The word is derived from the genre of music called the blues. Almost all of blues music revolves around these general themes of loss and emotional pain. Yet the funny thing about the blues is that it actually liberates you from the pain and helps you to rise above the loss and go forward with hope and cheer. Most people who are fond of contemporary music enjoy their rock and R&B and jazz. However, what many contemporary listeners may not be familiar with is that the roots of all these genres can be tracked back to the blues. In addition, the blues have a great significance in the history of modern society, and this significance is universal, as the conditions that led to the birth of the blues exist within every society, every individual and can be found in every time and age including our own.
In this post, being written on the birthday of the man who is believed to have sold his soul to the devil in return for his bluesman skills, I will try and share my understanding of this amazing form of music and how it relates to us as human beings. This entails looking at things a little differently than we are ordinarily encouraged to, along with small doses of objective analysis of history and the evolving human condition. This post will need to bring in ideas, let them ferment, add new ideas, and brew the concoction till it tastes just right. This post is written for the general reader and assumes no in-depth knowledge of any form of music. You may, however, come across names and concepts that you are unfamiliar with that I have not attempted to explain. I have deliberately done this so that you can cherish your discoveries as you investigate those ideas. Disclaimer: You may change the way you look at music, society, capitalism and human rights after you read this post, so if you wish to remain comfortably numb, read no further.
To understand the relevance of the blues, it is necessary to go a little back and forth in modern history. Let us start with the most popular form of music of our times - rock. If you look at what we know as rock music, you will find that there are certain elements that have come to exemplify it, stuff that makes rock rock, in a manner of speaking. The most obvious among these is of course, the beat. Rock music is almost entirely built around a heavy rhythm that drives the song. Even in songs that use a slower tempo, like Whiter Shade of Pale, the rhythm still remains at the forefront of the composition. The next element is the lyrics, which is either presented by a single vocalist or by a group, but almost always has a repetitive refrain or a chorus. Then there is the instrumental solo, which can be guitar riffs like in Lay Down Sally, or a keyboard motif, like in Light My Fire, or sometimes more unconventional stuff like the theremin in Good Vibrations or the glockenspiel (or was it the marimba?) in Skating Away. This is when one band member emerges from the conformity of the group and showcases his individualism. Hold on to these thoughts, we will be revisiting them later.
Now let us step back to the America that the Europeans “discovered” back in the 16th century. This was a vast, diverse, and resource-rich land that was inhabited by native Americans, who looked upon earth as their mother and nurturer, and considered the forces of nature the expression of the will of their creator. They lived their daily lives in accordance with the laws of nature, and worshiped the glory of life by living it reverently.
When the Europeans arrived, the first thing they realized was that no one “owned” the land. The second thing they realized was that the native Americans did not have a “god,” and worshiped seemingly meaningless things like the skies, the winds, the rain, and fire. As we all know, they did not waste any time in remedying both of these. Over the 17th and 18th centuries, settlers came in and ensured that all land was properly owned, not by the native Americans though, who were confined to reservations made especially for them, and that there was sufficient awareness created about “god.”
There was a slight problem though. This was a huge continent, and in order to fully make use of its resources, there was a need for roads and railways, mines and plantations, none of which was possible without labor. Initially this labor came from poor families in European countries who entered into a contract to go and work for their “employers.” With time, they realized that the contract was not worth it and this source of labor began to dry up.
The settlers then turned to the placement agents of their times, the slave traders. Slave traders scouted the “dark” continent and exported about 12 million people from Africa to the New World to work. Picture the situation for a moment. There you are in your village in the tropics, safe and warm with your loved ones, going hunting with your tribesmen and gathering around the village fire on festive nights, when all of a sudden, armed slave-traders come, pick you up by force, throw you into a ship, and before you know it, you are being auctioned off on the basis of your pearly whites and your glutes. You are taken away from your loved ones, put in a strange land with strange customs, exposed to diseases you have never known, made to work as bonded labor, forced to acknowledge the presence of a god you haven’t met before, and deprived of almost all human rights. Given the fact that slaves were a precious commodity for their owners, they were often forbidden from even talking to slaves belonging to other owners.
This is where the blues were born. On the railroad lines and southern plantations, as the slaves labored under harsh conditions, using work songs and field hollers to keep their spirits up and their roots alive. They blended the jungle beats of their homeland and that of their physical labor to come up with a visceral rhythm and spun lyrics that spoke of their deepest emotions around them. They sang of their sorrows and their alienation, and over time, brought in influences of their new lives, the injustices of social inequity, the new ideas of religion and salvation, and used this new form of music to transcend their sufferings.
By the 1900s, the blues was an established musical genre, acquiring a more mainstream form by embracing other ideas that were shaping the musical expression of the time. Some of these were spiritual songs, indigenous country music, folk forms brought by European immigrants, along with a greater relevance and craftsmanship of lyrics. As America opened up with the railroads, waterways and highways, the blues traveled from the Mississippi delta to the rest of the nation, and lent itself to local influences, without losing its core, a deeply emotional comment on the human condition. However, till well into the mid 20th century, the blues remained confined largely to the African-American population, with only a handful of white pioneers. Perhaps one reason that the blues found greater acceptance among the rest of the population following the war years is that war is color blind, and for the first time, the people of America realized pain and loss regardless of the color of their skin or their status in society.
Let us go back again and look at the music that the settlers brought to America. We have already seen the rhythmic, monophonic and gut-level song that the African slaves brought with them. There were two other traditions that contributed to the evolution of the blues and jazz. One was the myriad forms of folk music that the European settlers brought in, from the French chanson to the Irish ballads, the Spanish flamenco and the almost classical Italian barcarolle, and the other was the symphonic orchestral-choral tradition of the renaissance and romantic eras with its rich harmonic structures and counterpoints.
