Singing the blues
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., September 25, 2003) -- It’s official. It’s the year of the blues because the U.S. Congress says it is. Which in practice means we’re about to be bombarded with the blues, with dozens of CD releases – some new, but mostly old music in new packages – scheduled to flood the market, plenty of tribute concerts coming down the pike, radio programs, and a series of seven new 90-minute films produced by Martin Scorsese and directed by music-savvy filmmakers including Clint Eastwood, Wim Wenders and Scorsese himself, to be shown on PBS-TV in upcoming weeks.

In “Who’s Got the Blues” in the September/October issue of Mother Jones, author David Hajdu explores our ongoing fascination with the blues, visiting some of the oldest practitioners of the form – people like Honeyboy Edwards and James Cotton -- along with some of the youngest, and asking some penetrating, thought-provoking questions along the way.

Hajdu makes some controversial findings. The latter-day emphasis on blues guitar histrionics over vocals, he suggests, doesn’t have deep roots in any part of the blues tradition, but came as a result of pandering to young white males’ fondness for rock music in the 1960s. “The blues, once an intimate, veracious, and mercurial way of telling idiosyncratic stories about men and women and everything that unites and divides them, has grown progressively orthodox, self-referential, and fixated on instrumental technique,” writes Hajdu. “In other words, the blues has become more like its miscegenational spawn: pop music of the classic-rock era.”

Or, as Bob Koester, a blues label owner of longstanding, puts it bluntly, “A lot of white blues fans remind me of the idiot who goes to the opera house to listen to the orchestra.”

Hajdu also criticizes the “commodification” of the blues, its overuse as a cultural signifier or abstract theme-park. He indicts blues that comes packaged in forms like the House of Blues chain of nightclubs (the Boston edition of which closed down just last weekend, in an ironic bit of bad timing before the impending onslaught of blues-mania) and festivals that “use lives blues as a background music for families and young singles checking out the concessions and each other.”

More cynically, he sees the proliferation of municipally-sponsored blues festivals as “a civic gesture toward black culture – but an abstracted black culture of the past, only distantly connected to the contemporary world of hip hop.” In other words, the blues, as reflected in today’s audiences, tends to celebrate black culture with two things missing – black faces in the audience, and any relationship to the reality of contemporary black existence.

It’s a familiar dynamic. In contemporary Germany, thousands of young Germans flock to klezmer festivals to listen to the music of the Jewish people whom their parents and grandparents nearly succeeded in totally destroying.

Hajdu quotes one disgusted blues festival promoter thusly: “Once upon a time, it was a way of culture, a way of life. I think that a lot of people who go to blues events don’t think, ‘What is this music about?’ I think a lot of events are just perpetuating a lot of beer drinking.”

In the midst of this season’s blues frenzy, it’s worth pondering just what America’s so-called love affair with the blues is really about. What is it that continues to draw audiences – not necessarily huge ones, but certainly loyal and fanatically devoted ones – to nightclubs and theaters to listen to contemporary performers -- particularly young, white ones -- perform virtuosic, stylized renditions of a unique, highly specialized cultural form inextricably tied up with slavery, racism and the pain associated with them.

Just what are blues aficionados grooving to as they hear an historic soundtrack to a culture whose own descendants have for the most part gone far beyond it, or turned their own backs on it, wanting to leave it behind with all the socio-economic indignities that gave rise to it in the first place? And what does it say about those listeners if they prefer what they perceive to be historically-correct versions of the blues to the more immediate, contemporary form into which it has evolved, the form that brings today’s news of African-American culture to the world in the form of rap and hip-hop?

Hajdu gives the last word to contemporary bluesman Chris Thomas King, of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” fame. King, who grew up in his father’s blues joint and who in his own recordings and performances has been attempting to reconnect hip-hop with its roots in the blues, said, “If you really knew what the blues were, you would not be trying to preserve that.”

In other words, how can you love the blues?

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on September 25, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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