Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Blues Cheez

For my first post, let's take a look at a response to some so-called Blues award show which I posted on a Blues scholar's website.

The website can be found at this link: http://www.tdblues.com/

"I should clarify my feelings/beliefs. Firstly, you are doing a great job with this website and I am well aware that it is not you who gave out these awards. Now, to get to the heart of what I’m saying. I have a lot of criticism I’d like to direct towards these awards. I also wonder if much of this music today can even be called “Blues”. Please let me know how you feel about what I’m about to say.

I certainly prefer “Country Blues” to the overdone, over-produced “Chicago” sound. Both of these terms are essentially meaningless because many of the musicians who are said to belong to the former category traveled to cities like Chicago, Memphis, New York, etc. When I think of Blues, I think of music that is either played on acoustic instruments or on electric ones in a fashion that is not obnoxious or dependent on the development of ’70s Classic Rock. Blues music is both a folk music, as is traditionally believed, and a form of popular music, as Elijah Wald states in “Escaping the Delta”.

The problem with Blues today is quite simple. There just isn’t any Blues around these days. Because of mass mechanization replacing traditional agricultural methods, therefore causing huge numbers of African-Americans to move away from where the Blues was born, as well as the fact that the Blues needs suffering, Blues music has essentially disappeared. This is an honest, brutal truth that we all need to face. When I say that the Blues needs suffering, I am most certainly not calling for the enslavement of blacks or a return to Jim Crow. I am not speaking from a racist or a pseudo-intellectual viewpoint. I am simply stating the facts that a music whose whose very definition is honesty, expression of great sadness, great happiness and unrestrained sexuality, cannot exist in a post-modern age in which instant gratification is ever-present. Nor can the music thrive or even exist in a world in which African-American “Blues” singers’ interpretations of Blues is based upon legends which Keith Richards and Eric Clapton helped popularize. In other words, the praise that a Robert Johnson receives is not built upon today’s elderly black “Blues” musicians knowing of Johnson in a direct manner, but is rather related to them jamming with and getting to know British rock stars in the 1970s who idolized Johnson. The reason why Corey Harris covers Robert Johnson songs from the 78 era, and not ones by George Carter or Bo Weavil Jackson, is quite clear. His understanding of Blues, however great it may be, is strongly influenced by Classic Rock stars’ understanding of Blues from the ’20s and ’30s.

There is nothing wrong with a good portion of the work done by Buddy Guy and B.B. King, two musicians who win awards year after year, but it is simply disconnected from what Blues really is, or, was. These days, Buddy Guy is a mess. He plays the same songs on every show, and what's worse, he never finishes a single song. When I saw him in concert five years ago, he performed some manure by Ludacris, the rapper. The aforementioned fact proves the total disconnect of which I speak. Why someone who is in this kind of shape should win award after award is unknown to me.

Even a genius musician such as Alvin Youngblood Hart, who plays and sings like the Bluesmen of yesteryear, cannot make a living off of releasing his own “Country Blues” material; quite a shame considering how his originals sound like covers (a compliment). This one shining pearl in an ocean of mediocrity will hopefully not throw in the towel.

And my comment about Hart’s singing is essential to my argument about Blues having vanished. Blues music’s primary function was to communicate, via lyrics, the troubles and happiness of a certain group of people (it was not to dazzle audiences with guitar pyrotechnics). Sure, whites such as Jimmie Tarlton, Frank Hutchison and Jimmie Rodgers sang and wrote marvelous Blues songs. It’s well known that poor whites and poor blacks regularly interacted, especially when playing music. However, Blues is (or was) an essentially African-American musical art form. To return to that word- “lyrics”- who is it today who can craft lyrics that stand up to the originality of J.T. “Funny Papa” Smith, or who can use a beautiful voice- the kind that Johnny Shines or Frank Stokes possessed- to deliver said lyrics to the masses? And who are the masses, anyway? The audience for the Blues is mostly white males, many of whom are hooked on post-modern sounds which pass for Blues but are not, in reality, Blues music.

There are a small number of Blues fans who actually “get it”: people who don’t think Robert Johnson is the best and who don’t believe the Crossroads story, people who don’t lump Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Johnson and Eric Clapton together without considering their different styles of playing, influences, and whether they primarily play(ed) acoustic or electric instruments, people who know that regional classifications of “Country Blues” music are often meaningless, people who know that, as Muddy Waters once said, whites just can’t “vocal” (sic) like blacks, people who don’t view the musicians of yesteryear as noble savages but who enjoy reading biographies about the intricacies of their lives, and people who know that this music has been watered down to the point of extinction and must therefore be preserved through obtaining old recordings and playing them for any and all who will listen, and not by giving out awards to people who are as removed from Blues as I am from the soil of Mississippi."

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6 Comments:

Blogger mudcatz said...

Wonderful post, Hard Luck! I couldn't agree more on most of what you've had to share here. Less "post-modern" blues, more Sleepy John Estes! Less Hans Whatshisname & more Robert Nighthawk!
Cool start to this blog, btw.

I found this via your blues blog...& went there tonight to ask how you're doing with all the escalating tensions out your way. Just letting you know you're in our thoughts & best wishes.

May 25, 2010 at 9:20 PM  
Blogger Hard Luck Child said...

