Tuesday Tune-Up: The Blues – The Root of All Things

First, I apologize that this week’s post is not a YouTube video about how to play another solo. I do have a video in the works. It’s being edited as I type this, and it will be next week’s Tuesday Tune-Up post.

Let Us Turn to the Prophet Keith Richards…

First of all, if you don’t acknowledge that Keith Richards‘ continued survival is anything short of miraculous, and that his miraculous existence makes him at minimum a prophet, more likely some kind of demigod, then you probably shouldn’t read any further. Second, if you don’t also acquiesce to the following contention, then the rest of this article will mean nothing: There is a legend out there that upon his father’s death, Keith snorted his ashes like a line of coke. I contend that whether or not the rumor is true, the fact that it’s out there, and there’s an air of credibility to it, makes Keith Richards the greatest rock and roll star who will have ever lived.

I’m not saying Keith’s a great role model – hell no. I’m not even saying he’s the best guitar player (though he’s up there, in my opinion). I’m simply saying that when it comes to rock stars, they don’t make them any more genuinely than they made Keith. One of my favorite Keith quotes concerns our topic for today, and comes from his autobiography, Life, in which he contends, “If you don’t know the blues… there’s no point in picking up the guitar and playing rock and roll or any other form of popular music.”

Let’s Imagine the Beginning

Before the invention of recording, there was folk music, but the majority of “serious” music was written like books are written – on paper, with ink, and then performed by master musicians for paying audiences. It was an elitist art for elite audiences.

As far back as the sixteenth century, however, with the import of African slaves to the Americas, a new mixture of African American culture began to form. Religious traditions, songs, and all kinds of other cultural institutions were imported with the people themselves, and they were not homogenous. Slaves from West Africa would have different traditions than slaves from other parts of the continent, and those traditions intermingled over time with those of the European colonists themselves, and became something unique.

I don’t know where it began, but I have this perfect image in my mind.

From the Bondage

“When them cotton balls get rotten, you can’t weave very much cotton, in them old cotton fields back home…”

I’ve been across the south. I lived in San Antonio, Texas, for a spring, Augusta, Georgia for a summer, and I’ve been to Memphis and Tampa in summertime. I’ve felt the air there. It’s oppressive.

I imagine that air – that hot, humid, and heavy air, crushing a person’s very will to live – settling on the shoulders of a young black slave woman in Mississippi in the eighteenth century when Thomas Jefferson was writing about all men being created equal. I imagine that she’s been in the cotton field, bent over, hands bruised and callused, and sweating constantly all day. I imagine that her back aches, that her skin feels like it’s going to burn right off, and that even though every breath she breathes is nearly all water vapor and no oxygen, she’s forced at the end of a whip to keep bending over and picking the cotton until that terrible tyrant sun sinks below the hazy pink horizon.

I picture this woman, this human being with a soul and a name and a mother and a father and value beyond definition, and I watch with my mind as she sees that the overseer has ridden to another part of the plantation, and she looks up to the heavens. She arches her aching back, stretches her arms open wide, and starts to sing. And when she does it’s magic.

It doesn’t take away her situation. It doesn’t set her battered, bruised, and scarred body free. It doesn’t soften the heart of her cruel master or the even more sadistic overseer. It doesn’t bring back the children, siblings, husband, or parents she lost when they were traded away. It doesn’t make her hands stop hurting, nor her back, nor her feet. It doesn’t take away that fucking unbearable heat and humidity. It doesn’t change anything, and yet, it changes everything.

She’s singing to god. Not the god you and I are probably used to perceiving. Sure many of the people in slavery at that time converted to Christianity, but they kept their own traditions as well. She’s singing for salvation, because it’s all she can do, and it’s the only thing that will take the pain away for a moment.

There’s Power Coming out of Her Lungs…

She’s transformed, for a moment, while she sings in that scale – the one we now call the blues scale – into an angel. She’s a conduit for all of the miscarriages of justice and for all of the downtrodden and all of the dark nights of the soul in the universe, and it’s all flowing through her, and she’s bloodletting. She’s stabbing the bruise to let the blood and pain and tragedy and heartache and pure evil that she’s been through out of her soul.

It’s been said that jazz is the first “true” American art form. I call bullshit, shenanigans, hogwash, nincompoopery, and utter nonsense. Just where do you think jazz came from, buddy? Huh? And that’s not even taking into consideration the fact that the indigenous peoples of these continents were singing songs unique to them centuries before white people started bringing black people here in chains.

