Damn Right You Should Listen to the Blues

“The blues ain’t nothin’ but a good man feelin’ bad,” according to “Negro Blues,” penned in 1913. There’s no question about the “feelin’ bad” part. The genre is defined by its twelve-bar tune with the distinctive flatted third and seventh notes on the major scale (producing the “blue” note) coupled with lyrics of misery, injustice, and even sometimes self-loathing. One might, however, question the “good man” part. King of the Delta Blues Robert Johnson was a philanderer who allegedly made a deal with the devil. The lyrics of lustful Muddy Waters are laced with sexual double entendres. Charlie Patton was incarcerated for fighting with his wife. Even if the “good man” part is a bit of a stretch, the blues — manifested in its style, honesty, and humility — is indeed good. And that goodness derives precisely from its Southern character.

There is a deceptive simplicity in the blues, whose origins date to the 1870s and African-American work songs and spirituals in the Deep South, the land of cotton fields and cypress swamps. The earliest blues verses consisted of a single line repeated four times. In the early twentieth century the AAB pattern became standard, consisting of a line sung over the four first bars, repeated over the next four, and then a longer concluding line over the last bars. Blues shuffles or walking bass — akin to the regular alternation of feet while walking — reinforce a trance-like rhythm and repetitive effect known as “the groove.”

Yet for its simplicity — its twelve-bar tune gives structure to the improvisations of musicians who rarely could read music — the blues has presented us with some of the most creative and technically-impressive music of the last century. When Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards first heard a record of 1930s bluesman Robert Johnson playing solo, he presumed there were two guitarists on the recording. Albert King employed unorthodox tunings, tuning as low as C to allow him to make sweeping, emotionally-expressed string bends. Grammy-award winning Texan Stevie Ray Vaughan (who was influenced by and played with Albert King) was an improvisational virtuoso of tremendous talent who melded blues, rock and jazz.

The blues can be slow, its pounding repetition and moaning lyrics irresistibly drawing the listener into the experience of the musician, like Son House’s mourning of his lost love in “Death Letter Blues,” or Blind Willie Johnson’s haunting (and lyricless) “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” which may be the most emotionally raw song ever performed. The blues’ emotive, rhythmic momentum can slowly build to perfect crescendo like B.B. King’s “How Blue Can you Get,” ending with the lyrics, “I gave you seven children, and now you wanna give ‘em back!” Or it can be exhilaratingly speedy, its rapidity and rhythm impelling even the most staid of listeners to nod their head or shift their feet —  see Texan albino Johnny Winter’s “Mean Town Blues.”

There is an inherent humility to the blues, played and sung by those who have been unfairly wronged. The “Millionaire Blues,” “Wall Street Blues,” or “Harvard Deans’ List Blues” all seem like a contradiction in terms. The blues is the music of sharecroppers, levee workers, railroad workers, dock shoreman, and inmates, as theologian Stephen J. Nichols notes in his Getting the Blues: What Blues Music Teaches Us About Suffering & Salvation. The bluesman is impoverished, injured, and obscure. He sings as one yearning (and often failing) to be heard.

Robert Johnson, who lost both his wife and child in childbirth, moans in the mesmerizing “Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)” that, “Blues fell mama’s child; and it tore me all upside down. Travel on, poor Bob, just can’t turn you ‘round.” He continues:

The blues, is a low-down shakin’ chill, yes, preach ’em now
Is a low-down shakin’ chill
You ain’t never had ’em I, hope you never will
Well, the blues, is a achin’ old heart disease…
The blues, is a low-down achin’ heart disease
Like consumption, killing me by degrees

Johnson ends the song by declaring his intention to go to the distillery to drown out the blues. In another track Johnson acknowledges: “I’m a poor drunken-hearted man: and sin was the cause of it all.” Thus, in “Cross Road Blues,” made famous by Eric Clapton’s cover, Johnson declares: “Asked the Lord above, have mercy; save poor Bob if you please.” The blues is inextricably bound up with Good Friday, observes Nichols.

The Blues is the music of the wearied veteran of a troubled life, “a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering,” to quote the prophet Isaiah. Delta bluesman Junior Kimbrough in “Done Got Old,” bewails “My, things have changed, I can’t do the things I used to do, I’m an old man.” And that song is from his first album, released when he was thirty-six years old. His later, aptly titled records, released when he was in his sixties, include “God Knows I Tried,” “Sad Days, Lonely Nights,” and “Most Things Haven’t Worked Out.” Morbid, perhaps, but in many cases, sadly true. Or consider Buddy Guy’s “Damn Right I Got the Blues,” in which he laments stopping by his daughter’s house to use the phone and being rejected by his grandchild.

