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Why Blues
When i gave this piece to my husband to read last fall, he said, "You should carry this around with you, and when people ask you what you do, hand it to them."
Why Blues
Kimberly Todd Wade

            In On Highway 61, Dennis McNally writes, “…the real nexus of current blues revisionism is located in the ongoing argument over the career of poor Bob (Robert Johnson), and the conundrum of why a man who sold so few records to black people could be such an object of fascination to white people thirty years later in the 1960s, and remain so some fifty years further on…Where does an interest in the culture of the Other cross from interest to exploitation, from admiration to a demeaning worship, from curiosity to worship of the exotic, implicitly another form of domination?” [1]
            These sorts of questions could only be asked by someone who does not play guitar, because the answer for “Bob’s” continued popularity is that he was a great—even fascinating—musician.  Why is the fact his records didn’t sell much to his black contemporaries even relevant?  Audiences are notoriously poor judges of good musicianship, of art in general, preferring novelty over quality.  What’s popular is often not what survives or what is appreciated by later generations.  Some art is of the moment.  Some is timeless.  You find out what is timeless only after time has passed.  Add to this that Robert Johnson made only a few records and died shortly after making them.  Those records were recorded near the end of guitar blues’ popularity.  They may have sounded passé to ears who’d been listening to guitar blues on records for a decade or more, but to the fresh ears of those who came thirty years later, Robert Johnson’s blues is revelatory.  Where’s the surprise in that?  He may not have been a great innovator of the blues, or even particularly original, but his mastery of the form is undeniable.  His music is a perfect synthesis of his influences.  For anyone unfamiliar with his influences, it can’t help but hit like a tidal wave.
           In 1994, when I was twenty-three years old, I listened to a re-issue of Mississippi John Hurt’s 1963 LP “Avalon Blues” (originally titled, “Folk Songs and Blues”).  I didn’t bother reading the liner notes before popping the CD into the player, so I knew nothing of his 1928 recordings.  I knew nothing of his “rediscovery.”  In We Called It Music, jazz guitarist Eddie Condon writes of hearing King Oliver’s “Canal Street Blues” for the first time, “…the music poured into us like daylight running down a dark hole.” [2] It’s an apt description of the way Hurt’s music hit me.  It was an enlivening of the soul, my only thought—“I want to do that!  I have to do that!”  “Avalon Blues” sparked an obsession in me that has lasted 20+ years, an obsession whose intensity seems to increase with the passage of time.  Nothing about his music or his being seemed “exotic” to me then or now, quite the opposite, I felt in someway a great sympathy with him as an artist.  He expressed—something—I was reaching for in my own work as a writer, as an artist.  I had the ridiculous idea that maybe I could find it if I, too, played guitar.
            I cringe at the idea I’m offering a defense against the cringe-worthy passage quoted above, but since I have read similar criticisms of guitar blues fans many times over, I feel someone should address the obvious insult implicit in it.  To say that white musicians are attracted to the work of black artists because it is “exotic” and “Other” demeans all parties involved.  White artists are attracted to this music because it is great music.  It was not their blackness or the rural backgrounds of country blues guitar players that made them seem exotic to young white musicians of the 1960s and beyond.  It was their mind-blowing proficiency on their instruments.  For anyone who has struggled to learn to play an instrument and endured hours of lessons in the course of this endeavor, it’s hard to suppress the urge to worship someone who you’ve been told is self-taught and plays like a virtuoso.  It is always rare to see and hear someone play so well.
            So much of the “blues scholarship” I have read has focused on the race, background, economic status and personalities of the early blues guitarists—or the obverse, focusing on the people who collected early guitar blues records and sought out the artists who made them.  Marybeth Hamilton writes in In Search of the Blues, “To its enthusiasts, the blues evokes the raw, anguished voice of African American suffering.”—as if blues fans were sadists or voyeuristic masochists, the music itself having no value to attract enthusiasm.[3]  Such commentary is written by people who are not musicians, who don’t understand the attraction of the music, and so search for explanations for this mysterious passion elsewhere.  But an artist’s passion for a particular music bucks all explanation.  It’s that old question: why do you love what you love?  An ineffable force moves you, the mystery of creative impulse.  Nick Tosches offers the following in Where Dead Voices Gather, “The simple and irrefutable truth is that no human being would rather break his back in the cotton fields than take in good folding money by making records.”[4] This truism is no explanation at all, because everyone who labored in a cotton field did not throw down their hoes and pick up guitars.  The ones who did knew they were artists.  Where does that knowledge come from?  Why do some feel it and others not?  We must be constructed differently.
            It is not “the anguished voice of African American suffering” that moves me as an artist—although honestly, what human wouldn’t be moved by it?—I have felt the same movement while listening to Tuvan throat singers, knowing nothing of their lives, their culture, their level of popularity or level of suffering—because none of these things matter.  It is the impulse to creativity that moves, that effects, irrespective of any of the conditions within which the creation takes place.  And here there is another analogy: both early blues guitarists and Tuvan throat signers reached a sophisticated level of refinement in an art form that has “folk” origins.  It is fine art arisen from a folk idiom.
            The blues is a rather simple, rather restrictive art form.  To find transcendence within its limited structure is a creative feat worthy of awe.  Here are true artists.  Had they had access to all the musical education and privilege of Mozart, perhaps they would have composed symphonies.  Had Mozart been born to Tuvan throat singers, I’ve little doubt he would have excelled at that, because the creative force within him was so strong it would have found a channel for expression no matter his circumstances.  Environment shapes creativity.  In the case of the blues, an impoverished environment did not lead to an impoverished art.  The form goes on because so many have found it a useful vehicle for creative expression.  Inspiration flows from that magical transcendence—when art rises above its culture of origin.  It exists as an art form apart from the culture in which it originated, just as the artist must transcend in its creation or else only be appreciated by those with whom he or she is connected by time and place.  Many artists are able to make that connection.  Few transcend time and place to be appreciated by generations after they are dead.

[1] McNally, Dennis, On Highway 61: Music, Race and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom.  Counterpoint, 2014.  p. 304-305

[2] Condon, Eddie, We Called It Music.  New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1947.  p.107

[3] Hamilton, Marybeth, In Search of the Blues.  Basic Books, 2008.  p. 28-29

[4] Tosches, Nick, Where Dead Voices Gather.  Little, Brown and Company, 2001.  p. 210

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Maybe one day when I'm feeling energetic and capricious, I'll write about Mozart in a parody of someone writing about blues. People who don't speak Italian and German, and don't wear powdered wigs, are drawn to that exotic otherness... And nobody who could write operas would bust their ass making sausage all day...

And if I ever complete that Negro League Baseball novel,
I may ask if I can quote this.

I'd like to read that!

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