Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Blues Is All Right. Or Is It?

By Mark Jordan

MAY 10, 1999:  It is first and foremost a hue, one of the primary colors. But even among them , it seems more prime. The color of the sky above and the ocean below, it seems elemental.

It is next a form of music. As old as the country that created it, it was the voice of the poorest and most oppressed of its citizens and has been embraced by its most privileged.

And lastly, it is a current of feeling. "I've got the blues," one might say, but what they are really saying is, "I'm alive." In a word, it is the summation of everybody's everyday ills, the total of all misery.

It is in Americans' nature to catalog things in great detail, to define something's characteristics, pinpoint its origin, and trace its growth, as if by doing so we can then say that we truly understand it. We like being able to declare that the United States was born on July 4, 1776, that baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, New York, and that the first apple pie was baked whenever and wherever, even when such statements are, if not outright false (as with Doubleday), then at least open to debate.

But the blues defy such easy pigeonholing. Their origins are awash in the morass of folklore and obscured by the secret history of the United States -- the enslavement of millions of Africans in America. The blues are their contribution to the American patchwork. But it is not theirs alone. Like much else the country has produced, the blues are a mishmash -- the result of the blending of the African griot tradition of musical storytellers and Western music traditions. The blues existed for generations before they were "discovered." In the 19th century, the blues were in the work songs and field hollers heard through the week, in songster and minstrel shows played out on Saturday nights, and in the gospel hymns sung on Sunday mornings.

In 1908, an Alabama-born trumpet player named W.C. Handy wrote a vaguely bluesy rag tune called "Mr. Crump," an election ditty for the man who would come to dominate Memphis politics for most of the first half of the century. Four years later, Handy slapped a new title on the song, "Memphis Blues," and published it, thus giving the world its first blues composition. The song was a smash -- outdone only by its successor, "St. Louis Blues" -- and the craze for the blues had begun.

The craze exploded with the advent of the phonograph. In 1920, a black vaudeville singer named Mamie Smith cut the first blues record, "Crazy Blues" b/w "It's Right Here For You." The record reportedly sold an astounding 1 million copies in a year, and established a strong marketplace for "race" recordings.

Perhaps the most important development in those early days was the discovery of the country blues singers. In the '30s, record-company engineers and folklorists such as Alan Lomax began combing the back roads of the American South looking for unrecorded musicians. Musicians such as Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, and Skip James dealt in a raw, unrefined form of the blues that could sound totally foreign -- like so much out-of-tune screaming and wailing -- to the uninitiated. Their stunning acoustic guitar work, a necessity when playing unaccompanied, helped to marry the instrument and the form. But most importantly, the colorful personalities, apocryphal tales, and mysterious lives (the result of being both itinerant and coming from a community where lives were generally undocumented) of men such as Johnson and Patton went a long way toward building the basic mythology of the blues.

From these roots, the blues have spread into every corner of the world. Shortly after the fall of the Iron Curtain, I found myself traveling through eastern Europe. I walked into a small tavern in Budapest, Hungary, where a blues band was playing a dead-on cover of "I'll Play The Blues For You." At the break, I went up to talk to the singer/guitarist only to discover he didn't speak a word of English. Apparently, he didn't need to.

And though blues records don't sell like they once did, the blues are still more popular now than they've ever been. The music's biggest stars, B.B. King and John Lee Hooker, are known around the world through concerts, commercials, and television appearances. Millions flock to blues festivals every year. Along their travels, the blues have changed quite a bit, developing their own regional dialects and becoming more urban. They've been absorbed into other music genres, most notably jazz and rock-and-roll. The onetime folk music of the American South has become a multicultural phenomenon.

But has blues music lost some of its unique character in the process? The influx of new influences has blurred the distinction between what is blues and what is R&B, rock, and jazz. Though novelty performers are a tradition in the blues, increasingly these novelty acts are young (very young) white men, suggesting the music's gentrification. The majority of African Americans seems to have moved past the blues, abandoning a heritage in the process. Meanwhile, in tourist traps around the world, hack bands dish out blues like draft beer, diluting the authenticity of the real thing.

Little Milton once sang "the blues is all right," but is it? Over the next few pages, various writers try to answer that question in their own way. Former Memphian Stanley Booth compares and contrasts the state of the blues past and present. Chris Herrington examines a new generation of African Americans who are returning to their blues roots, while Stephen Grimstead warns of the dangers of over-revearing the past. In his essay on Bobby "Blue" Bland, John Floyd reminds us exactly what makes the blues so powerful and special. And in a revealing interview, Blues Foundation executive director Howard Stovall talks about the future of the music and his organization.

For myself, I've concluded that the blues are all right. Today's blues are, to be sure, not the blues of Robert Johnson and Pettie Wheatstraw. But the spirit that drives them is still alive in the new music; it's just the packaging that is different. Through blues old and new lies that current of feeling, ordinary people wrestling with everyday problems -- work, drink, love, good, evil, the temptations of vice, the lure of a good time. This current runs wherever a singer sings the truth and wherever an audience can hear it. This current runs strong. The current is blue. It is primary.


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