Once upon a time, I was sitting in a music history class, way in the back, with a dapper, leather-clad tenor sax man named Mguma. The subject was American music. The prof started off by saying that Black folks gave America the Blues.
My pal, Mguma, put up his hand. “Excuse me,” he said. “But isn’t it the other way around?”
Point taken, daddy-o. The blues is down and out. Heartache and backbreak. The blues is generally about getting fucked, getting fucked up or getting fucked over. As an elderly bluesman named Leroy Robinson told me, “I plays the blues ’cause I own this here guitar and I don’t own no gun.”
I dig the blues.
I can play the blues all night long, and never get bored, never run out of things to say. That deceptively simple I-IV-V progression seems to have infinite space for variation. You’ve got the Delta Blues with it’s finger-picking acoustic guitar, open tunings and slide licks. A six-string one-man band. Delta blues is the alpha, the origin, the roots. John Lee Hooker. Robert “Guitar” Johnson. Leadbelly. Mississippi John Hurt. Hound Dog Taylor.
Then the blues went north, looking for work, and hit stops along the Mississippi River all the way to Chicago. My ex-hometown. In Chicago blues, the guitar goes electric, with all the embellishments apertaining thereunto, and throws in with bass and drums. Some jazz chords show, and the funeral low-down temp of Delta blues breaks into a trot. Howlin’ Wolf. Buddy Guy. Junior Wells. Otis Rush. And, of course, B.B. King.
Jazz Blues brings the ii-V-I turn-around, subtle and articulate chord substitutions, extended chords, diminished chords. Ray Charles. Charlie Parker. Mose Allison. Kenny Burrell. Satchmo. Lionel Hampton.
Some folks went west instead of north, so you’ve got Texas Blues, that shuffle rhythm, elements of flamenco and swing. Lightnin’ Hopkins. Stevie Ray Vaughan. Some cats, like T-Bone Walker, took it all the way to the coast, integrating more jazz and swing elements.
The blues crossed than pond so we’ve got Eric Clapton, and John Mayall. Jeff beck. Jimmy Page.
There’s country blues, piedmont blues, Kansas City blues, acid blues, dirty blues, gospel blues, piano blues and blues-rock. You can take players from the States, Africa, Russia and China and put them together, and they may not be able to understand each other well enough to put together a lunch order, but they can still play the blues together. It’s a universal language. Like pain.
Here’s a pair of my favorite blues tunes. The first by a woman whose voice has always made me sweat, Esther Phillip. Pay attention to her solo. The other piece I want to share with you is by Yuseff Lateef. Did you know that the oboe was a blues instrument?
I hope you dig these.