Now that cat in jail, was no doubt Black, because African American folks have felt the blues the most. Despite this, Leadbelly, one of the greatest blues singers, who spent many years on a prison farm in Louisiana said on a Library of Congress recording, "There was a white man who had the blues once, so it's nothing to worry about." This sentiment is part of the message that bands like the Blues Messengers are putting down today. Everybody has had the blues, because blues is the quintessential expression of experience, it's existential, what the French call "La Condition Humaine." Blues can reach anyone, anytime - - if they are willing to listen, if they dare to be honest.
The Forms of the Blues The blues has many forms and structures, and improvisation takes place within the forms, but the fundamental form is one of African call and response.
They call it Stormy Monday - The call
The blues is fundamentally a dialogue, leading to a true philosophical conclusion about some aspect of life. Underlying that is more rhythm than harmony, and included within that are the flatted fifths and sevenths of the African based blues scale. Willie Dixon has observed that "The blues is truth." You can't make up the blues, you have to live it.
When a blues man like Joe Williams, or blues woman, like Billie Holiday, sings, it is to the community and from the community. When John Coltrane takes a solo, he is not alone. There is a rhythm section, and there is the audience, and there are the blues and jazz ancestors who provide the foundation for the improvisation and the creativity. All music began with ritual, in imitation of nature. As with music, so with dance, it is communal.
Such traditions are cross-cultural, synchronic, diachronic, cutting across time, space, the universe. There is no pure music or tradition, all is cross-pollenization, because the winds of war, nature, love, commerce carry with them the seeds of music to and from all lands, which may develop in historically specific forms, but have common roots.
The blues are about these relationships, or about the absence of a relationship. The blues are in our work songs, and in our play after work. The structure goes with these activities too, in the meter and rhythm.
We Are All Part of the Blues When I sing my blues, I'm singing your blues too. When I play the blues, if I play it truly and sincerely, you are going to relate to it, if you can take a look at yourself in the mirror of my music.
All great artists, who are no more than the vehicles of popular feelings and aspirations, or hopes and dreams, or precursors of such, know the blues. Dostoevsky had the blues, because they threw him in a Tsarist prison. Shakespeare's Othello had the blues because he was jealous of Desdemona. Germany's Goethe wrote about the Sorrows of Young Werther, who had the romantic blues. Li Po, the Chinese poet of the eighth century wrote poems about wine, women, rivers, and mountains like any blues man would. Zora Neal Hurston, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Langston Hughes wrote about everyday people trying to survive in a racist society. They definitely had the blues. When Frank Sinatra said he'd been up and down and over and out, a pirate, a pauper, a pawn and a king, but when he was knocked down, he was going to pick himself up and get back in the race, he wasn't just talking about life, he was talking about the blues.
Perhaps those who seek to oppress do not want us to recognize our common humanity. However, the blues cannot be suppressed. The blues are irrepressible because they are the human spirit triumphing over adversity. There is always an undercurrent of the blues, flowing along like Old Man River, or sometimes bubbling up in secret wellsprings of the heart, whether played on the radio or not.
The Blues Are International Muddy Waters sang "The blues had a baby, and they called it rock and roll." There were always white people listening to the blues, like John Hammond and Alan Lomax who recorded the old blues singers of the south to preserve the oral tradition on wax. And there were white people singing the blues, like Elvis, who popularized it among white teenagers in a record industry as segregated in the United States as the lunch counters of the fifties. There were, and are record charts for so called black and white music, even if everyone is playing the blues. Music can bring people together, or it can push people apart. We must be conscious of it as a force for unity, or misunderstanding and division. Integration and diversity, or separation and misunderstanding.
By the sixties the American blues of Muddy Waters, BB King, Bobby Bland, Dinah Washington, Etta James, Nina Simone, Little Walter, Slim Harpo, Otis Spann and Sonny Boy Williamson had become popular in England where working class white kids listened to the Yardbirds, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Animals, and the Blues Breakers. In the sixties blues, gospel and jazz helped drive the world wide civil rights movement, and heralded a cultural revolution that continues to have an impact wherever people are struggling to make a better world, –to overcome. The blues is about freedom, it is about free expression, it is about equality, it is about liberation. That is why the blues sometimes must be subterranean, hiding among the people when the mass culture of Hollywood and Madison Avenue promotes mental novocain, false consciousness, self destruction, and a king of the hill mentality. The blues is not about who will be the last survivor on an island. We want everybody on the island to work together to overcome.
The Past, Present, and Future of the Blues The blues is always about what is happening now to somebody, the blues is the present. The blues in the present comes from the past experiences of the blues people and their blues musicians. Young people need to be educated about the blues, its history and its poetry. The blues is an Ace in the Hole. The blues looks to the future and to a freedom not just of musical improvisation, but of society that is creative and improvisational. The future is an African blues jazz fusion with the traditions of the rest of the world. The blues is the existential world beat. The blues is diversity, freedom, creativity, honesty in music, equality, and gives voice to our humanity. This is the secret message and meaning of the blues, one may be a slave, a prisoner, broke, hungry, or broken hearted, but no one can ever take your blues from you, which means you can never be completely oppressed. The blues has been suppressed, but sooner or later it is always expressed. As Chuck Berry said, "Dig these rhythm and blues."
In this tradition, the Blues Messengers send a message of international unity across racial, ethnic and religious lines through our music which strives to incorporate all aspects of world beat in a fusion of blues, jazz and rock.