If The Blues Are To Survive, These 3 Things Must Happen
Lyrics must evolve, instrumentation must evolve, and diversity must come to the blues. And there’s something else that’s even more important.
To some, it’s a new day dawning. Emerging young talent. An energized base. Revolution in the air. To others, it’s a status quo that is neither relevant nor obsolete — merely ongoing. To still others, it’s a crisis. Promise dying on the vine. A way that’s lost its way.
No, I’m not talking about the Democratic Party. I’m talking about the blues — one of the most important musical genres ever to emerge upon this glorious globe. In my opinion, the blues are in trouble. Yes, I’m in that third camp. I think this is a crisis.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not all or nothing. There are lights on the horizon. Fantastic Negrito has been a breath of fresh air. The Ben Harper-Charlie Musselwhite collaboration was powerful. Larkin Poe, Gary Clark Jr., and Samantha Fish are in the ascendance. I personally don’t believe they’re “there” yet, but they’re on the way, and they’re working at it, and that’s beautiful.
But regrettably, they’re rarities amidst a sea of mediocrity.
You may ask yourself at this point who the hell I think I am. What right have I to render judgement of any kind? You’d be right to challenge me. I have nothing other than some experience in my back pocket.
For a quick bit of backstory, Preacher Boy & the Natural Blues was founded (I think?) somewhere in 1991–1992. From the first performances, I was playing songs by Son House, Bukka White, Fred McDowell, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Pete Williams, and more, alongside what would soon become a fairly solid list of originals. I signed with Blind Pig Records in 1994, and the debut came out in 1995. Since then, there have been 10 more Preacher Boy albums, with the most recent coming out in 2018. I first learned to play a reasonably proficient version of John Hurt’s “Sliding Delta” when I was around 16 years old — somewhere around 1985. Ten years from Sliding Delta to a record deal, and nearly a quarter of a century’s worth of something resembling a professional recording career after that. Over those years, I’ve had the great fortune to play with — and share stages with — so many of my heroes, including (but not limited to): John Lee Hooker, Taj Mahal, Honeyboy Edwards, Charlie Musselwhite, Yank Rachell, Homesick James, Carey Bell, Jimmy Vaughan, Buckwheat Zydeco, J.J. Cale, and so many more.
As a side note, I’ve also been simultaneously booking 3 different blues clubs for the past 3+ years — on average, with variations for off and on-season cycles, I’ve been booking somewhere between 500–1000 shows per year. I’ve had the pleasure of booking everyone from Kim Wilson, Paul Oscher, and Mark Hummel, to John “Blues” Boyd, Kid Andersen, and James Harman; from Taildragger, Terry Hanck, and Taryn Donath, to Reverend Freakchild, Brother Dege, and Jeffrey Halford; and from Shari Puorto, to Brother John Kattke, to Aki Kumar.
For whatever any of that is worth, that’s where I’m coming from.
Which brings me back to the topic at hand. I love this music. I’ve given my musical life to it. But, as a genre, I think it’s in trouble, and it breaks my heart. All is not lost, but something has to change. My two cents, three things, in particular, need to happen.
Before I list them, please know I realize no “listicle” is ever even close to fully comprehensive, and I, of course, concede that these three items are not the be-all and the end-all. But I do genuinely believe that if meaningful strides are made in these three directions, things will indeed get better.
That said, the items I lay out are really just symptoms with tangible treatments. There’s a bigger, more holistic issue to address, and it’s a little more complicated, as it has to do with “concept” (as in the way Eric Dolphy meant it when he said, “trying to play the new concept with an outward bound feeling”), and diversity not of skin color, age, or gender, but of mindset.
But that’s for later in this post. First, the list:
Lyrics Must Evolve
No less a leading light than John Lee Hooker said this of the blues: “The blues tells a story. Every line of the blues has a meaning.” This sentiment is echoed by so many greats of the genre. Jimmy Rushing said, “The blues tells a story in itself.” B.B. King declared that “when I’m singing, I don’t want you to just hear the melody. I want you to relive the story.” Willie Dixon perhaps put it most perfectly and picturesquely when he said that “the blues are the true facts of life expressed in words and song, inspiration, feeling and understanding.” For poetry, he admittedly has a rival in Wynton Marsalis, who once stated so beautifully that “everything comes out in blues music: joy, pain, struggle. Blues is affirmation with absolute elegance.”
So here we are in 2019.
