Thursday, July 29, 2010
Article: What is the Blues?
What is the Blues?
Writers: Rick Galusha, Chris D. Thomas
Recently, noted music critic and Wall Street Journal writer Jim Fusilli rightfully lamented that most blues fans are willing to accept only a limited range of styles. He also pointed out that because of this self-imposed limitation, the genre suffers; creative bands willing to explore the edges of the blues are discouraged by the lack of audience and airplay. Fusilli’s article begs the question, “What is the blues?”
There’s no one answer to that question, and suggesting there is would be part of the problem. But here are a few thoughts on this issue.
Writing about music is based upon opinion. What a reviewer thinks is simply his or her opinion. There are, of course, educated opinions based upon a wide variety of listening and reading. For example, one can state a fact such as, ‘Stevie Ray Vaughan tragically died while his mass popularity was still growing.’ It is an opinion that “Texas Flood” was his best recording. I think it is fair to state that Jim Fusilli has a well-educated opinion, listens and writes about a diverse selection of music, and has darn good taste. Remember that Led Zeppelin was originally panned in Rolling Stone magazine and that this gaffe defined the relationship between the band and rock critics for nearly a decade. In other words, even “educated” reviewers get it wrong.
Most recognize traditional blues as being three chords (1, 4, and 5), 12 bars (or measures) and base the vocals on a ‘call-call-response’ where the second line is a repeat of the first line. Traditional blues can be simple to play, doe not require a great deal of musical training, and can be simplistic lyrically. As the form becomes more complicated, it moves away from the “traditional blues” sound. When Muddy Waters electrified his sound, added sidemen known as ‘Headhunters’ and created the instrumentation line-up that would become the sound of rock n’ roll (drums, bass, 2 guitars and vocals) he helped create the so-called, ‘Chicago Blues’ sound. So progression of the art form is tolerated, or should be.
Rock music’s influence is culturally pervasive in Western culture. What a musician listens to is going to influence his sound regardless of the genre he plays. Easy examples of this include Who guitarist Pete Townshend’s use of the banjo (a preferred instrument of pre-WWII English entertainers) and Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger’s flamenco styling. Since the commercial explosion of rock music, American culture has been inundated by rock music. (I am skeptical when an artist claims to have always preferred the blues: the comment defies the impact of radio, advertising, media and pop culture.) Interestingly, traditional blues music, with its emphasis on rhythm and simple lyrics and its basis in black culture shares similarities to rap music. When Muddy Waters sings, “I’m a man,” listeners nod their heads in approval. But the overt appeal to violence and similar braggadocio in rap implies for some listeners a very real and unappealing threat. (Interestingly, violence employed in movies, television or literature is acceptable entertainment but references to violence in rap is often construed as a threat.)
The Modern Blues market consists of blues acts as well as non-blues bands that appeal to the roots & blues audience. Most readers of this column would readily identify Eric Clapton as a bluesman. His roots with the John Mayall Band and a significant portion of his solo recordings reinforce Clapton’s blues credibility. However, Clapton’s Tulsa Period, which feature pop-ready ballads such as “Beautiful Tonight” or his ‘Reptile’ project fall outside of, blues confines. Dave Alvin has strong “roots and blues” pedagogy but his music, wonderful as it is, is not blues by most listeners’ standards. None-the-less, his crossover within the blues market is well- established. A dilemma presents itself when judges or reviewers cast their net on acts that are clearly not playing the blues, yet appeal to a blues audience.
The blues was a Black-American artform. While it began as an African-American artform, the blues has moved into a larger market; white folks now make up the majority of the audience. With this migration comes a debate about whether non-black musicians are capable of playing the blues. It can be argued that early progenitors played the blues loosely and that this relaxed approach, focused on rhythm, allowed the player to extended measures, skip chords, employ irregular rhythms or play whatever his or her muse suggested. What some could refer to as authenticity could also be referred to as sloppiness. (It is this “sloppiness” that differentiates the Rolling Stones sound from other mainstream FM radio acts). Trained musicians will tightly follow measures, key and chord changes. Since the culture of Traditional Blues was about uneducated day-laborers teaching each other, swapping techniques and nurturing younger players, the blues roots are in untrained musicianship. So when a trained musician begs into the genre it can be perceived that what he plays’s, “ain’t the blues.” If consumers vote with their dollars there is an audience for both. Like the rest of the country, Black-Americans have developed diversified listening interests and therefore the European-American influence on the blues is growing.
Finally, some music is intended to be art, while some is highly disposable. Not every album will be artistically significant. Few would argue that Bach withstood the test of time, whereas the list of forgotten acts is extensive. Occasionally, “Tastemakers” attempt to convert temporal pop acts to credible artists such as the recent, ‘Songwriters Hall of Fame’ honor for Taylor Swift. A cynical aspect of this is when a child lays claim to the coattails of a famous parent.
