Monday, December 8, 2008

You’re damned right I got the blues

No, not really. Actually, things are pretty peachy in Jamie-land these days. I still have a job (bonus!), I’ve got the best girlfriend I could ever have hoped for and I still have time to play poker more nights a week than is probably normal or good for me. Also, I started practicing with the band again, and the juices are starting to flow. Seriously, if you had asked me three years ago if I would be this healthy again, I would have said not a chance, Lance. But something funny happened along the way. I got over my blues and life moved on. Through some incredibly lucky happenstance and a few missteps along the way, I met Ali and things have just been better all around since. So why title this blog entry like this? Because I’m going to Mississippi again this coming Thursday on a long awaited Blues/Poker trip and I wanted to get down, on virtual paper, what my obsession is with Blues music.

I suppose it has to do with authenticity. I mean that’s what it boils down to. There’s not too many ways that a Jewish boy from Long Island, educated and brought up in an upper middle class neighborhood, can connect body and soul with Delta Blues. That music, born of sons of former slaves and sharecroppers in the harsh land of cotton, is very specific to a culture and a time. It speaks of experiences that were real and true to that land and time period (generally 1880 – 1950, approx.). My background doesn’t lend itself to that in any way, shape or form (save for the tenuous Jewish cultural connection of slavery in Egypt). So why spend so much time on it and why the fascination? It starts with my older brother Eric, who picked up a guitar, like so many before him, after growing up in the early 70’s on the music of Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton and other English musicians who decided to meld rock and country blues into what we now know as “Classic Rock”. Eric’s record collection (Vinyl, cassettes, 8-track and Reel-to-Reel) formed all of my early musical influences and I found myself on many a summer afternoon playing tracks on his super cool stereo set and versing myself in the strange sounds. It was a far cry from the pop tunes of the time I “should” have been listening to. It was the late 70’s and Billy Joel, The BeeGees, Donna Summer and The Police were big attractions. Being from Long Island, Billy Joel was inescapable, but I was adamantly against those other acts, though I had never heard them. I was just “for” whatever my brother listened to and I developed a lifelong fascination with classic rock and their mainstays. It limited my critical abilities for years because I avoided all other kinds of music, until I started to consciously expand myself in the last ten years.

As a result of my classic rock schooling, I developed an appreciation for blues and roots music even though I didn’t know it! So many of the songs I heard from The Stones, Zeppelin, The Who, Clapton, etc… were actually covers of old blues songs and I became familiar with the originals only many years later when my adult curiosity (and enhanced income) afforded me the opportunity to get to the root of the history of this music I loved. In addition, I took up the guitar myself at 19 and naturally tried to emulate the guitar heroes I’d grown up with. That meant that I learned chords and lick phrasings that had actually been invented decades earlier not by Jimmy Page or Eric Clapton but musicians like Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charley Patton.

Back to authenticity. As a result of my research, I discovered that most of the white English musicians who had revived the Blues in the mid 60’s were products of lower middle class working people of post war England. They had lived through, or their parents had lived through, horrific conditions as a result of World War II; food rationing, shortages, bombed out villages, unemployment, etc…. The blues that the English were playing weren’t born of their own troubles, but they could sing about them in a true enough way. The interpretation seemed to be true to their nature. Which made it even more shocking to me when I heard the first strains of the Robert Johnson boxed set, “The Complete Recordings”, when I bought it on CD in 1990. I had heard of Robert Johnson through old interviews with Keith Richards and Eric Clapton, both of whom covered his songs and spoke of Johnson as a huge influence. I had chosen well in my introuctory foray into the roots of American Blues. Johnson was indeed a prodigy, of songwriting and performing, and his haunting strained voice mixed with his perfect blues mythology lyrics, were a real eye opener to me. Here was a man who was born on an honest-to-goodness Mississippi plantation and traveled around to various cities in the south being chased by his own demons and wanderlust. His music is pure and authentic in every sense and it hit me like a ton of bricks. All good art is a pure expression of the artists’ experience and the closer you get to the root, the better the art becomes. This was the source. The fountain. The English musicians were interpreting this music through their own experiences, but this was even more authentic and true. Compared to this, contemporary groups of the time seemed like so much fluff and commercial crap. I was hooked. I suppose it was escapism for me to latch onto this music. I was comfortable in my suburban lifestyle but even then I had the inkling that it wasn’t quite ‘real’. That there was more to life than the school play and the corner pizza joint. That there was more to the world than the idyllic white picket movie I was living in. That there was real pain and loss in the world and it touched me somewhere primitive and spiritual.

As I delved deeper into back catalogs of blues, I developed a sense of the timeline that this music took. Deep country blues of the 30’s and 40’s influenced guitarists and pianists of the south into the 50’s. Guys like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Ike Turner and, yes, even Elvis Presley, took these 12-bar blues from their childhood and gave them a backbeat. From there, the music split into rock and roll as we know it today, and Soul Music, as exemplified by Aretha Franklin and the artists at Stax Records. Traditional and electrified Chicago blues was still recorded (the new movie Cadillac Records will illuminate this part), but it never again was quite as relevant to contemporary music. Rock split again into it’s various modern sub-genres and Soul morphed into modern R&B and rap/hip hop.

All through today, the question of authenticity drives what I listen to and what the tastemakers of the present elevate as good examples of a genre. It really doesn’t matter what the music is either. Whether it’s blues, rock, metal or disco, the authentic artist is one who immerses themselves (or is born into) a particular style and lives it so thoroughly that it seeps out into what they create. You can’t help but be overwhelmed by the truth of their experiences. Guns and Roses is authentic L.A. rock/metal, born of the party scene of Sunset Boulevard. Donna Summer is authentic disco, born of the coke fueled excess of New York City in the mid to late 70’s. Charley Patton is authentic blues, born of the racism of Jim Crow and the backbreaking work of the fields.

This is what I’m looking for in Mississippi. This is what I’m looking for in my life.
And a few hands of poker....

4 comments:

Memphis MOJO said...

Have fun on your trip and try and win some mobneys.

Anonymous said...

http://www.seasicksteve.com/

Anonymous said...

Jamie-

the real (blues) deal:

http://www.fatpossum.com/

Queenie said...

Hey, another one with a passion for music as well as poker! Maybe you'll find something according to your taste in the top 200 of all time I made on my blog ;)
Grtz, Q