, choose your shade of blue.
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