Why Black People Need The Blues (and 10 Songs To Prove It)

Imagine I have come for you. Imagine it not in the romantic.

Imagine I have come for you while you were at work, or worse, inside your home with your family present. Imagine I have taken you without warning. Imagine I have taken you and you know not where. You know that where is a long way from home. It has taken months that seem like years to get to where we have come. Imagine that on this journey, you are alone, save for me, and because I have taken you against your will, we are not friends. We are not comrades or adventurers. I am more presence than person, suffocating in my will, my every whim filling your every sense with terrifying responsibility. Imagine that is your life, the sum total of it: your pain is constant and assured. Your hungers are ever-present and met only with the least I can provide. You work for nothing but survival, and I consume every fruit of your labor. There is no profit. There is no sharing. There is only work, only survival. You know that if you do not work you will die, and not slow. You will not know another way. All ways come from me. I will refuse everything you know, everything you are as a person. You suspect I do not see you as a person at all. You suspect this all of your life.

Imagine, through some unspeakable perversion of mercy, I confer upon you the gift of expression, or rather, I allow it. I give you a time and place to speak, but only certain things, the things I have taught you to speak, so perhaps it is a gift after all. Then I give you something to look forward to: I give you a god. The god looks like me, of course, but that’s beside the point. You’re not concerned about the god; you’re concerned about the god’s place, where a god might be found, for he is surely not where you are. You’re concerned about Heaven. You’re concerned about what it takes to find peace, what rivers need crossing, what it will require of you to arrive at any semblance of freedom. You take in these lessons as you work for me, every day, plying my wealth, building my world. You have a lot of time to think. You see some things for what they are, how they cannot be right. You know from birth that even though all of the ways have been given to you – and you know they are the ways that things must be – that they are not the ways of truth. You know truth. Truth flows through every part of you, every strained muscle, every ripped limb. Truth pours out of you in sweat and blood and tears. Every day you offer at least one of these to truth. You see truth and because you see it, it can look back at you. In your realization, you despair. And despair, as it turns out, speaks your language. Despair knows your tongue, can find it in any language you know. Despair picks at you day and night, plucking at your senses like the harp strings in this Heaven you keep hearing about.

And then one day, you sing.

That was how blues music was born: in field hollers, then gospel, then blues. It’s no coincidence that the father of blues music is communal and the mother is spiritual, since blues music is both, funneled through the individual. It is knowing music, art aware of where it is and where it comes from. It is a horrible thing to live with a feeling that you cannot share, to have something to say or offer the world and be unable to discern a way to catharsis, relief or celebration, and it is this engine that has powered all music in some way, though blues music totally: the need for not only self-expression, but a chasing down of the emotional root of the expression. It is America’s first purely American musical form, and so ubiquitous that almost every form of music after it cannot escape its reach.

Despite these facts blues music is not popular, is not present in everyday life the way its children rock and R&B have become culturally entrenched. Most say it is dying, and that’s just a survey of its fans. Black people have all but abandoned the blues for expression or entertainment, long ago leaving it for white audiences who have spent no small amount of time since the 1960s happily uncovering, refurbishing and assimilating blues music, dusting it off before plugging it into a stack of Marshall amps and waving goodbye to the black people who created it in the rearview mirror. A century and a half of musicologists, writers and musicians have scoured the towns, juke joints, record collections, gravesites and mythology of the south in search of authentic blues, real blues, culturally – and literally – unplugged blues. Looking over much of the literature dedicated to this genre-unto-itself – the Great White Blues Benevolence Road Trip – you’d think there was little left to discover. One could populate a medium-sized library with just the literature and research on blues music, and that’s before you install the glass encased signature harmonicas and guitars. And yet, one listen to a Son House or early Muddy Waters song and you know that what’s in the critical canon isn’t so much about the blues as it is about blues music, and that’s a problem.

