Thinkin' the Blues

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When I think about the history of popular music, I think about the blues. But we don't yet seem to have discussed this genre very fully -its importance, its boundaries, its appeal, its limitations. Does anyone want to have their tuppence worth on it?

Jumping-off point is the question that usually arises now and again for non-experts like me: namely, isn't the seemingly innate repetitiveness of the genre a turn-off? Or is that precisely its appeal?

the pinefox, Sunday, 29 April 2001 00:00 (nineteen years ago) link

I like the repetition, the drumming foottaps of JLH, the air between the notes, the ooh bend that note further its way out moment,lonnnng notes, - maybe coz i played some geetar in my youth i got exposed to loadsa blues i dont listen to too much trad stuff nowadays - more likely the 'HOT SPOT 'soundtrack or summat. I used to own loadsa stuff and goto local blues gigs - the UK NorthEast likes its blues. I used to like the delta stuff the best - somehow it loosened me up into playing a mood, a feeling - bizarrely i often feel guilty about not keeping up practicing - my muso streak sleeps hidden but on some nights it sleeps less soundly. Sorry - not very insightful - will try harder soon.back to tha sampler

Geordie Racer, Sunday, 29 April 2001 00:00 (nineteen years ago) link

Maybe there are at least two ways of defining the blues, a very narrow and a very wide.

Narrow: only Robert Johnson et al are true Blue. It's all about an authentic black experience (?) at a certain moment in history, on certain instrumentation, and it's been diluted ever since.

Wide: the blues is not one genre, more a certain impulse that can flow through various musical situations. Maybe it's about 'The Blues Scale' (anyone want to help out on the definition and specificity of this?), which for all I know may be found in soul, dance, rock'n'roll, heavy rock, etc. Maybe it's even about an Attitude - recall the way that bluesmen are always saying 'You have to live the blues before you can play it'. In that case it would be slightly akin to what 'rock'n'roll' is for Stevie T, or 'rock' for Ally - a mode of thinking and feeling as much as a particular genre.

In between the very narrow and very wide (but I'd like some clarification about *their* plausibility) come all the ambiguities of what is and isn't blues. I like BB King and Sonny Boy Williamson II - that sounds like blues to me. But maybe to some people that's RHYTHM'n'Blues, and thus different? Where does blues become r'n'b? Where does r'n'b become rock'n'roll (cf Chuck Berry)? Did the Stones play the blues, or not?

the pinefox, Sunday, 29 April 2001 00:00 (nineteen years ago) link

I get off on repetitions that drive others bezerk, so I don't mind. But then the blues doesn't seem especially repetitious to me, especially compared to something like boogie-woogie piano, what with its endless cycle of tightrope-walking explorations and resolutions of theme, or trance with its oppressive square-beat tastefulness. I find them far more problematic.

Michael Daddino, Sunday, 29 April 2001 00:00 (nineteen years ago) link

The repetion and restictions that the genre imposes always seemed to work in it's favour, they really seem to wring every ounce of expression from the meagre constituents, and that's sympathetic to what they're generally getting across.

My only problem is that when I really 'got' the blues, like Jazz, it was to the detriment of my other interests. I enjoyed the blues exclusively, nothing else seemed to carry the same intensity. That state can be highly appropriate - in the wake of a relationship, when you're feeling sorry for yourself and need solidarity, but then that's if you want to dwell. Blues for me, is not somewhere I wanna hang out, it's somewhere I visit, alone. Nowadays if I'm that emotive I tend to stick on the radio, find reassurance in uplifting trash.

K-reg, Sunday, 29 April 2001 00:00 (nineteen years ago) link

Nowadays I think of the Blues as Black American folk music of a certain time. There are still pracitioners, to be sure, but the Blues is all but dead. I don't mean people won't listen to and play and enjoy it anymore, of course they will. But they also listen to, play, and enjoy big band swing, skiffle, whatever. And most of the enjoyment of those musics is tied to memories of a certain time or at least ideas of a certain time. And when music is appreciated like that, it dies and becomes a museum piece.

