“Blues is a feeling, that makes you feel very bad.” So said Lightnin’ Hopkins, with enviable concision. Blues is likewise a music that can make you feel very bad. The genre’s derived from the music of African-American slaves, and they had a fair bit to ‘feel very bad’ about (kind of makes ‘Fifth-Week-Blues’ disappear over the horizon of perspective, eh?). Blues was then developed by African-American communities in the twentieth-century, and frequently gives voice to the grievances they experienced. With such a background, the music carries great power to move, to make the listener feel. The haunting quality of Skip James’ ‘Hard Time Killing Floor Blues’, describing challenges of the Great Depression, is unmatched. And listen, just listen, to Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground.’
But blues is more than ‘blues.’ The often commented upon paradox of the genre is that the majority of the music is ‘happy’ – give John Lee Hooker’s ‘Dimples’ a listen. Blues deals with and conveys universal feelings, joyous or mournful, in a vast quantity of staggering quality. This variety is one of blues’ greatest assets. It’s been around for such a long time, adopted by such a wide range of people, that there’s blues for everyone and every situation.
The mythology built around the music and the musicians is undoubtedly part of the enduring appeal. The stories tell that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil; that the 6’ 3”, 300 lbs Howlin’ Wolf once kicked a man in the back so hard he left a boot-print. The performers are seriously cool and fascinating characters throughout. Plus, they have some awesome names: Blind Lemon Jefferson, Big Bill Broonzy, etc. The blues is much more complex than is probably commonly recognised, with these performers being incredibly skilled musicians, and they should be recognised as such.
Blues has had an undeniable influence on all forms of popular music, but it’s also just better than other music. It deserves to be listened to and appreciated much more. It’s music and it’s poetry. Next time you wake up in the morning, and blues is falling down like hail (or even just the next time you wake up), pop on some blues.
Lightnin’ Hopkins – ‘Blues is a feeling’
Howlin’ Wolf – ‘Smokestack Lightnin’
Robert Johnson – ‘Hellhound on my trail’
Mississippi Fred McDowell – ‘Shake Em on Down’
John Lee Hooker – ‘The Waterfront’
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