Where to begin? How about here: The Blues Music Awards gave the nod for Song of the Year to Shemekia Copeland’s “Ain’t Got Time For Hate,” which begins as follows:
where’s your wings, little angel
my sweet baby child
and how you gonna live
in a world gone wild
well you better be smart
you better be strong
ain’t gonna be here long
i don’t care if you’re rich
never had a dime
this whole life
is an uphill climb
My two cents, it’s … ok? Sort of? Remember, this was highlighted as the Song of the Year. The very best song of them all. Surely we can do better than this? Maybe it’s just me. You be the judge; here’s the song:
How about we go over to the Independent Blues Awards. There, we find Buddy Guy’s “Blues is Alive and Well” getting the nod for Best Traditional Blues Song. The lyrics begin in this way:
when i walked through the front door
i swear i heard the back door slam
i got a sneaking suspicion
you’ve got another man
you’ve done me wrong
our love is dead and gone
but as far as i can tell
the blues is alive and well
Sigh … well, I guess if, by “traditional,” they mean, hopelessly cliched, then ok. Otherwise, not too inspiring.
Now, that said, the Independent Blues Awards are interesting. They actually have an award for the top “Song for the Common Good.” This seems promising. The winner? Walter Trout’s “We’re All In This Together.” First two stanzas:
we’re all in this together
it’s so easy to see
yes we’re all in this together
you know that it’s so easy to see
and if we want to see tomorrow
that’s just the way that it’s got to be
lord that’s the way that it’s got to be
well when it’s all been said and done
it’s up to me and you
well when it’s all been said and done
it’s up to me and you
Ok, how about Best “Contemporary Blues Song?” That nod went to Larkin Poe’s “Good and Gone.” Lyrics?
Can you see the way before us
Sing hallelujah, the joy we found
Can you see the pain beneath us
Sing hallelujah, lay it in the ground
When I’m gone, good and gone
Don’t you grieve, just sing along
Hmmm … well, if you’ve heard this track, it’s pretty powerful, and admittedly, it doesn’t read well on paper — in other words, it kind of needs the audio. On the other hand, Larkin Poe — and everyone like them — really needs to understand that a heavily compressed stomp track and a Hammond does not a gospel-blues powerhouse make, and that there’s more to that Gothic Americana sound than a church clap track. (Seriously. Go listen to a “Gothic Americana” playlist on Spotify sometime — you’ll see what I mean). Anyhow, the point is, you can dress a song up to look like something, but a costume is just a costume in the end. In short, while there’s promise here, there’s also not a lot of “there” there, when you really spend some time with the track. And that’s the difference between almost great, and great. Depth.
Again though, you be the judge:
And then there’s Keb Mo. Four-time Grammy-winning Keb Mo. He released “Oklahoma” this year. Lead track? “I Remember You.” Lyrics?
my name is junior, from memphis, tennessee
my daddy was a hustler and a stranger to me
i don’t always know just what to say
do i look familiar in any kind of way?
well i remember you dancin’ on the floor
i remember you walkin’ out the door
you had a red dress on and some high heel shoes
you don’t remember me but i remember you
Cliches. More and more cliches. Track two? The title track. Chorus lyrics?
cowboys and choctaws
chickasaws and outlaws
i can feel the sunshine
sweeping through the plains
jesus on the mainline
devil stay away
rain or shine
oklahoma’s gonna be okay
Ugh. Ok, how about the first single? “Put a Woman In Charge.” For my money, one of the most shameless examples of music topic-jacking I’ve ever witnessed. The lyrics?
the time has come
we’ve got to turn this world around
call the mothers
call the daughters
we need the sisters of mercy now
she’ll be a hero
not a fool
she’s got the power
to change the rules
she’s got something
that men don’t have
she is kind and she understands
Not only does this suck, but it’s condescending and sexist. Exactly the opposite of what it’s attempting to be. This is truly horrible songwriting. And please remember, I’m not picking on some random soul on a street corner. This man has won FOUR Grammy awards!
And no, I’m not giving you the link this time. I refuse to be complicit in anyone listening to this shit.
Look, the point is, lyrics matter. Stories matter. Cliches are death. Seriously, how many times can your woman possibly leave you? That’s not to say lyrics can’t be “familiar.” The blues are all about connecting the past to the present. It’s also a lyric form rich with shared imagery. But there’s a big difference between tapping the collective unconscious of the blues for lyrical straw to stuff your scarecrow songs with, and just lazily regurgitating rote cliches.
Consider “No Mercy In This Land” from the Ben Harper-Charlie Musselwhite album of the same name:
What would be the first thing
You’d say to the Lord?
And the last thing you would dream
If you couldn’t dream no more?
Won’t you please help me to understand
Is there no mercy in this land?
No mercy in this land?
Followed the river ’til the river ran dry
Followed my lover ’til we said goodbye
Followed you through soldiers
Who fire on command
Is there no mercy in this land?
These days I speak in whispers
Travel only to and from
Come close you’ll see the red
Of a well bitten tongue
The righteous and the wretched
The holy and the damned
Is there no mercy in this land?
No mercy in this land?
Father left us down here all alone
My poor mother is under a stone
With an aching heart and trembling hands
Is there no mercy in this land?