That sounds like a criticism, but it's not at all. Everything dies, baby, that's a fact. But we can still listen to and enjoy stuff that's frozen at a certain time. Even LOVE and draw meaning from it. But all that doesn't make it relevant now except as history.

All this is right off the dome. I need to think more about these kinds of statements, really. Take the above with a grain of salt.

Anyway, I was way into the Blues in the late 80s, and I'd be lying unless I admitted that at least part of my enjoyment sprung from the idea that these old (black) men, guys like Lighten' Hopkins and John Lee Hooker, had gained wisdom somehow through suffering, a suffering I probably wasn't privvy to in my white middle-class suburban existance. Now it feels like there was something wrong about the attitudes about "authenticity of experience" I had then, something condescending and possibliy just a little bit racist.

In terms of form, I have to admit now that I just can't listen to the 12-bar structure. It's too predictable and it was probbly ruined for me by the British Invasion groups & all the terrible bar bands that populate the U.S. Fortunately, there is more to the Blues than that, particularly in the rhythm. John Lee Hooker still works for me (I'm talking about the 50s and 60s stuff here) because of his one-chord vamp thing. It's got a trance music thing going. Same with what little I've heard on Fat Possum. The most interesting stuff to me now is the rhythmic stuff that somehow missed 12-bar structure.

Mark, Sunday, 29 April 2001 00:00 (nineteen years ago) link

Here's one to look for on Napster: Lightnin' Hopkins, "Shaggy Dog." Just him, his guitar and a trombone. Super catchy and very uplifing, and it doesn't do the 12-bar thing. Definitely my favorite old Blues song ever (though in structure it's probably actually more folk than blues, like Ledbelly.)

Mark, Sunday, 29 April 2001 00:00 (nineteen years ago) link

1. K-Reg: I like your idea re 'wringing the maximum out of meagre constituents' - there's something in that - a kind of heroic Stoicism, Beckettian if you like.

2. But do you really find the blues good for times of actual heartache? That's interesting. I know that's its stereotypical meaning, but I didn't know it really worked that way. Any reason?

3. Mark - hm, your idea of blues as museum piece is cogent. I suppose I would say that tons and tons of great culture is now like that, now bound up with images of the past: whether it be the C19 novel, or screwball comedies, or early 60s folk. Or, heck, I don't know - punk! grunge! shoegazing! It seems to me a part of the richness of our current cultural situation that all this stuff is part of our archive, so to speak: there to be investigated and learned from. Then again, I think I ought to be very suspicious of myself (or anyone) talking about 'the richness of our current cultural situation'. What an idea!

I suppose my question would be: seeing as almost everything gets so 'historical' so quickly nowadays (not to say 'obsolescent'), why is the blues distinct from other genres? Is it any less vital an historic resource than punk, for instance?

the pinefox, Sunday, 29 April 2001 00:00 (nineteen years ago) link

If you are talking about one idea of blues, namely the old standard acts, it is very repetitive. I feel Leadbelly is way more limited, though his chords and finger picking are very interesting, than later blues acts, who began making it more rock-ish. The blues is the essence of standard, formulaic pop music. Major and minor pentatonic scales can wander off into some very abstract jazz, which people call "in search of the lost chord" or whatever. Whether it's the groove of funk or the chunk of metal, the basic progressions, solos and rhythms only have to be slightly altered in order to produce a cover of the song in a different genre. A good example of this is The Vindictives' "Party Time For Assholes" which simply speeds up about 40 or so classic songs, keeping the same actual chords and notes, to make everything sound like annoyingly ridiculously fast punk music. I think 12 bar blues is just sort of old hat, however when newer artists revert back to this formula, it is often interesting with the new elements of sound we have today. Newer musical stylings are becoming just as old hat, though. In order to keep music interesting to yourself, you usually end up branching out into all sorts of things you may have considered at one time to be "noise". The Boredoms are very good at creating a new form of music, especially in albums like "Super AE" and "Vision Creation Newsun" which are more than simply weird, chopped up bits of music you'd find on "Chocolate Synthesizer" (which I also like). I don't know what my point is. I guess I'm just trying to say that everything has it's limitations. Unless we start using quarter notes, different scales and different instruments, music will basically be the same stuff. It just depends on what you like, right? I, for one, am usually not interested in hearing stuff I've already heard to death (Lightnin' Hopkins, Howling Wolf, Leadbelly, Stevie Ray Vaughn [who I never liked], BB King, etc.) but I do like the newer versions of blues music I hear from my girlfriend's step dad, who are usually totally obscure. I have never been influenced enough to go out and buy any of it, however. If you like the old, standard blues, but have heard the same songs too many times, there is new stuff out there that's pretty good.

