I have always been drawn to the blues. It's a brutally honest style of music that is more closely linked to human experience and emotions than any other. You can feel it but you can't explain it, although Howlin Wolf had a go back in 1966. And Gil Scott Heron famously walked us through its varied shades on H2O Gate Blues. It's impulsive yet intricate, simple and yet profound. At the root, the blues sublimates and transforms raw pain into pleasure.
"If it wasn't for real bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all"
– 'Born Under a Bad Sign' by Albert King
I still remember my first time: a cover-mounted magazine about John Lee Hooker – part of a popular series published by Orbis in the nineties. Like most boys of that age, I was a collector, snaffling any cassettes, posters or pullouts that I could get my hands on. When I could steal myself away from the chocolate counter in mum's shop – a place where I would be 'on duty' at the weekends – I would often trawl through the well-stocked shelf of magazines and racks of papers for something, anything, that would help to pass the time until I could go upstairs to watch TV. Or break something, more likely.
After Hooker, the learning curve was steep (with a mildly unconventional jump-off point): Elizabeth Shue's Babysitting Blues, a Patrick Swayze film, Led Zeppelin moanin' and groanin', the memoirs of Alan Lomax, the poetry of Langston Hughes, a history lesson from Amiri Baraka, a Scorsese love letter (the first of several), Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour and tips from Keith Richards among many others.
"In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan –
'Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
And put ma troubles on the shelf.'
Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more –
“I got the Weary Blues
And I can’t be satisfied.
Got the Weary Blues
And can’t be satisfied –
I ain’t happy no mo’
And I wish that I had died.”
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead."
– Excerpt from 'The Weary Blues' by Langston Hughes
I wouldn't say it that the blues is my favourite genre of music – I am a soul boy, you see – but it is one of the most treasured simply because it's a rarity. There is so little of it on radio and TV today. The closest you might come is a John Mayer lick as he sits beside some old-timer called BB King or X Factor hopeful James Arthur 'flippin' the format (the man who brought "dubstep" to prime-time TV). Honestly, no disrespect to either man, both of whom are talented and hopefully making fans wonder how the blues came to be. But I do wish that the more gut-wrenching stuff were more ubiquitous. Daft Punk's Junior Kimbrough edit for Hedi Slimane's first fashion show as creative director of Saint Laurent? That's more like it. A masterstroke. And "seventh son" Jack White can certainly deal with the blues.
Thankfully there a several lifetimes' worth of music just a click or two away; search on Spotify and you might begin to scrape the surface. Many artists bled for our privilege. It's only right that we take advantage. So I have dipped into the vaults and picked out a few of my favourite exponents of the blues. This is a fairly straight ahead selection; more oblique tunes such as Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five's hip hop classic The Message would easily merit selection. We'll save those for part 2 perhaps.
From acoustic to electric, from the delta to the desert, you'll be surprised how far its spores have travelled. I hope you find a little joy inside these tears.