Blog 2---Blues Books—Threat or Menace?
Last week, on the same day my first blues article came out, I was scrolling through Facebook posts and came across one from a FB friend that I don't really know saying that Facebook was nothing but a bunch of white people trotting out theories on things they knew nothing about.....hoped it wasn't a direct reference to my blog! But “White People Trotting Out Theories On Stuff They Know Nothing About” might be a good title for this week's blog, which has no scales this week, but is instead about Blues books...specifically, about why they are doomed to failure.
While I admit that I haven't read them all (and I don't want to), I do have some favorites....Deep Blues by Robert Palmer (not the Addicted To Love dude, the Rolling Stone writer) has a lot of great stories, and the concept of “deep” blues, which comes from a conversation he has with the late Muddy Waters, might be in the category of really important concept....Urban Blues by Charles Keil walks us step-by-step through B.B. King and Bobby Bland performances, attempting to analyze how and why they create their magical effects.....Blues for Dummies (comes w/CD!), Blues Highway, Rhythm and the Blues, and our own local Steve Tracy/ Jack Coughlin book, all have things to recommend them.....but the whole genre has something in common with the Reggie Bar: they're good to throw!
Now, I've already referred to the Paul Oliver books, which, in their day, at least gave us ONE BOOK IN THE LIBRARY ABOUT BLUES! While fatally flawed (my favorite was when he went to Africa --of course he's 100 years too late-- hangs around for a couple weeks, and concludes----nope, no blues here, it must be an American art form! ), there are some great parts, like the slave songs that are half in English (quite tame) and half in an African dialect (decidedly less Christian in outlook!). His main crime is that he sets the template for virtually all the blues books to follow: Some things are “THE REAL BLUES” and others are cheap commercial imitation crap.....which is not to say that there isn't cheap imitation crap out there!!...problem is, people writing books will usually be far enough behind the cutting edge that they'll look foolish in retrospect, excoriating developing artists who actually advance the form but who they haven't yet understood. Charles Keil, when updating his Urban Blues book, in which he rips what he calls “moldy fig” reviewers who only like “old school” blues, realizes, to his embarrassment, that he's made the exact same mistake.....he's decreed B.B. King “ the real thing” (for Palmer, it's Muddy Waters) and dismissed James Brown.
Trying to figure out the exact origin has left many a writer looking foolish....Palmer has Blues being invented on the Stovall Plantation in 1911 (he leaves out the time of day) by Charley Patton....listening to Charley's Pony Blues, followed by little girlfriend Louise Johnson, I can't help wondering about the speed at which the student jumped ahead of the “inventor”, at least in stylistic complexity...Oliver rules out Africa, as previously noted (that scale we talked about last week, where ya figure THAT came from!) Palmer also has Tommy Johnson “inventing” the falsetto (See Cool Drink Of Water Blues)....seems unlikely, especially since Oliver reports that the pygmies use falsetto when singing about departed ancestors (dead answer in falsetto).
If we really want to make a case for an American origin for the blues, a better piece of evidence might be the fact that South American and Central American black music evolved differently (in an atmosphere where direct contact with whites was MUCH less frequent....overseer there was usually another slave). My own quack theory is that those pesky Irish contributed something (They LOVE line, line, Rhyming Line form, have a pentatonic scale....not the same one....and they have distilling skills...'nuf said about that for now). But I'm not a big enough fool to try to pin down chronology of a music rooted in constantly sharpening IMPROVISATIONAL skillsThat's where all the books tend to crash and burn.
To digress...and sum up at same time. One of my former bandmates used to get angry at our tendency to throw “everything including the kitchen sink” into songs (and blues cliches out!). “Blues Bands do certain things...we don't do those things!” became his mantra “ I'm not even sure we are a Blues Band”.....this was my answer:
“You once told me a story where new band members (in your previous gig) were given a copy of James Cotton's “Live and On The Move”, and told that, if they liked the record, they should learn every trick on it...and if they didn't, they shouldn't come back.....thing is, James Cotton was once quoted as saying that, while he was proud of that record, it was kind of a “dance record for the kids”....maybe not a “REAL” Blues record.........Dude, the moral is, the line keeps moving, it has to move....too fast for any BOOK....what part of IMPROVISATIONAL MUSIC didn't you understand?310105_1940577404661_1549212564_31717308_1502893_n.jpg