31 March 2008

The appeal of the blues

OR "I sing the body electric"

My first plan for today after work is to drive to Borders, pick up the Muddy Waters Anthology, and then proceed to bury myself in a dead black man's sorrows. This became part of my schedule after I woke up this morning with the blues.

I was feeling fairly rotten so I put on Eric Clapton's From the Cradle for the drive to work. Oddly enough, belting out "Blues Before Sunrise" along with Slowhand elevated my mood a bit. Each track made me feel a little better and then better, until the guitar solo on the bridge of "Five Long Years" (track 5) made me almost giddy.

So what is it about the blues that can take my cares away? It almost seems counter-intuitive, like it should have the opposite effect. Listening to a man moan about his broken body, destitute lifestyle, and cheating woman isn't really a pick-me-up. Listening to a woman pour out her sorrows over the man who left her for a better gal doesn't exactly make one think of better times. Or does it?

On the first episode of Ken Burns' Jazz, Branford Marsalis points out that to sing or hear the blues is to cathartically embrace the fact that life is full of problems and troubles. The blues, then, are there to "free" the singer and the listener. It frees them from the burden of pretending that everything's just fine all the time.

The blues are also intended to lift people--show them that they may have it bad, but it could be worse. Blues are often hyperbolic in their descriptions of suffering. Back to From the Cradle--in the song "Third Degree" Clapton sings verse after verse on the crimes and misdemeanors his woman has him accused of. Then, giving the reasons why each of those claims must be false, he slowly paints the portrait of a blind, lame, illiterate, broke, and possibly impotent man, whom bad luck is simply killing. Nobody is that bad off--and maybe that's what the blues listener realizes as he hears the guttural moans and weeping, wailing guitar.

I think that that guitar is also key. I mentioned that Clapton's solo on track 5 picked me up further than anything else on the album had thus far. I think that part of the power of the blues is its ability to transform emotional energy into music. You could probably make this argument with several other genres, but I contend that the blues is especially good at it. To play the blues you have to have "soul," which is to say you have to know how to express your soul through your instrument and voice. Human beings are vessels. Some of these vessels carry music, and only a portion of these musical vessels know how to pour out their contents. Fingers and throats become conduits, larynges and guitars become universal translators that communicate aurally what was previously stored internally. And for some reason, when that human musical message comes out in the blues, it speaks directly to the blues listener.

Reading back over what I just wrote, I don't know if I actually explained anything. But in the end it doesn't really matter, because either way the blues have made me feel better.


The Shark said...

Your post covered all the comments I could think of as I read along, so all I choose to add is:

I was born in a paper sack
at the bottom of a sewer!
I had to eat dirt clods for breakfast -
my family was so poor!
My daddy was a waitress!
My mama sold bathroom tile!
My brothers and sisters all hated me
'cause I was an only child!

I think music is one of the best ways to lift your spirits or change/emphasize/deepen whatever mood you seek to build from.

amanda said...

When I was in NYC in January, I stayed with the friend of a friend of Kjerstin's up around Spanish Harlem. (I believe it was at about 142nd and Broadway.) One morning as Kjerstin and I descended into the criss-crossing of cold, hollow bowels that is the subway system, we were preceded by the strains of a slow-moving blues melody. Here was this dark old wrinkled mass of a man sitting on a bench dressed in rags, just singing away at the emptiness. His voice was the first thing to catch my attention, but second was his beautiful midnight blue blues guitar. Those five minutes or so of waiting for the train was one of my favorite moments of the entire trip. (I think the point of all that is to say that I think you're right when you say the blues can soothe the soul--maybe even more than rock'n'roll?)

Also, "Yeah, While My Guitar Gently Weeps."

JKC said...

Sometimes I imagine Isaiah as a bluesman when I read the "man of sorrows" passage.

The genius of the blues is its simplicity. There's really only a few basic variations on the theme. This is genius because it means that a bluesman can't play the blues with technical proficiency alone, and if he did, it would be painfully obvious that he had soul.

Simplicity renders the blues accessible, of the people, gritty, and real. There are no blues virtuosos, just like menudo in an upscale restaurant wouldn't really be menudo. Soul music is like soul food.

And also, I love what happens at the nexus of the blues and gospel genres. That will life anyone's spirit.

JKC said...

Correction: "that he had NO soul."