Listening takes patience. Personally I often find that when an album opens too quickly, and the enjoyment is immediate and intense, I soon tire of listening to the record a/k/a “it has no legs.” Whereas, upon initial listens, if a record hints of substance it will, like an onion, peel and reveal its art upon repeated listening. It is often the not too subtle argument of snobs that the lack of patience and educated listening skills retards a genre’s wider audience of the ability to recognize its finer offerings.
Essentially there are five categories for blues CDs;
1.) Art. Albums that are finely crafted and intended to make an artistic statement. These albums tend to open slowly and require repeated listening. They also have a long “shelf life” and bear repeated listening over decades. Often these albums move months or even years ahead of the mass audience listening curve and are often not recognized upon release. These albums are by artists that, generally, have considered their image and include quality CD packaging. (9-10 rating)
2.) Good Records. Sometimes an album is just good. It is an above-average performance that some folks will enjoy and some will not. The album is neither groundbreaking nor bad. It is a statement of the artist at the time it was recorded and its shelf life will depend upon the trends of the genre as well as the artist’s touring and commercial relevance. (6-8 rating)
3.) “Pipeline fillers” These are lesser-quality albums by artists that have established or are establishing careers, but for whatever reason their current release is subpar. Many times these are barroom acts with little opportunity to rise above the occasional “big stage” festival showing. These acts gravitate between labels with regularity and often use covers or live tracks to fill up the album. Often these albums contain one or - perhaps two dynamite tracks. (4-5 rating)
4.) Souvenirs. These are sold off the stage and have little if any shelf life. These artists are flogging it out on the road hoping for a break that catapults them to a better quality life. While their names are known by concert- goers, the passion of the moment quickly subsides. These artists have been known to use gimmicks such as topical songs, blues renditions of popular rock songs or claims of unconfirmable historical significance. (3- 5 rating)
5.) Friends and Family. These are hobbyist projects that are fun for the makers as well as their friends and family members. These albums suffer from poor quality album artwork, weak songwriting, poorly developed covers and no distribution. These albums often over-employ clichés and lack artistic originality. These albums also often feature photos of the band on the cover. (0 – 2 rating)
What is the allure of the blues? Every culture has its own mores and standards. A common depiction of the modern blues scene is of overweight white males in bowling shirts wearing fedoras and sunglasses and sporting a “soul patch” under their lower lip. As Be Bop Deluxe’s Bill Nelson sang, “We revolt into style.” It is interesting that a highly dogmatic musical culture has a generally acceptable uniform.
In his personal exploration, “Lost in Music?, Subjective personal introspection and popular music consumption” (Shankar, 2000) British researcher Avi Shankar report on why we listen to or participate in the music we do;
a.) “Music is symbolic communication…it can easily recall a whole time and place, distant feelings and emotions, and memories of where we were and with whom…Music can also be a theme, a rallying cry, a protest around which we gather to speak out against social injustice.” (Lewis, 1992)
b.) “[...P]opular music still chronicles the feelings and life experiences of large sections of young people, providing a medium which an affective grounded aesthetic can be developed to enable personal and private feelings to be expressed and shared.” (Willis, 1990)
c.) “…music helps us to make sense of our everyday lives and experiences.” (Shankar, 2000)
d.) “…music is also important in letting other people know who we are, or would like to be, what group we belong to, or would like to belong to.” (Lewis, 1992)
There are a myriad of “styles” within the blues genre but none are as prevalent as the, ‘Twang bar kings’ and the ‘purists.’
Twang Bar Kings. These are your axe pyrotechnicans that often use songs as a platform for extended jams. The songwriting tends to be weak and often the vocals are secondary to the jam. There are credible players within this “rock blues” category, including; SRV, Robben Ford, Aynsley Lister and relative newcomer Matt Schofield. A criticism of this genre is that certain players are heavy handed, for instance; Walter Trout or Chris Duarte. What is clear is that in a live music setting the audience will react to the “sound” of the Twang Bar King. So the emotion of the moment solicits a positive reaction from the audience, but rarely translates onto recordings.
Purists: This is a genre in which players replicate songs and styles of recordings from the early roots of the blues. Often a solo act, purists play a stripped down, raw or pure blues sound. In some ways these contemporary purists keep the blues alive by going all the way back to the sound’s recorded roots – offering live audiences an opportunity to hear and feel an approximation of what early blues probably sounded like. The downside of this genre is that while imitation may be the highest form of flattery, it can quickly become over-wrought. Another challenge for contemporary purist recordings is that their CD’s compete with the original recordings. Artists that I think do well within this genre include; Corey Harris, Chris Thomas King, Keb Mo, John Hammond and Eric Bibb; these artists tend to build upon the existing catalogue and contribute to the artform by taking it forward.
