You know the blues. You love the blues.
But what if everything you thought you knew about the blues was… wrong?
We need to first understand exactly what the blues is to answer this question.
And here we run into the problem. It’s not so easy to say what the blues is. One prestigious figure in the business said, “the blues ain’t nothing but a good man feeling bad.”
Maybe it’s kind of like that old proverb – “you know it when you see it.” Or in this case “hear” it.
Actually, I believe there’s definitely truth to that. Some artists just have the “sound” and they give you this swelling feeling when you listen to the music. We immediately know this is the right thing.
But it’s not quite that simple, consider this… So many different genres have adopted the blues that it becomes hard to see where the line is exactly. When does it become rock n roll? Or jazz? While some artists are unmistakably blues, others seem to just straddle the line.
These questions don’t necessarily have easy answers. And I think there’s a reason for that.
THIS COULD BE THAT THE BLUES IS SEVERAL THINGS
That doesn’t mean it’s everything. Kendrick Lamar and Brad Paisley certainly aren’t blues even though the genre had an influence on both of these styles of music.
In the book called “The Blues” by Elijah Wald. He proposes that the blues is a distinct kind of feeling translated into music.
Wald points out that Delta Blues pioneer Son House once sang, “The blues ain’t nothing but a low-down, aching chill.” Great poetry, but also perhaps a certifiable definition of what the blues is in his theory.
So according to this theory, the blues is a certain, distinct kind of feeling translated into music. That feeling is something low-down, mournful, or aching.
THE BLUES… AN EXPRESSION OF A SAD EMOTION
The blues style represents a saying of things that are very painful, deep and poignant, with a feeling of ease. In the very best blues the pain changes, because of the music, into something light.”
In other words, the blues is a kind of universal emotion expressed in the powerful medium of music. And there’s good reason to think that this is the case.
The blues has always been associated with a certain kind of emotion. A painful emotion. A sad emotion. And perhaps an emotion that can’t be captured in any other music in any other way.
Many other genres have adopted the blues to tell their own story. Maybe this is because the blues allows you to express ambiguous emotions in a more clear way that connects with the listener.
Have a look at these excerpts of some of the lyrics of Joe Williamson’s classic, “Everyday I Have The Blues”.
Nobody loves me
Nobody seems to care
Yes, nobody loves me
Nobody seems to care
Speaking of worries and trouble darling, you know I’ve had my share
It’s that downhearted feeling that is really captured by authentic blues music. That universal, endless human soul-crushing ache. And much of the blues seems to fall under this definition.
It’s a great definition. But it doesn’t quite cover it.
WHY THE BLUES IS MORE THAN JUST A SAD EMOTION
Some think blues is a sad, cry-in-your beer kind of thing. Only to find out it’s about drinking, dancing and even sex.
The main problem with this opinion is that it also seems to leave out much of what has been traditionally considered to be the blues. Because not all blues music expresses negative emotion.
There are love songs. There are blues pop party songs. Traditionally blues music has captured a wide range of emotions.
Bands like Bad Influence play upbeat, dance-able blues. It’s party music made by guys who are having as much fun playing it as those listening.
Whole sub-genres of the blues, like jump blues, evoke a feeling that is upbeat, cheerful, positive and even happy.
That lightness and ease come to be because the musical form given to those feelings—in both the organization of the words and the notes—shows the world has a structure that is logical and sensible, and makes for a good time!
We are in a world that needs to be reminded that the blues can serve such a purpose.
So if the blues can cover any feeling or emotion then the blues can’t be just limited to the downtrodden and despairing feeling in all of us.
I think a great way of putting it is there’s a blues song for every situation in life.
If we really want to know what the blues is, we’re going to have to keep searching for its essence. While much of the blues definitely expresses this kind of universal sadness, it doesn’t cover all of it.
We still have a lot to learn about the blues. The most important thing is that everybody has fun — the audience and us.
As Eric Clapton brilliantly put it, “I have to see this blues thing through to the end.”
On your journey of discovering what the blues is I invite you to start by checking out my latest album, Crossroads Of My Life.
Because as one reviewer put it, “Crossroads Of My Life lets us hear how a blues album is supposed to sound like”.
Leave a comment and tell me what you think the blues is. I’d love to hear from you.