This is simply fucking beautiful writing. Are there familiar images and sentiments? Of course. Are there cliches? No, there are not. This is blues storytelling of the finest kind, and it’s what every blues artist should strive for, and it’s what every blues listener should seek out.
Instrumentation Must Evolve
The tyranny of the overdriven electric guitar must be overthrown. There is a video on YouTube titled “Best guitar duel ever! Joe Bonamassa and Eric Gales.” It’s been viewed nearly a million times. Just this one video. Listen, if you consider yourself a blues fan, and you’re lending repeat views to this horror show, you need to understand that you’re making this genre look horrible to the outside world, and you’re directly contributing to its reputational suicide. If you enjoy watching this ghastly mutual masturbation routine, keep it to yourself.
We’re seriously talking about a musical monopoly. Don’t believe me? According to Billboard’s charts, these are the Top 10 best-selling blues albums of 2019:
- Signs: Tedeschi Trucks Band
- All Blues: Peter Frampton Band
- Redemption: Joe Bonamassa
- The Traveler: The Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band
- The Big Bad Blues: Billy F Gibbons
- Kingfish: Christone “Kingfish” Ingram
- The Blues Is Alive And Well: Buddy Guy
- Carolina Confessions: The Marcus King Band
- Oklahoma: Keb’ Mo’
- Out Of The Blues: Boz Scaggs
Ten albums, nine of which are helmed by electric guitarists. That’s absurd. Only one acoustic player? (Keb Mo, sigh …). No pianists? No organ players? No harmonica players? How about bassists? Drummers? Fiddle players? Horn players? How about singers?
Interestingly enough, nominees for next year’s Grammys look somewhat compelling by comparison:
- Gary Clark Jr. — This Land
- Larkin Poe — Venom & Faith
- Robert Randolph & the Family Band — Brighter Days
- Sugaray Rayford — Somebody Save Me
- Southern Avenue — Keep On
Gary Clark Jr. is admittedly a loud electric guitarist. But Larkin Poe is driven by lap slide, and Robert Randolph is a pedal steel player. Sugaray Rayford is a vocalist, and Southern Avenue’s sound is heavy on horn and organ. These are good signs.
Still, where’s the fife & drum tradition? Where are the jug bands? How about the banjos, accordions, and fiddles? At one time or another, these have all been essential parts of the blues. The Mississippi Sheiks are easily one of the most important acts in blues music history, and their song “Sittin’ on Top of the World” is as close to a “standard” as the blues has to offer. And their sound was defined by the fiddle!
And how about Sleepy John Estes? One of the finest voices and songwriters in the history of the blues, with an utterly singular sound realized through the addition of Yank Rachell on … mandolin! Not to mention the incomparable (and unamplified) harmonica playing of Hammie Nixon.
When Downbeat Magazine compiled their list of the Top 50 Blues Albums of the Past 50 Years, their list included:
- Junior Wells: Hoodoo Man Blues (harmonica)
- Bobby Bland: Two Steps From the Blues (vocal)
- Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: The Original Peacock Recordings (guitar & violin/fiddle)
- Champion Jack Dupree: Blues from the Gutter (piano)
- Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson: Kidney Stew is Fine (saxophone)
Even the guitar players — which admittedly dominate the list — are an incredibly varied lot, running the gamut from the highly idiosyncratic minor-key fingerpicking of Skip James and the raw modal stop of R.L. Burnside, to the sophisticated swing and sting of T-Bone Burnett and the primal raw slashing of Elmore James’ slide.
In short, the broader the musical palette, the better the blues.
Diversity Must Come To The Blues
This is a big one. Let’s start with some listener numbers. In a 2015 article titled “Selling the Blues: Current Condition of the Blues,” the following stats were cited:
Age: The most telling demographic was the average age of a blues fan. There were NO fans under the age of 21, between 21 and 30 there were only 3% and between 31 and 40 there were 9%. When you get to age 41 and older your percentage rises to an astounding 87%! The majority of these are baby boomers. The median age is 49 years old (that was in 2006, they are now 58 years old). The problem with this demographic analysis is there are little to no new fans being created for the future.
Race: 80% of blues fans are white and only 4% are African Americans.
Music Purchased: The median number of CD’s purchased in a given year is 9½ . Nearly one-quarter (24%) of respondents say they purchase more than 20 CD’s per year, even higher percentages of those earning more than $75,000 per year. Ironically there is little to no “New” blues on the shelf of the major retailers of CDs today. Of this group 48% NEVER buys music from digital retailers.
In short, well-off, middle-aged, white people.
As confirmation of the age bracket specifically, according to Statista, as of 2018, the dominant age group listening to blues music? 50–64 years of age.
If you want to get really granular, really current, and really gender-focused, check out the 2019 numbers from everynoise.com.
