Why is the blues so misunderstood?

In 1982, at the urging of Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger and the rest of the Stones attended a private showcase of Stevie Ray Vaughn and his band. When photos of the occasion were leaked to the press it was assumed that Stevie would be signed to Rolling Stones records. Instead, Jagger, who had earned much money and fame by appropriating the blues famously declared that “everyone knows that the blues doesn’t sell”. However, just because by the end of the 1970’s some rock bands were playing a bloated, boring version of the blues and disco, punk, soft rock, and smooth jazz were on the ascendancy didn’t mean that the blues were dead. After being dismissed by Jagger and booed at Montreux Stevie Ray became so successful he could turn down a chance to tour with David Bowie. Blues greats like Buddy Guy, Etta James and Albert Collins also found renewed success in the 1980’s.

As Mark Twain once famously said, “The report of my death was an exaggeration. ” The blues had been indeed declared dead before. The great B. B. King recalled a time in the early 1960’s when he was jeered as he opened for a soul music act and it brought him to tears. At this time young black music audiences started to regard the music of the older generation as reminiscent of slavery and not of the new spirit of liberation. This was an unfortunate misinterpretation of musical history.

The blues was always an expression of freedom, of liberation. From the earliest African expressions in the new world – the field hollers – there was a connection to where the people came from, i.e. Africa, not just a connection to the land of their subjugation. The early string jazz bands introduced African musical concepts and African instruments, such as the banjo, to America. Early blues lyrics had to be written in code. Instead of speaking out against the boss, sharecroppers would sing of bad treatment by their “woman”. Nevertheless, by the late 1940’s into the 50’s and 60’s the protests were more explicit. Jimmy Reed was rebelling against the Big Boss Man and white audiences were singing along with him. Otis Rush was encouraging sit down protests. Even before this, Leadbelly was calling Washington DC a bourgeois town in song, calling it out because he couldn’t find lodging there.

Another misconception about the blues concerned the musicians themselves. Black blues musicians were often, condescendingly, characterized by white critics as being “primitive”. These critics fetishized blues artists as being pure because they were supposedly naive. I read somewhere that when Muddy Waters first toured England the music press were disappointed that he was actually urbane and sophisticated. They should have understood that even many of the first recorded blues artists had left the rural south to find opportunity in big cities. These men and women would naturally become worldly as a result of being on the road.

Perhaps, the most misunderstood aspect of the blues is the idea that it is somehow restrictive or constricting. This mistake arises because the most typical form of the blues is the twelve bar AABA form. This is usually expressed as four bars (four beats to each bar) of a root chord or I, followed by two bars of the IV chord then two bars of the I, followed by two bars of the V chord, finally resolving to two bars of the I. For example, a blues in the key of C would be C or C7 (4 bars), F or F7 (2 bars), C or C7 (2 bars), G or G7 (2 bars) then C or C7 (2 bars). The AABA song form refers to the lyrics in which the first and second verses are the same, the third verse is different and the fourth verse repeats the first and second. In the right hands this form can unleash great creativity, in the wrong hands it can be mind numbingly dull. However, this is not the only form of the blues. There are eight, sixteen and even thirty-two bar blues, as well as lyric forms other than AABA. Moreover, jazz musicians extend the blues by using leading chords in between the I, Iv and V chords.

Also, the blues is often seen as being backward looking, yet, blues artists have always been innovators. Even before Robert Johnson, blues guitarists pioneered alternate tunings. John Lee Hooker was said to be difficult to accompany because he had a loose sense of rhythm but he was influenced by his father who practiced an older Mississippi delta tradition that didn’t follow strict time. This was long before jazz artists were playing “free” and calling it the “New Thing”. Players like T Bone Walker and Earl King substituted ninth chords for the more traditional seventh chords and this led to their use in funk by James Brown and later by Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Elmore James, in his song The Sky is Crying, began with the chorus instead of a verse before Lennon and McCartney would do the same on their first hit. Buddy Guy played his guitar through a Leslie unit on Hoodoo Man Blues years before Eric Clapton famously did so with Cream in 1969 and Earl Hooker was an early adopter of the wah wah pedal.

So why is the blues so misunderstood? Perhaps, because the blues is complicated and most people aren’t. Most people don’t even appreciate how much modern popular music has been shaped by the blues.

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