The reason I make the case for the blues over jazz is that jazz started because black musicians had instruments that they learned to play the blues on first, then they started playing jazz. I’m not a music scholar, but I know a few of them, and they talk about jazz in the same way they talk about Mozart. They analyze the hell out of it. The only real difference I can see is in the art of improvisation. Jazz, to me, is as elitist as classical is, and it’s not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that, but the Blues is the salt of the earth.

When they hear that I’m a teacher, most people assume that I’m a music teacher, and usually when they find out I’m an English teacher, they ask why I didn’t teach music. It’s because I love the blues. I don’t want to analyze the hell out of music. I feel I’ve been given a magical gift by the universe in my ability to feel, and respond to, and naturally make music, and the last thing in the world I want to do is destroy that magic.

I know just enough music theory to be useful to any group I need to play with, and I can read music about as well as a first-grader reads second-or-third-grade material. I’ve kept it that way on purpose, because I want my music to come from my soul, not from my head. Even so, we need to do a little analysis here of what makes the blues so blue.

The Blues Scale

A major scale is composed of eight notes. For this example we’ll use the key of C, since there are no sharps or flats in it, and talk about how the blues scale differs from a major scale. In a C-major scale (by the way, that’s all of the white keys on a piano), the order of notes starts on a C, skips a whole interval to the D, skips another whole interval to the E, but there’s only a half-interval between E and F, so the scale only moves a half-interval here. From the F it moves a whole interval three more times, to G, then to A, then to B, and finally resolves a half-interval later at the next highest octave of C.

So the order of “steps” in the major scale is whole, whole, half, whole, whole whole, half. A blues scale strips this major scale down to what we call a minor pentatonic scale (penta=five tonic=tones) – which takes the first, the flat-third, fourth, the fifth, and the flat-seventh notes of the major scale – and adds a flat-fifth note in between the fourth and fifth notes. It’s the addition of this flat-fifth – called the “blue” note – that differentiates the blues scale from all others.

Now do you understand why I don’t want to get too technical with music? That sounds way too much like math. I just want to play rock and roll and make people feel what I’m feeling with my guitar and my voice.

A Note About Form

I have a friend who is one of the finest songwriters I’ve ever heard, let alone met. He hates the blues. He’s said so and will say so over and over if you get him started. His biggest problem, as best as I can make out, is the fact that the blues is typically played over the same 12-measure chord progression, and the lyrics are usually simple and repetitive. He prefers songs with interesting structure and poignant, clever lyrics – like the ones he writes… and I get that, but I look at the blues differently.

Think about poetry and form. Why did Shakespeare stick to iambic pentameter and sonnets? Why keep rhythm and meter in poetry at all? Sometimes, you need a scaffolding upon which to hang or frame your tapestry.

Think of the blues like haiku. Not the silly haikus American kids do in third grade through high school. I’m talking about the true form of Japanese haiku. Yes, there is the 5-7-5 syllable pattern, but true Haikus also have to have natural imagery, and contain a profound change between the second and third line.

Students often make the same mistake with haiku that my friend (I think) makes with the blues. It’s not about it being simple. It’s about the complexity inside the simplicity. It’s lightning in a jar. It’s because those constraints are there, that the musician is allowed to stay focused on that one emotion and expressing it to its fullest through his or her fingers or lungs. The simple I-IV-V chord structure and 12-bar format forces you to stay focused on a single theme and truly dive deeply into it.

The Root of All Things

All modern popular music – including rock, rap, country, electronica, metal, jazz, easy listening – it all owes something to the blues. The “music industry” as we know it today, started when Elvis took the spotlight from Chuck Berry and brought black music into white homes, and changed the world. From there, it was the Beatles and the Stones, or the Yardbirds or the Who – all of them were influenced by American blues, and the entire tree of modern recorded music blossomed from there.

The blues isn’t meant to solve your problems. It’s not there to pay your mortgage, or take back the decision your ex made to cheat on you, or help you quit drinking. It’s there to keep you company and let you know that we all suffer and we all hurt. That’s why it’s so universal. It’s that flat-fifth – the blue note – that carries the magic with it. It’s a tonal signal to our brains that someone is in pain, and if we’re in pain too, it helps us to feel like we’re not alone.

For those of us fortunate enough to be able to play the blues, it’s a conduit – a way for us to take all of the pain and torment and sorrow – not only that we’ve been through ourselves, but that we feel for others who’ve been through it – and set it free. Each bend of a guitar string or strained vocal note sent deep from the diaphragm is a needle in the bruise – a bloodletting. It’s therapeutic, and it’s magical.

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