Hello there, kind sir! Thanks very much for taking a look at this new blog of mine. This thing is going to be mostly me ranting and raving about various issues, some of which will relate to music. I can't seem to figure out how to change the background and make the blog look halfway decent, as I did with Hard Luck Child (the blog).

I had to think for a minute or two about what you meant by "escalating tensions"! I assume you're talking about what's going on in Korea. Honestly, North Korea has been pulling this sh*t for literally over half a century. South Koreans are completely used to this and aren't even worried. I strongly doubt any actual conflict will take place. North Korea's government may be nuts, but they're not stupid enough to face the U.S., South Korea, and the rest of the free world in war. Also, there's no way in hell that China, who has advanced so much in the last few years, would stick by North Korea over the U.S. My students care more about their hair and make-up than North Korea! Haha

I think that there's no way to define what is real Blues and what is not, in terms of simply listing artists or trying to describe styles. Charles Brown, Willie McTell and Bill Gaither may all sound totally different, but they're all (some sort of) Blues to me. I just know what Blues is when I hear it; what else is there to say? When I hear Toby Walker singing "The AOL Blues", I know it's first-rate horsesh*t.

May 26, 2010 at 5:40 AM  
Blogger mudcatz said...

"My students care more about their hair & make-up than North Korea..." Lol! Love it!

I did know that the North's been pulling crap like this since at least the '60's and generally speaking I usually chalk it up to "business as usual." From the news reports along the DMZ, it still looked pretty grim. Glad to hear that this is more "media perspective" than escalation.

You mention changing the background on this blog. Is the template feature not working properly? Tastes being what they are, I do prefer the "minima black" template that you're using on your HLC blog (if fact, I use the same template for my two blogs as well...)

You make a great point about trying to "define" what "real blues" is, given the diversity of the artists you mention...Blind Lemon doesn't sound a bit like Muddy, who doesn't bear much resemblance to Big Joe Williams...and yet they are all, unquestionably, the real deal. I think it's rather like the artistic differences between a "nude" and "pornography." You just know the difference. Usually when I hear white artists trying to play the blues, most often it sounds precisely like that: white folks trying to play the blues. For example, much as I love Clapton's rock work, why would I listen to him copping Freddie King's licks when I can listen to Freddie instead--and really feel the love? But you get the idea...
Again, great start here, Hard Luck!

May 26, 2010 at 9:27 AM  
Blogger the Groove said...

Wow, good stuff. I completely agree..well..mostly. I just saw Buddy Guy last night for the first time and to say he is removed from traditional blues is kind of a stretch. He is a great guitarist and he has a lot of charisma, which makes for a good show, and considering the fact that he's 74 and still playing, really says something about his love of the music. That's all it is really, a love for the music and the escape that it gives one from every day life...that's a good definition for music in general. Eric Clapton and all those British rockers and so on are responsible for keeping the tradition alive because, unfortunately, things must and always do change and evolve. With that being said, I agree that a lot of the original soul and feel of the music is lost, and I tend to steer away from the overly technical Chicago-type stuff myself..my favorite will always be the Delta Blues..or Country Blues as it seems to be more often called. Two things though..A: we're both white (and by white I mean not black or of African descent) and B: we weren't around during the times we're speaking about. We will never really know because all we have is recording and music lives on through live performance. I'm sure someone will come along and change it around, and I'm also aware that there's a lot of soulful people who are just as troubled AND skilled musically and lyrically, etc. You just have to search other genres. Can't hold too tight to the past 'cause you can never go there again.

October 2, 2010 at 2:36 PM  
Blogger ajnabi said...

first of all, I concur with the others, a most interesting combination of subjects..North Korea and the 'real blues'. What would the Great Leader have thought? I had the great fortune of spending 10 days or so in NK in mid 90s and believe me, it was everything and nothing like you'd expect.

but on the main issue under contention...I agree with you assessment though find the electric 'chicago' blues of the Wolf and Muddy absolutely every bit as powerful and REAL as pure Delta blues. But yes, you make a point. My only discomfort comes when you seem to saying those who disagree and like other forms of the blues are losers and somehow not 'us' true lovers of the music who also read their biographies! Mate, there is no accounting (nor should there be) for taste and so live and let live. We all start somewhere and let's hope those who groove to this horrid shit will be led to the real stuff.
Great going Hard Luck.

November 17, 2010 at 10:42 AM  
Blogger Calvin said...

I disagree with your whole approach to the blues. What is the point of trying to delineate what is "real" and what is not? If you think that the blues belongs wholly to its own cultural time and space, and that people who have appropriated its techniques are committing some kind of artistic crime, what makes you exempt from the same accusations (regarding the project of posting the music on your blog)? Are you not just appropriating the music of others for your own glory? And as for your assertion that the "suffering" required for making good blues music no longer exists in our "post-modern age"-- can you be serious? The day when suffering ceases to be a part of the human condition will be the day we cease to be human.

All you're really doing is getting hung up on some romantic notion of the past. The fact that you never experienced this past only enhances its potential as the object of your nostalgic fantasies.

If Buddy Guy wants to play a Ludacris song in concert, who are you to decide that that's somehow not authentic?

Like Eric Burdon said, "It's all meat on the same bone"

November 18, 2010 at 10:21 AM  

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