1-hour Black History Month introduction to the Blues (and Journalism About It)
On snowy Thurs. Feb 25 I lectured at Baruch College/CUNY to 90 journalism students on “The Blues Today, Challenges and Contradictions of Covering It,” part of this years’ Milt Hinton Memorial Presentations, named for the great Missippi-born, Chicago-bred bass player and photographer.
“My bonafides are I’m born in Chicago, too,” I more or less joked, to start. “As Muhal Richard Abrams, the pianist, composer, improviser, cofounder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, who just received a Jazz Masters award from the National Endowment of the Arts has said, ‘You can’t come from Chicago and not know about the blues.'”
But I wasn’t born an expert in this music, I learned about it because it was all around — on radio WVON -AM (“voice of the Negro,” owned by the Chess brothers of blues label fame) and WFMT-FM (“The Midnight Special” featured Leadbelly, of course), outdoors at the Maxwell St. (“Jewtown”) Sunday market and there was an early ’60s one-day blues fest in Grant Park, hearing local guys Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, Corky Siegal/Jim Schwall and the records of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, besides NYC’s Lovin’ Spoonful and the Blues Project, and then through Delmark Records/Jazz Record Mart “Hoodoo Man Blues” by Junior Wells and Buddy Guy — soul blues, that’s more like it than that beat ol’ country stuff of Sleepy John Estes, but I liked Speckled Red’s ‘Dirty Dozens,’ could almost do that boogie-woogie on the living room piano . . .and then attended the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival (Bukka White, Son House, Roosevelt Sykes, Fred McDowell, T-Bone Walker, Luther Allison, Magic Sam), heard and interviewed Muddy Waters (for the Chicago Dailey News), Howlin’ Wolf playing 0n Lincoln Ave and at Eddie Shaw’s 1815 club on Roosevelt Road, met Mama Stella Yancey with pianist Erwin Helfer. . . not to mention Gene Ammons-Sonny Stitt horn blues, Ramsey Lewis trio’s ‘In Crowd’. . . Anyway —
“What’s the blues? Basic structure of three chords, 12 bars in cyclical progression, three lines of lyrics (first two repeat, then there’s a punch line) — identified just over 100 years ago by W.C. Handy, Ma Rainey — simple but good bones, musical skeleton that can support lots of elaboration, extrapolation, expansion . . .through the Roaring ’20s jazz age when blues (Bessie Smith) and jazz (Louis Armstrong) and country musicians (Jimmie Rodgers) gamboled together, then Delta blues ramblin’ loners led the Great Migration to cities further north, made their bands a little bigger, eventually plugged in — but let’s see a sample of the basic thing: Eric Clapton’s acoustic demonstration of Blind Joe Reynold‘s “Outside Woman Blues,” segueing into the electric arrangement from Fresh Cream, 1967 . . .
“He’s good, huh? — note his precision with that tricky lick — but I like the high-charged rock version better as did a lot of my peers, who’d come up through the purism of the folkies’ acoustic blues revival — and Cream was late to the British invasion, in which young sharp Englishmen with hair and accents our girls liked, y’know, John Lennon (‘Love Me Do,’ first released Beatles single in the U.S. being a blues with a harmonica break, sort of jolting America out of its grief after JFK’s assassination), Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, John Mayall, Eric Burdon, Peter Green of the earliest Fleetwood Mac, etc were giving U.S. music back to us (not that we’d ever been without it, Elvis, Buddy Holly, Hank Williams, Bob Wills, going back it’s always been with us- but we listened differently to Muddy, Wolf, Skip James, when these hip & wild bands (yeah, some of them from San Francisco: Jorma K of the Airplane, Janis and Big Brother, Quicksilver Messenger Service) plugged in, turned on, blew our minds. . .
“Because don’t forget, the blues is not sad songs to be sad, the blues is sung to get over it, past it, objective troubles, share ’em, get over ’em — think the narrative arc of Billie Holiday’s ‘Fine and Mellow’ among many other lyrics — name the trouble, sing about it, get past it — which is why this is music of dancing, drinking, carrying on, maybe finding someone to go home with — which of course makes it popular. Now as back then. Party music. And the original ‘Keepin’ it real’ music. You can’t lie when you’re singing the blues.
“By the way, it’s interesting that just now both Jack Bruce, bassist of Cream in the ’60s, and Bill Wyman, long-retired bassist of the Stones, have begun new blues bands in London, and Roger Daltry wants to sing the blues with Eric Clapton — who just played NYC with Jeff Beck, got great press coverage in the New York Times, though strangely B. B. King and Buddy Guy playing within the same week got hardly any . . . well, that’s another lecture. . . .
