Tuesday, February 12, 2013

I Got The Blues, Honey

"The Blues are the true facts of life expressed in words and song, inspiration, feeling, and understanding."
~Willie Dixon

Maybe I don't fit the typical profile of a blues fan. Then again, I don't know if such a profile exists. The blues is something that grabs a hold of you. If you have at least a little musical soul, the blues is going to stick with you. I love the blues like I love my nephews; unconditionally and without exception.

I grew up in a religious, middle class, sports loving, suburban home. White as the day is long. I'm very white. Greg-Brady-white. And yet, the blues lives in me as much as my Scottish heritage.

My older cousin Mark got me into music when I was 13 or so. I had no older brothers, nobody to teach me. A young person trying to find music on their own without a mentor to guide them is a dangerous thing. (That's how I ended up lost in the wilderness with a Jackson 5 Victory cassette in the Walkman. It took a while to right the ship.) Those are the people that bought Fat Boys and Falco records. Those are the people listening to top 40 disposable radio. When we would go to visit our family in Bellingham, Washington, Mark would play music for me. Something I'm eternally grateful for. When my friends were listening to Poison, Ratt, Motley Crue and the rest of the interchangeable, hair-sprayed, eyeliner-wearing hair bands, I was listening to The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Cream, The Yardbirds, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. I didn't understand the butt rock bands. I wasn't rock and roll to me, just a bunch of pricks in tights. Why were they all trying to look like drag queens? Why did all the guitar solos sound the same? What is this dreck? I was a snotty little bugger.

As I went through high school listening to those great old records, I began to want to know more about what influenced the bands that I loved. Zeppelin quoted Robert Johnson. (And J.R.R. Tolkien, by the way.) Clapton played songs written by Muddy Waters. The Doors had blues songs. Dylan had a cut about Blind Willie McTell. The more I dug, the more I saw that the majority of the bands I loved were influenced by early American blues artists.

I vividly remember hearing Robert Johnson for the first time. He was mentioned the most by Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. It was "Cross Road Blues." "I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees. Asked the Lord above 'Have mercy, now save poor Bob, if you please.'" It sounded so guttural, so gut wrenching. Reading about Robert entranced me. Did he sell his soul to the devil at The Crossroads - where highways 61 and 49 meet in Clarksdale, Mississippi - to play guitar like that? Was he poisoned by a jealous lover's husband? Was he out barking at the moon the night before he died? It was amazing to me. To this day, we still don't know how he died. Or which one of the three gravestones is the correct marker. I still can't believe that is only one guitar on those records.

From there I started listening to John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, B.B. King and Willie Dixon. That's where I began. A few of my friends thought I was nuts listening to music that was more than fifty years old, but I didn't care. They didn't know what I knew. The blues mattered. The blues spoke to me. The songs were about love and pain. They told stories. They had wit and depth and soul. Songs that were written for black, juke-joint audiences in segregated southern America decades before I was born moved me; a pasty-white son of a public school teacher. Those songs were just as important to me as they were to Slowhand and James Patrick Page.

My love of the blues has grown. It has matured. Spread like small pox. Many modern bands that mean something to me still have blues influences. From Mike McCready's blues infused solos on his 1959 Strat, to Jack White's damn near reinvention of the blues. I read an interview with Jack a while back and the interviewer asked how he would like to be remembered. Three Quid coolly replied, "A good husband and father, good upholsterer, and he loved the blues." Here here, Jackie. Selah...

From the core blues artists I progressed to more historical greats. Tommy Johnson, Son House, Lead Belly, Mississippi John Hurt, Charlie Patton, Taj Mahal, Big Bill Broonzy, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Little Walter, Freddie King and Blind Blake. Just to name a few. Sniffing out clues and following leads like a reincarnated Sherlock Holmes in a Tom Waits t-shirt I continue to find a gem-of-a-song here and there. Not too long ago a found a song called "Rabbit Foot Blues" I didn't know from Blind Lemon Jefferson. What a beauty.

So much of modern music is pre-packaged, over-marketed, saccharine-coated garbage. I have read about record companies using an algorithm that can figure if a song is going to be a hit or not. You plug in a verse, a chorus, another verse and a scantily clad girl "singing" and presto; a top 40 hit. That is offensive to me. People complain that the arts are suffering. Music stinks, films are watered down, novels are boring. This is true, sadly. The reason - partly - is because the suits are killing the arts. Jackasses that are more concerned about where they are having lunch and with who than letting a burgeoning musician grow and mature. They believe they can predict what will sell, not what is good. Nobody in an office building in Santa Monica told Son House not to record a song about a dead girlfriend in the morgue. (See: "Death Letter Blues", a blues classic and my favorite song.) The blues was - and is - raw and unfettered. The songs were about life around the artists. They matter.

Part of my definition of good or important music, whether I like it or not, is it must last more than one generation. The blues lives. The blues breathes. She has a life of her own.

Thank God she's a part of mine.

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