Because of this raw honesty regarding failure and frustration, the blues (unlike much contemporary music that blandly reinforce the ego and libido) is incomparable in its ability to elicit pathos in the listener. This serves several important functions. The first is cathartic, by reminding the listener that he or she is not alone or unique in experiencing suffering. The blues audience is frequently brought to tears from lyrics or wailing guitars that unite their experience with that of the bluesman. Another is empathic, by fostering compassion for others whose trials dwarf our own. This in turn facilitates humility and gratitude, because we realize others have it far worse than us, and that we should be thankful for the many good things we enjoy. One listens to the blues to understand and hear what one doesn’t always hear, notes Nichols.

Finally, because of its origins in Reconstruction and the Jim Crow South, the blues is a genre that fosters a certain anamnesis of the American experience. The blues cannot escape its past. Even when it is played by competent Brits like Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, or Alvin Lee (I give no more credit to them than is due), it remains a distinctly Southern, American form of music. Those who play or listen to it with quieted hearts and willing imaginations enter into the historical experience of the American South, with all of its beauty and ugliness. Certainly the blues is the music of the injured, abused black man sharing his griefs. It is also the music of that same man, who understands that evil is addressed sometimes with redemption, but other times with justice.

For example, the story of “Stagger Lee” (also known as “Stagolee”), loosely based on the true story of early twentieth-century St. Louis criminal Lee Shelton, offers a fascinating vignette into evil and justice in the Jim Crow South. In the story, perhaps best told by gentle-voiced sharecropper Mississippi John Hurt, the criminal Stagger Lee kills Billy de Lyon, a married father of two, over a stetson hat. Stagger Lee is arrested and charged with murder. Hurt sings:

“Gentleman’s of the jury, what do you think of that?
Stagger Lee killed Billy de Lyon about a five-dollar Stetson hat.
He’s a bad man, oh, cruel Stagger Lee.”

As Stagger Lee stands on the gallows, he curses God. The response from the judge is as arresting as it is perhaps appropriate: “Let’s kill him, before he kills some of us.” The blues possesses an acute understanding of sin, perhaps because it was nurtured in a paradoxical “Christ-haunted South” that wedded deep religious fervor with callous cruelty and prejudice.

The Delta bluesmen, raised in an evangelical culture, appropriate biblical themes of exile and bondage. In “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” Muddy Waters voices the limitations and failings that every man has felt since Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden. “God may forgive me, but that’s not enough. ‘Cause I gotta live with myself till I’m dust,” sings Dan Auerbach, frontman of the Black Keys. It is life under the curse, a broken melody, observes Nichols. “The blues may very well be some of the profoundly theological music, because it tells the truth.” Indeed, scholars and musicians have noted the similarities between the themes of the blues and Psalm 40 (“As for me, I am poor and needy; but the Lord takes thought for me”) or Psalm 88 (“Thou hast caused lover and friend to shun me; my companions are in darkness”).

Yet the blues also knows what is required to end the exile and loosen the fetters. “I have a Bible in my home. If I don’t read, my soul be lost. Nobody’s fault but mine,” warns Blind Wilie Johnson, whose music is tinged with apocalyptic warnings. “Here am I, oh Lord, send me,” begs the warmer pastoral approach of Mississippi John Hurt. In another tune Hurt declares: “Glory, glory, hallelujah! Since I laid my burden down. No more sickness, no more sorrow, since I laid my burden down.” Some bluesmen, like Robert Johnson with the “hell-hound” on his trail, never seemed to find that final repentance; others, like Muddy Waters, made final peace with the Lord.

One of the things that always leads me back to the blues is its ancient and parochial pedigree. The blues is the patriarch of American music, influencing genres like rock, jazz, and even bluegrass and country. “Blues is the roots, everything else is the fruits,” said Vicksburg bluesman Willie Dixon. Its identity is narrow and localized, always drawing us back to the Mississippi Delta, “the most Southern place on earth,” according to Southern historian James C. Cobb. The problems and concerns of the blues are not global and generic, but local and specific. It invites us into the heart of a place, and ultimately the heart of a man, the bluesman. “As in water face reflects face, so the heart of man reflects the man” (Proverbs 27:19). In the pain of witnessing that tortured heart, if we listen carefully, we appreciate the need for salvation.

The blues is deep because man is deep, and in the blues we see man in his most genuine, unpretentious form. Delta bluesman Henry Townshend asked: “If I sing the blues, and tell the truth, what have I done?” What he has done, if he has done his job well, is crafted a music that stirs the soul, livens the heart, and orients us towards truth, perhaps truths we’ve feared to acknowledge. It’s true, in the blues the juke joint (nicknamed the “bucket of blood” for its tendency to devolve into violence) and the Sunday church service co-exist paradoxically in precarious union. Yet isn’t that also reflective of the human condition until, to cite Blind Willie Johnson, Jesus makes up our dying bed? Until that day, we do well to hear the bluesman.

You might also enjoy these articles...