, Sunday, 29 April 2001 00:00 (nineteen years ago) link

I knew it wouldn't take long to punch a hole in my theory! You're right, styles become tied to their time pretty quickly. And actually, I do think of punk and a lot of other rock styles in somewhat the same way I do Blues. It seems like Blues was most interesting as a regional phenomon. How Mississippi Fred McDowel and R.L. Burnside are so different from Muddy Waters who is so different from Lightin' Hopkins. Maybe that's what really happened, the many styles of blues became One Thing in the eyes of the media (which is where I get my information), and that thing is electrified 12-bar with an AAB lyrical pattern.

Mark, Sunday, 29 April 2001 00:00 (nineteen years ago) link

Mark: that's interesting - I didn't know that. I am no expert whatever on the blues, which is one reason I started the thread. So are you saying that 12-bar structures are only a small part of the blues? What about scales - don't they all share the 'blues scale', 'blue notes', etc?

Buddyhey: still lookin' for that lost chord this spring...

the pinefox, Sunday, 29 April 2001 00:00 (nineteen years ago) link

Well, I'm definitely FAR from being an expert, and I don't know much about scales (isn't it that the blues scale has a flatted fifth?) But there is a certain kind of blues that I've heard (menioned above -- Hooker, Mississippi Fred McDowel, Lightin' Hopkins) that doesn't stick to 12-bar. Like "Boogie Chillen" -- doesn't that have just one chord? Same with "Going Down South" by Fred McDowell, I don't think that has a chord change. Lightin' Hopkins' "Black Cadillac Blues" is closer to conventional pop structure. So I have to believe that 40 or 50 years ago regions like Texas (where Hopkins is from) and rural Mississippi had their own styles going on that weren't tied to the 12- bar thing. I keep using the same examples here because I don't have a ton of blues records, but I imagine there is some variety out there.

Mark, Sunday, 29 April 2001 00:00 (nineteen years ago) link

"But do you really find the blues good for times of actual heartache? That's interesting. I know that's its stereotypical meaning, but I didn't know it really worked that way. Any reason?"

The whole lo-fi, person-in-front-of-a-microphone-with-instrument set- up is personal, heightens the intimacy and means to empathise. If I'm gonna indulge my misery, it's best to do it with someone who's been there already, as Tom said in a review of a Palace track - 'a workable map of heartbreak', you can find your way out again.

K-reg, Monday, 30 April 2001 00:00 (nineteen years ago) link

Almost any kind of music can work during the throes of heartache if you listen to it right.

Josh, Monday, 30 April 2001 00:00 (nineteen years ago) link

So can almost any kind of music give you a heartache if you listen to it wrong?

the pinefox, Tuesday, 1 May 2001 00:00 (nineteen years ago) link

one month passes...
It seems to me that alot of people tend to pidgeon- hole blues music. There are really so many "types" of Blues. Lets see; Delta Blues, Piedmont Blues, Jump Blues, Texas Blues, Chicago blues, Memphis Blues, Country blues(a very broad category in itself),Electric Blues,"Lady" Blues, Blues Rock, British Blues, Jug & skiffle bands also were very blues based. While I think we could all agree that Blues "grew" out of the primarly Black sections of the rural south. It goes back much further to such things as slave Field hollers, the Griots Of Mali(singing & chanting with some type of stringed insrtument), and tribal Rhythms. It really has come so far in so many directions that a search for the "Real" blues is simply futile. There is lots of great "Blues" music why not just enjoy it all!!