Album Covers: The album jacket is the invitation to listen. According to Roger Blackwell, the music on a CD will at best rate a seven on a ten scale. It is often the image and ancillary messages of an act that will differentiate a ‘good’ band from a ‘great’ band. (Roger Blackwell, 2004). In an environment where music has to compete with Play Stations, children, jobs and 24-hour news cycles, the audience wants more than just good music. They want to be a part of something larger than themselves, something that is entertaining, coincides with their dreams or aspirations, and provides an emotional resonance. According to Blackwell, the artwork of a CD is 33% of the perceived value. A photograph of average looking people is short-selling the effort. Bands need to define an image and then make certain that EVERY ASPECT of their presence reinforces this image including; websites, posters, stage presence and interviews. It is amateurish and confuses the audience when an act emits messages that conflict… so Blackwell may be suggesting that if you want a “real career” take the time to develop a message, massage it and then be prepared to update your image before it stagnates.
Album Length: Back when vinyl was king, critics could count on two hands the number of “great” double albums (two discs). “Great” single disc albums average up to 40 minutes in length. Even talented songwriters seem incapable of writing more than 40 minutes of good music in a 12-month period. So although a CD can hold nearly 80 minutes of music, “you” (or anyone else) are incapable of writing that much good music. Talk to your fans… no one “hears” anything past the 8th or 9th track. So drop the filler and leave your audience wanting more. Prolific artists can (and should) use online only releases to keep the “consumer pipeline” full in between CD releases. Use tasty covers, acoustic versions and unreleased or sub-par tracks to keep your fans coming back to your website. Nurture your base by giving them MORE than they expect… so that when that next T-shirt design or CD release is ready, you have a well- established relationship with your audience; thereby making your marketing efforts less burdensome. If you are serious, take time to review the websites of other artists; do you marketing homework.
Kids don’t want to listen to their parents “Blues.” There are also blues bands that want nothing to do with the blues market. Acts like The Black Keys have clearly chosen to pursue the modern indie rock market, and who can blame them? One of the base tenants of rock n’ roll is that your parents are specifically not invited. This does not lessen the contribution of acts building an audience outside of the blues but it does explain some of the distance you may have noticed in their outreach. I find it amusing when young critics bash the “blues scene” and then praise blues acts that are marketed specifically towards them; failing to recognize their own gullibility to label marketing efforts.
All contemporary Blues fans got there by listening to rock music… with The Rolling Stones, The Allman Brothers or Led Zeppelin being the biggest influences. The best selling blues acts are; B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton. Robert Johnson is more significant than Charley Patton although they both vie for the title, “King of the Delta Blues.” It doesn’t matter if it was actually Tommy Johnson who sold his soul at the crossroads; perception trumps reality and Robert Johnson’s lore is as cemented in American history as Paul Revere’s ride.
What is the role of the blues deejay? Entertainment is the basis for any radio host. I appreciate a degree of discernment. With more than 30,000 recording albums coming out annually, deejays need to listen to a wide breadth of music. An objective radio host has the opportunity to help their audience sift through the mountain of releases to identify ‘good’ titles. It is easy to allow label hype to take the lead. Deejays should be cognizant of the local scene helping to promote upcoming shows as well as, gulp, playing lesser acts that their audience appreciates. I also use my program to abet local acts build awareness by playing their CDs and hosting interviews.
What is the role of the blues writer? There are three (general) types of album or concert writers;
-Advocates. These are established fans who want you to enjoy what they like. There is nothing wrong with this; however, these are the least discerning since their bias is apparent. They seem to like everything.
-Critics: These are writers who cast a critical eye on everything. While often appearing to be unhappy with anything, these writers discuss and contemplate art and, for me, help define trends with an eye on history and how something may, or may not, fit in. While good music is defined by what “you” enjoy, critics hold the art form to its highest standard and are quick to condemn ‘disposable music.’ Unfortunately “trendy” or “faddish” music is often highly disposable. (Take a look your CD collection for titles you “loved” but no longer listen to.)
-Reporters: These writers seemingly focus on upcoming events and simply discuss them – providing facts and information. Readers are often left wondering what the reviewer’s opinion is. In a world awash with music; most bad, some good and very little ‘great,’ the role of the reviewer can be less than helpful since the reader is left to gamble with their entertainment dollars.
It is important to remember that since blues music is guttural, writers are simply using their knowledge and experience to form an opinion. Since a written opinion should be rational rather than emotional – the reader is well within their rights to disagree. I recommend that you find a writer whose opinion generally coincides with your own and use them to wade through the heap of music beckoning for your ears.
Lewis, G. (1992). Who Do You Love? The dimensions of musical taste. In Popular Music and Communication, 2nd Edition. Newbury Park, California: Sage Publications.
Roger Blackwell, T. S. (2004). Brands that Rock - what business leaders can learn from the world of rock and roll. Hoboken: John WIley & Sons, Inc. .
Shankar, A. (2000). Lost in Music? Subjective personal introspection and popular music consumption. Retrieved July 14, 2010, from Proquest Database: http://proquest.umi.com/pdqlink?vinst=PROD&fmt=3&startpage=-1&ver=1&vname=PQ
Willis, P. (1990). Common Culture. Milton Keynes (England): Open University Press.