That the blues seekers are now largely tourists herding over landmarks and memories trodden flat with the pretense (or worse, misguided hope) of finding The Blues Where It Come From would actually seem the larger crime. When I was among them, recently wandering the conveniently marked sites of Clarksdale, Mississippi, surrounded by nothing but white people – some from the other side of the world – it felt like the larger crime. A couple of weeks ago I, a long if not lifetime fan of the blues, sought out a couple of juke joints and other highlights that I’d wanted to see for years before something happened to them. Accompanied by my wife, I followed most of the footsteps that I could squeeze into our short-but-packed trip, and at every turn I was surrounded by white tourists of one stripe or another. Let me make the point crystal clear: here I was, a black man seeking out a black art form in the black area where it was created and nurtured and still heralded, and I was one of only two black people at almost every site who wasn’t employed by the site. (In all fairness, halfway through the trip another black guy showed up with a group of his white buddies. So there were sometimes three of us, which I am sure most of the locals must have thought was a wayward Kwanzaa parade or something.)

Po' Monkey's juke joint, Medford, MS
Po’ Monkey’s juke joint, Merigold, MS
Red's juke joint in Clarksdale, MS.
Red’s juke joint in Clarksdale, MS.

And I have to be clear here, too: I am not blaming white people for liking blues music. It’s music. It’s meant to be consumed on some level, and once it’s produced it doesn’t care much where it goes. Put more directly: if it weren’t for white people the blues would have been officially dead seven or eight decades ago and no one who wasn’t playing it would be the wiser. White people have, in their earnest if flawed attempts to preserve the blues, saved it from obscurity. They own the overwhelming majority of record companies, own the venues, own the radio stations, write the books and conversely control the public narrative of the art, could afford the deepest record collections, make the documentaries, own the museums and the stores and galleries, and basically own blues music. Oh yeah: they’ve also been playing it for a while unmolested or uncontested to boot. White people have the distinction of being the reason why the blues were created while simultaneously being the reason why almost any of it remains today to talk about. Congratulations: I haven’t been this conflicted since I saw an outdoor production of Tecumseh. Such is the state of blues music in America, and while the lack of diversity in my trip came as no surprise – I have been in an audience of a thousand people at a blues concert and been able to count how many black people were there on two hands – it was different to experience it. I’m used to being the only black person in a room (or symphony hall or museum or coffee shop, or, or, or), but I will never get used to being the only black person in a room seeing something black happen, in a room specifically set up to experience a black thing.

And here is the saddest truth of all: what they’re looking for isn’t there. To drive this point home I need to make a distinction between the blues and blues music. You may have noticed I’ve been differentiating between the two to this point. That’s not an accident.

The Blues and Blues Music

In short, blues music is the art form, in this case music, and while it was originally a black art form, it has long been artistically and culturally co-opted and anybody can play or appreciate it as such. Enjoy, planet Earth.

The blues, on the other hand, is a state of being, an emotional imperative wrought from certain people in certain places at certain times under certain conditions. One could call it depression – you could certainly get away with that definition in most circles today, especially with all its attendant manifestations – but that’s only a cursory, superficial description of the conditions that created blues music. Slavery was not depressing; it was a diabolically evil and unrelenting condition of black existence experienced in every corner of their persistently-denied humanity. Every day of the week, every week of the year, and over successive generations. I don’t think I need to sell anyone on the engulfing oppressiveness of slavery, so I won’t belabor the point, but there was a time when the two were inextricably linked. Blues music is the only musical form that is literally called what it is trying to convey. There’s a reason for that. When someone refers to a black art, blackness is where the definition begins; not with the form, not the story, not the political resiliency (or lack thereof) of the artists…the cultural beings married to the contextual reasons why such a thing might form and exist. Blues music is the blackest art ever conceived, the progenitor of all black American music, and much of 20th century white music. It’s why Europeans love black music more than Americans do: they know where the things they love come from, and they know what it means to lose that kind of history, even if it isn’t entirely theirs. Americans remain largely resolved to editing and building over history. Comfort is our truest American value.

As it turns out, the blues isn’t what you seek, but how you seek it. What one can find of the blues in a pragmatic sense has almost entirely been discovered. What remains unplumbed is what the blues means, and that journey is how all writing about the blues begins, but rarely where it ends up. Blues music hasn’t saved my life, but it has enriched it immeasurably, and it is in the enriching of life that we better learn to live, that we determine its value. All great art accomplishes this, and yet we often struggle with applying that value to our society because it is art. This is a cycle we need to break as a species, seeing as how we’re the only ones creating it.

Before I give you my list of songs we need to talk about something very serious now. We need to talk about why black folks no longer possess blues music.

How Black People Lost Blues Music (but not The Blues)

How black people were divorced from blues music far exceeds a “taste” argument, since there was little recorded music to choose from in the early 20th century. Black people did not just get tired of blues music. In fact there were at least five seismic shifts in the political and cultural landscape of America that worked consciously or unconsciously but mostly circumstantially to make black people and blues music part ways.

1) Emancipation

Being able to travel after slavery, to interact with the plantation-less world, and to pursue material gain and accumulate personal belongings (and in rare cases, actual wealth) were among the most profound impacts on black people in America since actually being brought to America. Imagine that you have spent most of your life enslaved, or come from people who have. You still can’t do any and every thing you want, but by comparison you’re a world away in terms of hope (if only a few steps away in terms of an actual range of options). It’s certainly more than you’ve been allowed before. That’s an enormous, almost incalculable shift in worldview, and all of this affected the music of the black people, not just in terms of where it would end up on a map but how it would manifest at all, as both a music expression and a feeling. In essence, the scope of the blues themselves changed, if not entirely their nature. In 2015 it’s “more money, more problems”, but back then it was “more freedom, more problems.” Full legal integration didn’t become real for another hundred years after emancipation and blacks were constantly redefining themselves in relation to the world that was slowly growing up around them…a world that they had, in fact, made possible literally with their blood. What blues music could be about expanded and diversified, and with travel, be influenced. While blues music was never a genre of singular purpose and style, that purpose became further diffused and splintered almost immediately upon interaction with the free world.

2) The Great Migration

We all studied this much in middle school: for a host of reasons, black people began leaving the South in record numbers to find work and escape virulent racism. As decades passed, millions would make the journey. Naturally, the blues both went with those people (becoming numerous things, including more blues) and was left behind. This dynamic as it affected blues music is fascinating for its duality: because of it there are aspects of the blues we will never know, yet without it there are aspects of the blues we would never know.

3) The record industry and race records

If you think today’s music business is shady, imagine how bad it was in the early 20th century when “race records” – music discovered, packaged and marketed to be sold specifically to black audiences – were born. Before race records, you had to be where blues music was, and its audiences were local or regional at best. Mind you, black performers like George W. Johnson had been recording coon, minstrel and vaudeville songs for white audiences for 30 years by the time Mamie Smith came out with “Crazy Blues” in 1920, effectively kicking off the blues as a national commodity.

This is the saddest song I have ever heard, and I have listened to Sade's catalog exactly one hundred times.
This is the saddest song I have ever heard and I have listened to Sade’s entire catalog exactly one hundred times.

But the creation of race records was an entirely different ballgame. Record companies had no idea that black people would respond to recorded music in the numbers that they did, and from that point the narrative of black music once again shifted, this time to accommodate what black people might want to hear and, most importantly, spend money on. That most of the black people with enough money to spare for records lived in developing cities where work could be had meant the music had to be developed, recorded and sold catering to a growing, less-rural sensibility. Of course, white audiences eventually caught on to this market as well, and the rest is white-told blues history. By the time whites began digging through race record crates black people had already launched jazz and were laying down the seeds for Rhythm and Blues as well as Rock ‘n’ Roll, and Billboard was looking to change the name of its “Race Records” charts (if not the content).

“Sorry, we mean, ‘Urban Contemporary Music’.”

You’d think that once white companies started making race records that black people would have run to blues music, and for a time, we did. But they call it The Jazz Age for a reason, and black people in the early 20th century suddenly had two things they didn’t have before: options and access to technology. The blues can do and be a lot of things, but it’s hard to deny the drive of a good boogie, or the powerful and genius facility of an Ellington orchestra, all while a lot of black people were working hard to shed anything that smacked of slavery. Taste begins to figure into the black palate here, but not without the aid of some serious winnowing of the narrative of their music by a money-hungry white infrastructure. Also, as blues music shifted from being an expression to an entertainment – which meant for some blues artists it became a means with which to make money – the purpose of blues music changed, and the content followed. In that respect it was like every other art form we know. Things aesthetically developed to the point that one could actually begin to differentiate between blues and what Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka called, “classic blues.” You can imagine which one made the cut during the era of race records: the blues they could access, recreate, hire, and were willing to pay for.

4) The record industry and a black blues narrative

Part of the search for “authentic” blues by white audiences in the early and middle of the 20th century consisted of building the narrative of what constituted “real” or authentic blackness. Naturally these definitions were riddled with racism, despite the reverence that many of the researchers held for the music. They did this work almost exclusively only on behalf of the art part of the form – only as something to codify under glass (or on wax) – and had little interest in advancing the reality that a) they couldn’t possibly capture the ever-shifting personal nature of blues music, b) that blues music came from certain states of being that they were excluded from and thus always outside of and struggling to interpret (unless they could change the narrative. A-ha!), and c) that  composing a narrative of the living, breathing art of a people without also addressing the conditions that informed the lives and breaths of said people is inherently racist and nowhere near as charitable as their investigations suggest. While blues people didn’t have the means to record their realities into perpetuity, blues music was essentially dedicated to that task on an individual level. Blues music wasn’t just the songs passed around from one shack to the next. It was personal expression, and its entry required only two ingredients: 1) do you feel blue? and 2) can you open your mouth? The blues as such belonged to every black person, and did not sit merely under the purview of those who could play an instrument. In a land where a railroad lever, jug or a string stretched across a board could become an instrument, what did it mean to be a “proper musician”? It was the gospel way, the prison way, the plantation way and the African way. Attempting to define it in musical notation and theory alone means you have only captured the didactic part of the art, the part that wants to press a pin through the chest of the music and put it on a board for all to see, but few to feel.

5) The Diversification of Black Needs

If it were possible to ask black people what they needed to make it through just a year of their lives, you would get a small number of them to say “music”, and I mean over things like money, house or job. We’re talking a die-hard fraction of music lovers, and I’m just being statistically open-minded here, not empirical. But blues music? You wouldn’t even get 1% of black people to say that, and that’s if I give you every practicing black blues artist today. A lot of this area of disconnect comes from the creation of the black middle class striving to separate itself from the impression of the South and all it entailed, including the blues. Black people in the middle of the 20th century needed to not be seen as the subject of coon songs and moaning gandy dancers. They needed jobs that existed where work could be had, and lifestyles to reflect the changes they needed to realize to survive. As a result, most black people in the 21st century don’t know anything about blues music, and those that do don’t see a need for it over other things, even in our imaginary 1% of music-over-all-things respondents above. Most of us simply don’t see how blues music might relate to our current existence, let alone how diverse its sounds have become, and it’s a case especially hard to make surrounded by so many other technological distractions and the dulling “reality-based” hip-hop constantly enveloping us. The black perception of what blues music is in the last forty years mostly comes from people who have never experienced blues music beyond a comic turn as an old In Living Color skit, or only heard “The Thrill is Gone” at their grandmother’s house. 23.3% of black people in 2013 were under the age of 18, so one out of every four black people that aren’t 16-year-old blues wunderkind Christone “Kingfish” Ingram – a rising blues musician as rare for being black as he is being a teenager – aren’t even old enough to have experienced blues music in any popular format…never heard it, never seen it.

Christone
Christone “Kingfish” Ingram playing at Red’s in May 2015…with his teeth.

14% of black people in 2013 were over the age of 65. These people would surely have heard of the blues, but no one would even stereotypically call the average black senior citizen a blues advocate. (Gospel on the other hand…) All this while half of them have a print of Henry Ossawa Tanner’s “The Banjo Lesson” on their walls (picked up while shopping at Walmart, of course). And if you’re over 30 you might actually like some blues, but you don’t buy it and you don’t pay to see it live very often. Don’t be mad at me; that’s just the math: in a recent article citing jazz as a declining favorite format, blues music doesn’t even register on the chart. Now, Nielsen only chooses so many formats to populate the chart, but know this: children’s music made the chart and it got a whopping 1% market share. That means the blues falls underneath not only a genre that sells 1% of the field, but it sells less than a genre that people are buying noticeably less of that’s almost 1% of the field. Jazz is near the bottom of the list, but ahead of children’s music, and blues is below both of them. Blues music is a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the existing industry. Black audiences don’t have a chance.

Which brings me, finally, to my list.

Why Black People Need The Blues (and 10 Songs To Prove It)

Black people largely know the deal with racism and white people, who as a species have been asleep on race since Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, are just starting to catch up to our current and collective racial reality. It turns out you can’t defeat racism by ignoring it or moving away from it, and we’re fast running out of excuses as a society to explain away all of the mounting evidence to the contrary. But that’s white folks’ problem. Black folks’ problem is that we need to take back the blues.

There is a feeling that no one has put a good name to yet but that millions of people are experiencing. Every time a new name is added to the list of unarmed black people killed by police officers, the feeling comes. Every time we read a new report about housing inequities or unemployment figures in black communities or coverage of white crime versus black crime or rap music as the source of black problems, the feeling comes. When the news is more concerned with riotous black property damage than celebratory white property damage, the feeling comes.

I am convinced that if black people embraced blues music, at the same time finding their new age pain has old age precedent, it would help us find our way through challenging times like these. It would re-energize an appreciation of where we come from, how great a distance that was, and reinvigorate the values that made us fight for our existence when we had no reason to believe our existence was a given. Embracing blues music – the right song at the right time – would reconnect us with our ancestors, with people who knew what a hard time was, and who could predict what a hard time you’d have. Sometimes all you could do in a field or a shack is holler. And some days that would be enough. And if you hollered together, you could change the course of a train or a river or an entire era. And we have to be honest: what we have isn’t getting the job done. We need new tools (Anthony Hamilton can’t bridge the gap by himself), which is to say we need to dust off the old tools, because they worked. If we had known that, at their core, we’d still be fighting the same fights as we did in 1890 and 1920 and 1964, we might have held onto them.

So here are ten blues songs just to get you started, to show you what you’re missing, to put a word to that feeling your people used to call “them blues.”

BBKing12
1) Song: B. B. King – “Chains and Things” (1970)
When you need it: When you’re ready to give up

This is the blues artist you know even if you don’t know anything about blues music, and this song is just urban-sounding enough that it breaks you into the blues slow. This song goes to work with you, knows you’re tired, and is pouring a drink when you get home. It’s got it all. B. B. King died at 9:40 PM PST, which means I was rolling up my prayer rug and leaving the Mecca of juke joints, Po’ Monkey’s, down in Merigold, Mississippi just as he was passing. My trip was full of these kinds of moments, which just meant I was exactly where I was supposed to be. (Note: At the 3:38 mark you can hear the source for the main sample in Ice Cube’s “A Bird in the Hand”.)

Oh I would pack up and leave today people

But I ain’t got nowhere to go

Ain’t got money to buy a ticket

And I don’t feel like walking anymore

These chains that bind me

I can’t lose

I can’t lose these chains and things

Koko Taylor
2) Song: Koko Taylor – “I Got What It Takes” (1975)
When you need it: When you want Beyonce confidence but not Beyonce bounce

Women led the blues movement into recorded music, and Koko Taylor – “Queen of the Blues” – was cut from the rough vocal cloth of the sharecropper and the smoke of the house party. This song is all about how bad-ass a woman she is, and her confidence here is the aural equivalent of a hip swing that bumps your table off its legs and makes you chase after her to buy her a drink for her trouble.

yeah i got what it takes to make a good man deny his name

yeah i got what it takes to make a good man deny his name

i got that same thing that make a bulldog break his chain

yeah i got what it takes to make a rabbit whip a pack of hounds

yeah i got what it takes to make a rabbit whip a pack of hounds

i got that same thing that make a lion lay down with a lamb   

Lead_Belly_publicity_shot
3) Song: Lead Belly – “Bourgeois Blues”
When you need it: When white folks start trippin’

If you’ve read this far you can ascertain why there aren’t more political blues songs. That said, this one covers the bases pretty well, from politics to racist landlords, Lead Belly let’s white folks have it. If you live in America you know you always need one of these songs handy.

Well, me and my wife we were standing upstairs

We heard the white man say’n I don’t want no niggers up there

Lord, in a bourgeois town

Uhm, bourgeois town

I got the bourgeois blues

Gonna spread the news all around

sonhouse
4) Song: Son House – “Death Letter Blues” (1965)
When you need it: When you need to remember to appreciate a loved one

Don’t be confused by the rhythm: this song is one of the saddest things you’ll ever hear. House holds a clinic here about loss – the narrator gets a letter that a woman he loved has died, he sees her body at the morgue, goes to the funeral, then comes home FULL of the blues. If you put this on after an argument with a loved one there is a 50% chance you will reconcile in less than 24 hours. A lot of House’s songs have that affect, owing to his uncanny voice, his distinct playing, and his storytelling style, so you may want to invest here.

Well, I walked up right close, looked down in her face.

Said, the good ole gal got to lay here til the Judgement Day.

I walked up right close, and I said I looked down in her face.

I said the good ole gal, she got to lay here til the Judgement Day.

Looked like there was 10, 000 people standin round the buryin ground.

I didn’t know I loved her til they laid her down.

Looked like 10, 000 were standin round the buryin ground.

You know I didn’t know I loved her til they damn laid her down.

robertjohnson
5) Song: Robert Johnson – “Me and the Devil Blues” (1938)
When you need it: When it’s your fault

“Hellhound on My Trail” may be the quintessential Johnson song, but it’s too happy for our purposes here (which is saying a lot, considering the subject matter). “Me and the Devil Blues” is all about consequences, and this song is a mildly haunting reminder that every action has one. Your devil may be any number of things, but it will come knocking. Oh, and keep your hands off your woman.

Early this morning

When you knocked upon my door

Early this morning, oooo

When you knocked upon my door

And I said hello Satan

I believe it’s time to go

juniorwellsposter
6) Song: Junior Wells – “In the Wee Hours” (1965)
When you need it: When you’re about to make love

If you put this on and you can’t get laid you’re clearly alone. This track is sexier than every slow jam you’re currently listening to: the harmonica breathes hot and heavy, fast and slow, while Buddy Guy’s guitar picks tight and gentle at your spine. It barely has any lyrics at all, so you don’t have that uncomfortable R&B moment where you’re going in for the kiss and Chris Brown pops in with some libido-shriveling non-sequitur about how big his dick is.

Oooo weee, Ooo weee

Ooo weee baby, Oooo weeee

I just need somebody, somebody got to help me

Oh lord, to sing these blues

George_Freeman_photo
7) Song: George Freeman – Confirmed Truth (1972)
When you need it: When you want to go to church without leaving your house

This instrumental burner is so out of gospel it comes with its own hand fan. Replete with bubbling organ fills that set you right in front of the pulpit, this is a peace seeking missile. Put it on at the end of the day and whatever was wrong will find itself immediately re-prioritized. This is good everyday living music: just hip enough to do a little work to, just country enough to make you slow down while you’re doing it.

juniorKimbrough
8) Song: Junior Kimbrough – “Baby Please Don’t Leave Me” (1999)
When you need it: When your lover is gone

I wanted to give you the only-slightly less rugged cover version by Buddy Guy, but if you actually read everything before this you deserve the uncut stuff. This song sounds like the inside of your head when your lover has left you and you’ve drunk or smoked yourself into a stupor (or so I imagine), and if you ever thought you were the only one that knew how you felt when you broke-up, boy were YOU wrong. Don’t let the year it came out fool you: this is some real roots music doing some real voodoo, and it makes everything else you’re listening to today pretending to come off like earnest emotion sound like the inside of wet paper bag filled with plastic sadness. Because it sounds older than everything on this list but is still electric, it has the discombobulating effect of making you feel like you’ve unearthed something ancient. And you have: it’s called the blues.

 

Oh baby please

Oh baby please

Please don’t leave me

Bessiesmith
9) Song: Bessie Smith – “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” (1922)
When you need it: When folks need to mind their own business

In short, people are nosey and haters gon’ hate, so do you. If you recently saw the HBO movie Bessie and enjoyed it, congratulations: you liked the blues and probably didn’t even know it! It ain’t the most feminist of songs: there are some too-laid-back references to domestic abuse here for modern sensibilities, but you’d be asking a lot politically of a race song that’s almost a hundred years old. (Bonus level: what video games can you hear Bessie Smith’s music in? Answer: Bioshock 1 and 2.)

There ain’t nothing I can do or nothing I can say

That folks don’t criticize me

But I’m going to do just as I want to anyway

And don’t care if they all despise me

If I should take a notion

To jump into the ocean

‘T ain’t nobody’s business if I do, do, do, do

howlinwolf
10) Song: Howlin’ Wolf – “Going Down Slow” (1962)
When you need it: When it’s time to quit the game

Slow your roll, killer: you can only run game for so long, be that game women, wine or the streets. At some point you need to think about your future, what you could have done with your life, and how you might be remembered. While this song starts of conversationally with Wolf telling you how good he’s had it, the singing tells a slightly different story.

 

Man, you know I done enjoyed things that kings and queens will never have

In fact, kings and queens can’t never get

And they don’t even know about it

And good times?

I have had my fun if I never get well no more

I have had my fun if I never get well no more

Whoa, my health is fadin’, oh

Oh yes, I’m goin’ down slow

In closing:

Imagine I can come for you. Imagine it not in the romantic.

Imagine I can come for you while you are at work, or inside your home with your family, or in your car, or really any place you might be. Imagine I can take you without warning. Imagine I can take you and you know not where. Imagine that on this journey, you are alone, save for me, and because I have taken you against your will, we are not friends. We are not comrades or peers. I am more presence than person, suffocating in my will, my every whim filling your every sense with terrifying responsibility. Imagine that could be your life, the sum total of it: your fear of pain constant and assured. Your hungers are ever-present and met only with the least I can provide. You work for nothing but survival, and I consume every fruit of your labor. There is no saving for a rainy day because my largesse does not extend to people like you. There is no sharing. There is only work, only survival. You know that if you do not work you will die, and it could be slow or quick; you never know. You will not know another way. All ways come from me. I will refuse everything you know, everything you are as a person. You suspect I do not see you as a person at all. You suspect this all of your life.

Imagine, through some unspeakable perversion of mercy, I confer upon you the gift of expression, or rather, I allow it. I give you any time and place to speak, but I only teach you to think and believe certain things, so perhaps it is not a gift after all. Then I give you something to look forward to: I give you freedom. The freedom looks like mine, but it’s different. You’re not concerned about the differences; you’re concerned about the rights, where freedoms and peace might be found, for it is surely not where you are. You’re concerned about There, and if you will ever get There. You’re concerned about what it takes to find There, what applications need filed, what it will require of you to arrive at any semblance of real freedom. You take in these lessons as you work for me, every day, plying my wealth, building my world. You have a lot of time to think. You see some things for what they are, how they cannot be right. You know from birth that even though all of the ways have been given to you – and you know they are the ways that things must be – that they are not the ways of truth. You know truth. Truth surrounds you, every clicked link, every question like a bomb. Truth swirls about you in electricity and ringtones and alerts. Every day you encounter at least one of these truths. You see truth and because you see it, it can track you. In your realization, you despair. And despair, as it turns out, speaks your language. Despair knows your tongue, can find it in any language you know. Despair picks at you day and night, whispering into all your senses like the lawnmowers and good mornings in this There you keep hearing about.

And then one day, you sing.

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5 thoughts on “Why Black People Need The Blues (and 10 Songs To Prove It)

  1. This is such a powerful piece of writing… thank you for sharing it on Jamie’s Buddy Guy FB post. I’m a white girl with very little knowledge about the blues, but it’s apparent that music has an insane amount of influence over our emotions, politics, perspectives… EVERYTHING, basically, and it’s inextricable from the history of the black community. I’m just a bystander who benefits from inequality, but I hope your insights reach the people who need them the most.

  2. I enjoyed your “When you need it’s” and this post in its entirety, leading up to the bold climax/resolution. You are a craftsman and I am grateful to you for challenging me tonight.

  3. White British guy who loved the Blues in the sixties, saw the greats: Son House, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters etc.
    Also loved r@b and soul and realised that apart from maybe some of the Chicago blues artists, blues was not the music of black America.
    Why the genre hit me in 1963 so it defined my musical taste forever I don’t know, except that everyone harbours and wants to escape from melancholy, sadness and depression.
    All ‘folk’ music is appropriated by ‘tourists’, no genre more than Blues but the development of a music of hope and defiance is as relevant now as ever for everyone!

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