“Ok, so to show you a blues demo I went to Clapton, when I’m talking about the blues today, and trying to say yes, in NYC — which hasn’t been the greatest town for country/electric blues, we didn’t have the industrial base here to support former share-croppers/tenant farmers leaving the south during the Great Migration; the blues here was the classic women singers, divas who were glamorous onstage, back in the ’20s and then again in the ’60s-’70s, when Victoria Spivey, Alberta Hunter and Helen Humes re-emerged from musical obscurity/retirement — yes, in NYC today, there are black musicians who play the blues, not only the urbane versions like Wynton Marsalis reprising Count Basie at Jazz at Lincoln Center, not just Kenny Barron or other elegant pianists playing with blues connotations and extensions — but here watch this: Cassandra Wilson singing ‘Viet Nam Blues’ by J.B. Lenoir from Wim Wender’s film ‘Soul of a Man,’ filmed under auspices of Martin Scorcese’s year of the blues movie project . . . and this James Blood Ulmer, Vernon Reid and Eagle Eye Cherry singing Down to Mississippi,” also Lenoir’s —
“Hey, I’m sorry about that imagery of the bombings and strafings and Agent Orange victims of Viet Nam and that horrible stuff with the Klu Klux Klan massing in Washington, the capitol in the background, hooded and masked, walking in a cross down Pennsylvania Ave. . . that is rough to watch. But we have to remember where this music comes from, the circumstances of its creation and popularization, what it absorbed and reflected . . If you’re going to write about the blues or broadcast it you have to know something about it, about what it means, if you’re going to convince some editor that it’s important, still relevant, has an audience, what it resonates with. You have to know this past of it even if you don’t use that ammunition to get an assignment. Just so you yourself get where the blues gains its depths. The great Son House said the blues was always about a man and a woman, but no, there’s blues about povery, war and oppression, injustice, things that haven’t left us — and the awful history of racial discrimination and violence in this country echo in this music, without spoiling it as an entertainment. But it’s rather up to us — journalists, critics, listeners, performers — to figure out that balance. . . .
“Now, you could say those folks, Cassandra and Blood and Vernon (from Living Color) are jazzers reclaiming their roots; what about mainstream pop black artists? Ok, here’s what happens when Chuck D and Common address the blues, working with a Muddy Waters song, ‘Mannish Boy’ (backed by jazzers Pete Cosey, of Miles Davis mid ’70s, and Phil Upchurch, Geo. Benson’s guitar player and Chess rhythm team, Marshall Chess supervising, Electric Lady studios NYC, from the Scorcese series film “Godfathers and Sons”) —
“I’d be lying if I said there was a lot of blues being rapped like this — though those of us who love the blues look at the grittiness of rap and hip-hop, the keep-it-real ethos (if only pretense), the nasty-goodtimes parts and think the blues is in all that . .. Currently there’s blues most obviously in and from Derek Trucks, Josh Stone, Otis Taylor, Chris Thomas King who was in ‘O Brother Where Art Thou,’ the Grammies had blues categories of course, jam bands like Blues Traveller, Bob Dylan of course, Springsteen via Woody Guthrie who hung out with Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, in the theme songs of the Chappelle show and The Wire and The Sopranos . . . I tell students to look for blues references throughout media, where’s it being used, to sell what to whom? — and I picked this H&M ad out of the NY Post on the subway coming here — ‘The Blues,’ it’s selling denim skirts, blouses, but the point is the stuff is solid, tough, dependable, has down-to-earth funky healthy attitude. . .”
“Ok, I’ve got to end up with a golden oldie, because it still is so hot — it represents the very height of blues guitar playing, the standard we apply today for how edgy it gets, how expressive and virtuosic — American, black-rock, world-renown — you know what I’m talking about, yep, it’s Jimi Hendrix playing ‘Voodoo Chile’ at Woodstock, ok, 40 years old, but still —
“You like that? I can’t turn off this part — yeah, there’s blues in the national anthem. It always gets me, too.
“So I want to say if you want to cover the blues, as a journalist today, it’s there to be written about and broadcast — but you have to know how to enter into it, what hooks to use, how to find a current connection for this music that’s really enduring in the American vernacular. To do that, you have to know the blues, what’s behind it, where it’s from, what it means. Which isn’t so hard to find out, if you’re interested. And it can be, is, fun, which is why I’m talking about it, encouraging it. It’s got to be fun, if you’re going to listen to this music — you don’t want to do it as a study of the past, the music as a museum piece. That’s not an aspect to ignore. Many people do take it that way, and its fascinating past does exist in the past — but that’s not what you want from your music, is it? You want something that’s good for now. Well, I do, myself. I find plenty good for now in the blues.
“Well, thanks for giving me a listen, I hope you liked these clips — I was going to play Jimi at Monterey Pop doing ‘Rock Me Baby’ as an encore – – he uses the same moves Prince did at the Superbowl, which we read Charlie Patton did in the Mississippi delta circa 1928, but sorry, time’s run out, I’ll be glad to talk to you about that all at some other session. Thanks again for your attentions, bye, and happy Black History Month.”