For those familiar with scales and progressions, the basic form of the blues is a simple 12 bar structure with a monophonic (one note at a time) melody built around three or four root scales, and the most common feature of the blues is what is called the blue note, derived from the harmonic 7th of the dominant major scale, achieved by flattening the 3rd, 5th, and 7th notes. This slightly discordant flexion is what many feel gives the blues that gut-wrenching emotional appeal. Most early blues were straight out melodies based on this structure, accompanied with a guitar, mouth organ or blues harp (a mouth organ with only pentatonic notes). For the rest of us, let it suffice to know that the blues had a definite though rudimentary musical structure that made creative use of traditionally dissonant scales and notes.
Drawing on the rich melodic and harmonic ideas found in classical orchestral music, the instrumentation of the work songs and field hollers also developed, and the “band,” as we now know it began to emerge. Standing halfway between the orchestra and the dance-hall bands, it began to include a separate rhythm section, usually a drum and bass act, and a frontman who sang and played an instrument, and with a couple of accompanists, who would step up to showcase their instrumental skills as interludes in the overall song structure. As the blues came out of the shadows of slave music to reflect the changing times, it sang of love, of passion, of urban realities, and of justice, highlighting the intricate interdependent relationship between society and the individual.
In contrast, in the early 20th century, the music of the white population was struggling to break free from its more staid and restrictive format.
Although American popular song of the first four decades of the 20th century has some of the finest examples of songwriting, vocal rendition and star power, the youth of the 40s and 50s found the earthy sound of the blues bands and rock and roll much more appealing than the great paleface American songbook. Moreover, it was a generation thing; the kids were listening to the same music that their parents did - rebellion was overdue. In addition, rock and roll and the blues were still black music and looked down upon by the rest of the society. This changed as white musicians in America and Britain began to discover, adopt and experiment with the sound of the blues and rock and roll. With the advent of Elvis in America and The Beatles in Britain, everything changed for ever. In its new avatar of rhythm and blues, the plaintive cry of the African-American slave entered the mainstream and evolved into the rock that we know.
It is not as if the blues do not exist in our traditions. Though they might not follow the same chordal structures or originate from similar social conditions, several of our musical forms embody the same angst and spiritual seeking as the blues. The quest of sufiyana and the longing of the baul are as much the blues as are the songs of Meera and Kabir. In more recent times, the songs of the artist who used to be known as Suman Chatterjee, Lucky Ali, Dhanush and his Kolaveri Di are perhaps close examples of what contemporary blues can be like. The relevance of the blues to our present time is also the reason why this post is hosted here, and not over at the operative note, where most of my writing on music resides.
The blues are more than just songs of sadness, they are songs that capture the irony and vacuousness of human existence. This core aspect of the blues has not changed over the nearly two centuries of its journey. Where the Delta bluesman spoke of the paradoxical symbiosis of the white plantation owner and the black tribesman slave, contemporary songwriters like Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton have used the format to address issues of broken relationships, urban alienation, spiritual pursuits, and the pointlessness of commercialism and consumerism.
At a time when we, as a civilization, are faced with an all-round erosion of human values, the blues take on a special significance, coming like a ray of hope, helping us verbalize our condition, look at what it is costing us, and to determine to rise above it. If we look at how neoliberalism has enslaved us in a mindless spiral of overconsumption and uprooted us from the wisdom that is inherent to our indigenous cultures, it will not be hard to identify with the soulful laments of the cotton picker.
We too are slaves, slaves to many different things, each his own. The delusion that money and material comforts can bring us happiness and success is so powerful that we are willing to turn a blind eye to the fallacies and injustices that abound in our society. We are able to deaden our souls to the guilt of being passive subscribers to the beliefs that drown mankind deeper and deeper into misery. We sacrifice our time, our relationships, our future, and even our own health to pursue the monster of affluenza, and seeing us, that is what our children learn, thus propagating the vicious circle. We have sold our souls to the devil, yet we cannot acknowledge it, and are busy preparing the next generation to sell their souls too. Unlike the master bluesman though, all we have procured in return for our souls is the temporary pleasure of instant gratification. Yet in the midst of all the darkness, there still is hope, and it is that hope which this post is written with. If you reflect, you will see that it is that hope that has kept you reading this post till now. In that very hope lies the significance and relevance of the blues of our times.
If you are a blues lover, you may want to relisten to your favorite tracks in the light of this post. If you are not familiar with this form of music, and the only blues you have ever heard is from the Blues Brothers (one of the cruelest jokes on the artistry of this genre), do explore the myriad sub-genres that the blues have evolved into globally. Some of my favorite bluesmen (and women) across time include Clapton, early Led Zep, early Tull, John Mayall, Allman Brothers, Taj Mahal, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Bonnie Rait (yes, no typo this one), John Lee Hooker, and Robert Cray. If you want to go back to the roots of the blues, you will want to listen to Howlin Wolf, Robert Johnson, Billie Holiday, and Bessie Smith in addition to the more popular B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and W.C.Handy.
The blues can be a really touchy subject for the aficionado and it is likely that some of your favorites have been missed out on this list. Don’t worry, chances are that they are my favorites too, and it is just that they have slipped my mind as I am writing this. Leave a comment listing out your favorites so that all readers can benefit from our blues playlists. If you have questions, additions, suggestions or disagreements, please do comment and I will be glad to get back to you.
This post was featured on BlogAdda's Tangy Tuesday picks.