'The Blues' is something that strikes fear into my heart. It conjures up images of the House Of Blues and The Hard Rock Cafe. Of Buddy Guy and BB King or Bon Jovi using a slide guitar for that authentic tone.
It brings to mind Eric Clapton...
I recommend watching the film Ghost World for two reasons: first is the amazing scene where they go and see Blues Hammer who offer 'authentic Delta Blues'. It sums up what I am about to write in about 20 seconds. Save yourself the time and see it instead of reading this. Second is to get an accurate glimpse into the future, as Steve Buscemi plays me in 20 years time; moaning about everything, listening to the blues and letching on young girls with black hair.
So, I think you have every reason to avoid the blues. 99% of what is labelled 'blues' is embarrassing, tepid, wine-bar background-music bullshit. This is a shame as that remaining 1% contains some of the most incredible music ever played. Seriously, some of it is life-changing and I want to try and explain why.
I'm talking about the earliest surviving recordings of negro, solo (mostly) performers. They're loosely tied together under the umbrella heading of ‘The Blues’ by common themes in the music. But that damn term is too narrow to describe this. This is country, folk, gospel, traditional, dance... And when you hear Robert Johnson sing...
Squeeze my lemon till the juice runs down my leg
Or Charley Patton holler
Can't go down this dirt road by myself
I don't carry my rider, gonna carry me someone's else
...you know it's rock & roll and heavy metal too, it just didn't know it.
I'm not talking about Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker and that later wave of electric blues musicians who are considered to be 'originals'. I'm not even talking about Howlin' Wolf, great though he was. They came about after the idea of recording this music had become part and parcel of actually writing it. I'm talking about 'race recordings'* from the 20s and 30s, before the depression hit the recording industry in the USA. Only a few battered 78s are left from this era, and in fact lots of recordings listed in record company catalogues have never been found at all - in listenable condition or otherwise.
[*By the way, 'race record' is a term used by the recording industry of the time to denote a recording made to sell purely in segregated black neighbourhoods.]
That link between writing music and the physical outcome of it is one of the problems I have with the modern 'blues' musician. They make records. They are not recorded. It's not their fault, you understand; we live in a time where music as product is inescapable, so everyone channels their art into this product even if they don't mean to. Their art is made with format in mind. Therefore the modern version of the 'blues' - the type you find under the 'Blues & Jazz' section in HMV - is the performer communicating their version of the blues to other people from original idea through to CD in jewel case. They are 'artists'. My over-simplistic view of the blues is that it has a purpose, and that purpose is to sing away your troubles or sooth them somehow. That's where the roots of the music lie. In theory, if you do a perfect job you won't be playing the blues anymore, as you'll have cheered your ass up. When you're on a 10-album contract you're probably less likely to work towards that goal, if you know what I mean.
Now, I know, a 'real' or 'natural' recording is impossible. I'm not naïve enough to think that the early 'race' recordings I'm talking about were made in wonderful, uncorrupted surroundings and that their strength is in their purity, or some such nonsense. Like the late blues-scholar, guitar-legend and fat-drunken-antagonist John Fahey pointed out in his thesis on the aforementioned Charley Patton, any recorded environment is unnatural, even that of the 'folklorist' who went from town to town making 'natural' field recordings of black musicians.
Listen here boy, you play that there geetar for us and we'll buy you a Coca Cola!
But the early (late 1920s/early 1930s) race records are the closest we can come to 'natural' - to hearing someone articulate their feelings in a piece of music conceived with no mind to commerce - even if the act of recording that music is commercial to the core. Don't underestimate how powerful that is.
The white guys in suits at the record company didn't know what would sell to the segregated market, so they just let them 'nigras' get on with it in the studio. They might have suggested certain songs worked better than others, or spiced up the sessions with a little booze, but largely they just let it happen. Good call. Thanks guys. Out of luck more than judgement, we're left with some of the only recordings made by people who wrote songs unaware of the concept that those songs would ever be part of a physical product. The archetypal image of the bluesman singing woke up this morning came later.
How about this for woke up this morning?
Eddie James 'Son' House was a fire-and-brimstone-Biblical-fury style performer. He apparently taught Muddy Waters to play guitar, and was a huge influence on Robert J
ohnson and countless others. He wrote the song 'Death Letter', which you'll recognise as being the source for 'I Feel Like Ahcid' if you're a Beefheart fan. It's also a staple in the White Stripes' live set. It features the line:
I didn't know I loved her, till they laid her in the ground
Jesus. That is fairly 'to the point'.
He enjoyed a career of sorts in the 60s blues revival era, and eventually died in the early 80s aged 86... (well, that was his official age anyway. He told several people he lied about his age to get a job in New York, and if that was the case he was over a hundred when he finally bowed out. If you see the videos of him performing in the 60s, when he was way past his best but still utterly compelling, you'd swear he'd been witness to the making of the Earth itself).
