Author : David Mac
There seems to be an ongoing discussion centered around the conundrum of “What is and what isn’t blues?”. Should the word “blues” itself be capitalized when used in the context to describe this musical idiom? Who is and who isn’t a blues musician? I get it from all sides. “Hey Dave, that isn’t blues, that’s jazz.” “Hey Mac that isn’t blues, that’s rock and roll…” “That’s soul…“ “That’s R&B.” “Hey you effin idiot, you capitalized R&B and not blues.”
Is blues a form that in many cases uses a 1, 4, 5 standard chord progression traditionally in a twelve bar structure with a melody that often uses flatted third, fifth and seventh notes? Yea… something like that, I guess.
Is blues a state of mind, an attitude or something even more ethereal? Is blues something that has to be lived, experienced, touched eaten and passed through your lower intestine? Gee… I hope not. Is it a musical form derived from African–American slaves with its roots in both the secular tradition of the call and response field hollers and the sanctified musical counterpart found in the church? Sure, that’s part of the story.
Is blues just a label?
Is blues a record bin or that small section of the store, usually way in the back between polka and reggae? I suppose. Is blues that part of the same store that doesn’t get much attention from the sales clerk with multiple face piercings and purple hair who is texting while pointing his or her (I’m not sure which) Mohawk in the general direction of the blues section of the store? “That’s all right Skyler. I can find it myself.” What the hell kind of name is Skyler anyway?
Should Mose Allison be in the jazz or the blues section? Does it matter? I am sure I could have my blues club card revoked for even asking the question? The second question not the first question. By the way, you just know Skyler’s genitals are pierced, which ever kind they happen to be.
The only thing I am sure of is that blues encompasses all of these things and more. I am also 100% sure that the person who screams the loudest that this is or isn’t blues, the person who thinks he knows more about blues and its history than you do… doesn’t know jack squat.
One of my favorite quotes comes from Plato, or was it Aristotle? It might have been Betty White. I can’t remember. I remember the quote thank goodness. It goes something like this, “The more you know the more you realize you don’t know.” This is one of the things that makes educating one’s self on virtually any subject so much fun.
There is another truth, besides the fact I just got de-friended on Facebook by six people who named their kid Skyler. That truth is there is another type of blues “aficionado” out there. These are the blues nerds who definitely know more than you and me. They are the neo-historians, all men by the way, who have never been laid but can tell you that Blind Lemon Pledge was playing his guitar while his left shoe was untied when he recorded the second take to “I Swear My Woman isn’t Lemony Fresh No Mo Blues” on August 16th,1937, in and around 3:07am. These guys feel it’s their duty to tell you what kind of toothpaste Magic Sam brushed his teeth with on the morning he recorded the album West Side Soul. I swear I am going to get an email telling me I am a dumb ass for not knowing that West Side Soul was recorded on a Thursday and Magic Sam brushed his teeth on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.
These dudes miss the point entirely. I often marvel at how they can, with laser beam precision, find a trivial nugget of information buried beneath a mountain of import. These men have made it their lives’ work to drive potential fans away from blues music in droves. Because of these freaks, the blues can seem to carry as much appeal as these guys’ Hi Karate after shave.
There is another variation of the blues dude. They actually go out in public. These are the men I run into out there who think blues musicians, especially guitar players get paid by the note. They like their blues really loud too. These are “manly men” who have some kind of pubescent, macho concept of what blues music is all about.
The God’s honest truth is that somewhere between the trivial and the banal, lays the heart and soul of this music. Somewhere between the neo-historians and the Neanderthals, lies a music with a rich history whose legacy has been twisted and distorted by people who claim to want to keep the blues alive but are too lazy to take the time to understand this music to any great degree.
So what is and what isn’t blues? The truth, like most things in life worth understanding, has no simple, short, cute answer that fits neatly on a bumper sticker. The answer is infinitely more complicated, interesting, gratifying and just plain fun. The search for the truth is always a worthwhile odyssey whose rewards are very often found in the journey itself. What is the real story of the blues? Let’s travel together… it’ll be fun.
– David Mac
I found Mose Allison in the jazz section.
Skyler is still texting.
In December of last year, Delmark records re-issued Magic Sam’s 1967 album West Side Soul.
I have no discography on Blind Lemon Pledge.