Michael Hungerford, Friday, 8 June 2001 00:00 (nineteen years ago) link

Yes, pinefox, if by 'listen to wrong' you mean 'eat the CD'.

Josh, Friday, 8 June 2001 00:00 (nineteen years ago) link

one year passes...
Hey: this is ("effectively") a pre-White Stripes thread!

the pinefox, Thursday, 24 April 2003 11:15 (seventeen years ago) link

seven years pass...

I've been listening to Mississippi Fred McDowell, Skip James, Junior Kimborough, Elmore James, Junior Wells...this is where you recommend blues records/performers whom you feel deserve more attention. I am quite interested in hearing more electric blues in the style of Kimborough or Fred McDowell's raucous performance of "Shake 'Em On Down".

Flowers By Pete (admrl), Tuesday, 29 June 2010 17:00 (ten years ago) link

one year passes...

So this is where blues fans go

curmudgeon, Wednesday, 25 April 2012 14:09 (eight years ago) link

four years pass...

Wells may have been born in Memphis, Tennessee,[ 1] and raised in West Memphis, Arkansas (some sources report that he was born in West Memphis).[ 2][ 3] Initially taught by his cousin, Junior Parker, and by Sonny Boy Williamson II, Wells learned to play the harmonica skillfully by the age of seven.

He moved to Chicago in 1948 with his mother, after her divorce, and began sitting in with local musicians at house parties and taverns.[ 4] Wild and rebellious but needing an outlet for his talents, he began performing with the Aces (guitarist brothers Dave and Louis Myers and drummer Fred Below) and developed a modern amplified harmonica style influenced by Little Walter.[ 4] In 1952, he made his first recordings, when he replaced Little Walter in Muddy Waters's band and played on one of Muddy's sessions for Chess Records in 1952.[ 4] His first recordings as a bandleader were made in the following year for States Records.[ 5] In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he recorded singles for Chief Records and its subsidiary, Profile Records, including "Messin' with the Kid", "Come on in This House", and "It Hurts Me Too", which would remain in his repertoire throughout his career. His 1960 Profile single "Little by Little" (written by Chief owner and producer Mel London) reached number 23 on the Billboard R&B chart, the first of his two singles to enter the chart.[ 6]

Wells's album Hoodoo Man Blues, released in 1965 by Delmark Records, featured Buddy Guy on guitar.[ 4][ 7]

when i was younger i used to be really into interconnections between musicians, bands, etc. who literally had shared working relationships

i'm surprised i never really appreciated how much of this there was among the biggest blues names

j., Tuesday, 6 December 2016 20:26 (three years ago) link


Here's a collaboration I am curious about. Not big names though--

Natchez is one of Mississippi’s cultural treasures, but its rich blues heritage is often overlooked. Evidence of it is plentiful on the recent CD “Natchez Burnin'” (Broke and Hungry Records) by veterans Hezekiah Early and Robert Lee “Lil' Poochie” Watson.

Early and Watson have played together regularly in Natchez over the last decade, but their collaboration goes back to the 1980s, when Watson performed with the Early-led Hezekiah and the Houserockers at festivals in Chicago and Toronto. The duo’s music is refreshingly loose, tackling mostly blues standards in a style true to the sounds of the house parties where both men started their musical careers....

curmudgeon, Wednesday, 7 December 2016 00:50 (three years ago) link

two years pass...

Liking Jimmy Duck Holmes latest album, Cypress Grove. He lives in Mississippi and has his own place , the Blues Front Cafe in Bentonia, Ms.

The album reminds me more of RL Burnside style blues than city of Chicago 12 bar blues

curmudgeon, Wednesday, 27 November 2019 20:36 (eight months ago) link

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