Among listeners of “Blues Rock,” 21% are women.
Among listeners of “Electric Blues,” 18% are women.
Among listeners of “Blues,” 19% are women.
The numbers go on. Traditional Blues? 20% women. British Blues? 16% women. Chicago Blues? 20%.
Are there any sub-genres of blues that DO resonate with women listeners? Yes. Jazz-Blues, with 46%. Punk Blues with 25%. Soul Blues with 33%. Rebel Blues with 26%. Note, these are all what might be termed “hybrid” sounds.
Ok, admittedly I’m going a bit long on listeners. Let’s look at artists. To do so, how about we look at festival lineups? Waterfront Blues Festival is one of the biggies. Here’s a picture of the “Featured Artists” from the 2018 lineup:
Does that look diverse to you? In the festival’s defense, maybe it was a bad year. They certainly seemed to have learned their lesson, as the 2019 line-up looks at least a little better:
How about the Telluride Blues & Brews Festival? That’s a big one, with a big hippie mindset. Maybe we’ll find some diversity there? Let’s look at headliners from the past few years:
2019: John Fogerty — Boz Scaggs — George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic
(interesting. all men. all born between 1941 and 1945. though admittedly, kind of an interesting trio of artists)
2018: Robert Plant — Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite — Gov’t Mule
(interesting. all men. two of three born in the 40s)
2017: Bonnie Raitt — Taj Mahal & Keb’ Mo’ Band — Steve Winwood
(interesting. one woman, finally. three of four artists born in the 40s)
2016: Joe Walsh — Gary Clark Jr. — Mick Fleetwood
(interesting. all men. two of three artists born in the 40s)
2015: ZZ Top — Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings — Gregg Allman
(interesting. a second woman, finally. all three zz top members born in the 40s. greg allman born in the 40s.)
See a pattern here?
Before continuing, I have to acknowledge that I am a middle-aged white male. So I’m the stereotype, and arguably, the enemy. However, I’m also a Buddhist, a pacifist, and a vegetarian. I’m also the Welsh-American son of a Marxist English professor.
The point being, that despite everything I’ve cited above, diversity isn’t actually about skin color, or age group, or gender. It’s about your culture. Your ideas. Your feelings. Your spirit. Your experience. Remember what Willie Dixon said? “The blues are the true facts of life expressed in words and song, inspiration, feeling and understanding.”
Bringing diversity to the blues isn’t really about bringing more races, ages, or genders to the music. It’s about bringing more mindsets to the music. If we’re going to “save” the blues, we’re going to have to “think” our way forward. And to do that, we’re going to have to ensure we have a far broader array of minds at work in the lab.
Everything I’ve discussed above — the lyrics, the instruments, the demographics — these are all just symptoms of a syndrome. And there are many more where those came from. But that’s not really the point. The real point is that the blues is in danger of losing its fundamental … strangeness. Its weirdness. Its unpredictability. Its idiosyncrasies.
Go listen to early Muddy Waters and early Howlin’ Wolf. This is strange music! There was NO precedent for it. Go listen to Skip James and Robert Pete Williams. Where the hell did this music come from??? Go listen to Robert Pete Wilkins, Charley Patton, and Blind Willie McTell, one right after another, and tell me your head isn’t spinning! Listen to the songwriting and performances of Victoria Spivey! She’ll blow your mind! Check out Elizabeth Cotton’s guitar playing, or Jessie Mae Hemphill’s. Listen to that falsetto of Tommy Johnson’s, or that crazed slide playing of Kokomo Arnold’s. I’m telling you, this music used to be lunatic! Look at the recorded repertoire of someone like Mance Lipscomb. “Shine on Harvest Moon,” “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” and “Careless Love?” “Keep on Trucking,” “You Rascal You,” and “Motherless Child?” Who has a repertoire like this in the blues these days?
People. We can do this. We must change our minds, to change people’s minds. The blues can emerge from crisis to reclaim its storytelling crown. To once again be the soundtrack to what Greil Marcus famously termed “The Old, Weird, America.”
To everyone out there who IS preserving and advancing the blues — and the old, weird America — deep bows to you all.
“We made up our songs about things that was happening to us at the time, and I think that’s where the blues started.” — Son House
“Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn. They teach you there’s a boundary line to music. But, man, there’s no boundary line to art.” — Charlie Parker
“My definition of Blues is that it’s a musical form which is very disciplined and structured coupled with a state of mind, and you can have either of those things but it’s the two together that make it what it is. And you need to be a student for one, and a human being for the other, but neither of those things alone do it.” — Eric Clapton
“The blues is an art of ambiguity, an assertion of the irrepressibly human over all circumstances, whether created by others or by one’s own human failing.” — Ralph Ellison
“How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” — Nina Simone