Thursday, February 27, 2014

What About The Blues?

"The blues is quicksilver
  It is not a quotation
  If it becomes a quotation
  It becomes irrelevant"
-- James Baldwin  

Can the blues be funky? Just to ask the question could be an insult to Mother Blues. The black experience has given birth to so many uniquely American art forms -- field hollers, gospel music, black realism in painting, art, literature and film -- and the blues! "I love the blues, she heard my cry..." The blues is like the Mississippi, a great tributary nourishing jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll -- and funk too sprang from her delta. In the broader sense of a 21st Century funk that subsumes the earlier criteria of both soul and funk, a true blues performance will be funky soulful, funky down-to-earth, alternately joyous and heart-wrenchingly sad. And since the blues itself gave rise to the original funk music, how could the blues be anything but funky? The answer is: only when the blues is not the blues!

There is much that is ersatz in our modern life. The pressure to constantly produce products that are new, the push to get us opening our wallets, these forces create much that sizzles but fails to nourish. Somewhere around 1968 a modification to the Marshall amplifier increased the volume of the rock band to a thunderous din that still continues. There are many practitioners of amplified blues that mistake loudness for excitement, divorced from the history and tradition of this great Americana. Trust me, I'm not going to launch into a criticism of middle-aged, middle-class, white guitar slingers. In spite of mass media fanning the flames of ignorance, the great majority of contemporary society is beyond ageism, thinks in terms of culture instead of race, and there is no more middle class, we all have a right to sing the blues.

Instead this is a cautionary note. Don't assume because you are paying obeisance to the form that your art automatically acquires validity. Balance and interplay between the musicians, an ability to evoke emotion from a single note, a feeling that transcends intonation and above all an inner quest for truth that will not allow a single meaningless note, these qualities will put the funk in your blues. An electronic tuner should be as foreign to the bandstand as a music stand. Don't use a pedal on your guitar rig when you can put a microphone on your beat-up overdriven amp and a good sound man will balance your performance for the listeners in the larger venues. Please don't sing a song that you haven't lived.

Don't sing "She caught the Katie and left me a mule to ride" unless your baby flew off in a jet plane and left you with a beat up Honda Civic, and you at least provide your audience a brief explanation to frame up your anachronism. By analogy, this line of thinking goes on and on. I don't think you can "pitch a wang dang doodle" if you never visited a get-down club where you had to be polite and watch your back while reveling just the same. It's OK if you never knew anyone named Abysinnian Ned, but at least know what the lyrics are talking about. Don't invoke the bravado of Muddy Waters "I'm A Man" or Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love" unless you've got a rap sheet, or you're portraying the persona of a good friend who does.

And finally, be very careful about trying a note for note copy -- even the original artist wouldn't copy their own recording. Your love and respect for a given artist should include an understanding that we are all continually changing and the honesty of the present trumps a slavish replication of some golden moment from the past. Study your predecessors and become accomplished, but find your own voice. Develop your own style, try an open tuning on some songs, use appropriate alternate chords, don't play the same turn-around on every song. If the original was a rhumba, try a reggae beat. Will that medium tempo work as a ballad? Can you rework that country blues into a big city sound with your horn section? How about letting the horns or the rest of the band hit the bar while you do a couple of unexpected a capella numbers?

Bluesman, be true to your own soul. Then and only then will your blues be funky.

"Junior may be younger and stronger, but Grandpa knows how to go 'round a whole lot longer."
 -- Magnificent Montague

“All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.“ -- from “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin