THINKING ABOUT THE BLUES
Leadbelly once told Alan Lomax, “It take a man that have the blues to sing the blues,” and that statement — which is certainly a truth of the blues — leads to a number of things worth thinking about and exploring.
For one thing, the other side of Leadbelly’s statement must also be true: One must have or have had the blues to hear the blues and understand them. Although the blues, as a musical genre, was born in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, the blues as an emotional fact of life are universal and part of every person’s experience. As a consequence, when people of all stations, backgrounds, nationalities, ages, and races encountered this music called the blues, they found that it spoke to them and helped them to understand their blues in ways that were profound and meaningful. As a result, the blues found their way into most of the music that was made in America and traveled around the world as American music gained an international audience.
Most country songs are blues songs. Hank Williams and Johnny Cash were as much blues singers as Son House and Robert Johnson. Gospel is rooted in the blues. Jazz and blues are so intertwined that it is difficult to talk about one without talking about the other. Rock and roll is the blues. As Little Richard once said, “The blues had a baby and we called it rock and roll.” It is hard not to hear the blues somewhere in the background of almost any song that is written, sung, or listened to today.
What makes the blues so important is not that they are about feeling blue — although many are — it is that they are about entering into that place where one feels alone and cut-off and apart with no defense or recourse other than, perhaps, to listen to or sing a blues song. There were always sad songs and some blues are sad songs, but the blues go beyond just being sad. Eric Clapton’s “Layla” is a blues song (about being in love with your best friend’s wife) and so is “Cocaine,” although neither is particularly sad. On Clapton’s last major tour, he would close with “Over The Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz and it became a blues song, not because of something done musically — he usually sang the song a cappella — but because Clapton sings from that place where the blues are most deeply felt.
However, despite the now universal application of the blues, it remains a musical genre that grew out of the American experience and there is a powerful tie between the blues and that experience. The blues didn’t come from France, England, Egypt or China…although people in all of those countries understand and can even sing the blues. The blues were born in America and continue to articulate the experiences of Americans lost and lonely with greater force and clarity than any other means of expression that we know of.
Search out at least four blues songs that you believe are meaningful and important in telling us something unique and important about the American experience. All four songs should concern a single subject or topic and, when taken collectively, should tell us something important about that topic and the American experience. As an example, Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit,” “Four Women,” “Old Jim Crow,” and “Mississippi Goddamn” (all on Four Women: The Nina Simone Phillips Recordings) tell us something important about being black in the American South (and if you haven’t listened to Nina Simone, you should). As another example, Liz Phair’s “F*ck And Run” (on Exile In Guyville) and Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen” (on Between The Lines) are songs about what it is like to be a girl who doesn’t believe that she will ever find love in America. Both Phair and Ian tell us something important about what the American experience is for such girls and also about how American values affect the lives of some young women in our society.
The songs don’t have to be traditional blues songs (they could be country or rock and roll or jazz or even mainstream pop songs). However if they are not traditional blues songs, you should be able to explain why you think they qualify as blues. The songs also don’t all necessarily have to be on Rhapsody, although it would obviously help so that your classmates could listen to those songs that are unfamiliar to them.
Make a list of the songs you select and their artists and include this list at the start of your paper. Your paper should be an explanation (700 words minimum) that then focuses on the following:
What do these songs tell us about some important aspect of the American experience? Try not select topics that are too general and broad (As example: “Love.” Although “Love” is the focus of many blues songs, it is too general a topic. “The Pain of Being Young and Unloved in Contemporary America” would be more workable.). Compare and contrast the songs that you pick. Let the reader know how each song contributes to your argument and why you think they are meaningful examples.
Then tell the reader why the songs and topic you have selected tell us something that’s important for us to hear or know about. What do we learn about the American experience from these songs?