Musician Paul Rishell met and played with Son House in 1977:
"(House) told me he was once living with a woman, and she was sick. After coming back from work one day, he told her, 'I'm going out; you wanna come?' 'No,' she said, 'I'm too sick'. When he came home and went to bed, he could tell she was still sick. And he told me, 'I woke up in the morning, and had to go to the commode. And I opened the door to the outhouse, and she had died there, sitting on the board'. I asked, 'What did you do?' 'Nothin' for me to do; she was dead. So I left; I just left.' Completely matter-of-fact."
Get it? THIS IS NOT ROMANTIC. This is not hazy, cheery nostalgia. Let's get this clear from the outset. Don't mistake me for some misty-eyed fool who wants to live in a shack and play his gweetur on the porch in a rocking chair. That's a world that never existed. It's an amalgamation at best. A Budweiser commercial.
Let's get back to the music; I'm veering off track. I’m excited.
I think it is natural when you listen to the music made at the time, to think of the singer's motives for laying this dread on us in musical form. We always ask 'why?' It's a piece of art that we (incorrectly) assume has been made for consumption and therefore it has a message and we have to decipher it.
We did it when we were kids, and we still do. It's the first thing we do when anything attacks our senses; we try and make sense of it. To solve the question, we unconsciously relate this old music to similar music of a more modern era. A mistake. People could argue that modern rock albums such as In Utero by Nirvana would have been made regardless of the recording format, because of the muse of the artiste concerned.
"It just spilled out."
"It was a record I had to make."
" Writing this record got me through dark times."
We assume that the process was cathartic for these blues singers, in the same way that modern music that deals with subjects like pain and regret invariably is. But even that somehow implies that the maker is an artiste, and therefore makes a piece of art as an end result. In the very least, it shows that at the end of the creativity there has to come an OBJECT to archive the process. To validate the process. And by that I mean an object like a CD or a record, not a song in its purest form, stored in someone's head, or a moment experienced and then gone forever.
Fact is, when the modern singer-songwriter writes these songs, they are doing so in the light of them one day being recorded. They are made with the audience in mind, even if they are made despite of the audience. But these people did not write their songs to record them. They had hard lives which I'm not even going to begin to try to appreciate, but these people did not write their songs to escape this life by having a career as a musician.
This is not even a rejected option - it's not even invented. Even when it was invented, Son House had to wait 30 years to have a 'career'. The motives for these people making their music are utterly crucial in the way the music turned out, and how powerful it remains even today, generations later - if only because we can't recreate these motives in ourselves and we should probably stop trying.
Think of it this way:
If you play an instrument, I want you to think of your reasons for doing it.
What are your goals?
If you don't play an instrument, try and think why you might want to start.
If you think of all the reasons, then every one of them has something to do with the recorded medium, be it that you want to be a huge pop star and get laid, or that you just want to write your own songs. Even writing your own songs is linked so hard to actually recording them that you cannot pull them apart. They mean the same thing.
It's because of the time we live in. Everything is archived and we have so many forms of technology to do this archiving that the act and the outcome are linked forever. Musicians make records, actors make films, writers write books that are mass-produced and printed.
I could, if I wanted, archive the sound of my fecal movements for a week in full stereo without any large problem. Hopefully you see my point without me having to undertake this particular task.
We have learned that archiving is the natural outcome of creativity.
Now, unlearn it. Imagine it doesn't exist. You are not rejecting the idea of making records; the idea is unknown to you.
IT DOES NOT EXIST.
Go on, try and think like that.
You can't do it. It's too deeply set in us. So forget trying.
It's a shame though, as with no object to strive for and none of the rewards associated with it, we would immediately wipe out 99% of people making music or art of any kind.
No bad thing. But Son House, for example, did not write his songs to convey his suffering, and worry to an audience outside of the people he played for and knew, because he had no idea they would be recorded or saved. When he wrote them he believed they'd die with him or when he forgot how to play them; whichever came first.
In fact, after he was rediscovered he had to be coached through his old repertoire by young white blues enthusiasts so he could relearn his own songs.
So, again, why the hell did he write them? Why did any of these people write their songs?
I have no idea for sure. It's hard to contemplate people's motives when, like I said, the time we live in is so obsessed with producing a final object. I can't remove myself from that. I can't imagine what it would be like to write a song without that knowledge. To write a song for the sake of writing a song.
But, my guess is that their reasons were either this notion of self-expression being a tonic for hard times and a way to vent some spleen, or that it stemmed from more simple goals like earning a little money by playing to people and also raising their own social standing by being able to entertain a crowd. In most cases it was a finely balanced mixture of the two. And that last reason is something that's forgotten in the age where the performer is respected and elevated - especially if they are seen to be EMOTING.
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