Blue Moon in a Dewdrop: The Zen of the Acoustic Blues
Bukka White’s “sky songs.” Robert Pete Williams, the “air music” man. Lightnin’ Hopkins bellowing “Get off my Toe.” This is music in the key of Eden. Naked.
The acoustic blues. That’s where it all starts. Musician, instrument, voice, song, rhythm, words. The critical ingredients of the vital stew. For the player, there is no cover, no place to hide. The acoustic blues are songs in the key of Eden. For the listener, there is no barrier, no harmonic bridge to cross. You resonate, the song resonates, the world resonates.
Bukka White called them “Sky Songs”; songs he pulled from the sky in the moment of creation. Robert Pete Williams described himself as an “air-music man.” There is an hallucinogenic, stream-of-consciousness sensibility afoot when artists of this caliber are set free to improvise, storytell, and exist totally in the moment.
Skip James was a songwriter, a composer, a thinker, a feeler, a creator. Unlike many of his peers who were “rediscovered” in the 60s, James continued to write. His “Washington D.C. Hospital Blues” is as hauntingly beautiful and powerful as anything from his first recordings in 1931:
In the hospital, now
In Washington D.C.
Ain’t got nobody
To see about me
But I’m a good man
But I’m a poor man
You can understand
I get goosebumps every time I hear this song. I feel like weeping. Just one man, one voice, one guitar. All the power of the universe in the song.
My Grandpa used to tell me that if a song didn’t sound good when played acoustic, it wasn’t a good song. My Grandpa was a very wise man, and a wonderful musician. He played me my first Lightnin’ Hopkins album. I remember hearing “Get Off My Toe” and being amazed at Lightnin’s quick wit and total commitment to the immediacy of the creative moment.
Have you ever seen clips of Dylan performing acoustic at Newport? It’s staggering. He looks so small. The stage is so humble. The daylight is blinding, the crowd is sitting not more than a few feet from him. He’s so young. So nervous. All Charlie Chaplin jitters and fidgets. Then he starts to play and sing, and it’s just devastating.
When you see video of Son House performing, you can literally see the air he pushes out through the force of his delivery. These are the fundamentals of zen. Your actions have an effect. If you put the air of your voice into space, what was previously in that space must go elsewhere. This is the co-interdependence of samsara. This is why the acoustic blues matter. It puts powerful air into the world, and we are moved accordingly.
In the hands of an acoustic blues musician, a single instrument can be an orchestra. Think of Charley Patton’s guitar. It is a harmony singer. It is a string section. It is a drum. It is a bass. It is a piano. It is the moon in a dewdrop.
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