Yes. Black Lives Matter. Period.
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.
~ Keith Richards, The Greatest Rock Star of All Time*
I watched the Robert Johnson documentary the other day on Netflix. Devil at the Crossroads, it’s called. Robert Johnson didn’t invent the blues, but he definitely brought it out of the cotton fields and into the juke joints. And eventually onto the radio. Many of his songs still endure nearly a century later.
I’ve written about the blues and its importance to modern music before. In fact, just over a year ago, I posted this article about how we modern musicians owe everything to the blues. I won’t re-hash all of that here, because it was a piece into which I put a lot of thought, and I said most of what I needed to say.
I do want to acknowledge, for a moment, the incredible cultural impact that minorities, particularly Black and Brown Americans, have had on our society.
I wrote before about how the blues is rooted in pain and suffering. In bondage. This Friday is Juneteenth. For all of you ignorant white folk (of whom I, admittedly, was one until this morning), Juneteenth is not a made-up Seinfeld holiday like Festivus. It’s the anniversary of the date when Texas, the last holdout, finally made slavery illegal. I am embarrassed that as a history teacher I literally didn’t know that until this morning.
I am more than willing to admit that I have a LOT of work to do when it comes to checking my own prejudices. Is it uncomfortable? Sure. But necessary work is often uncomfortable.
The suffering of People of Color at the hands of colonial European forces, at the hands of an entrenched Southern economy dependent on their forced and unpaid labor, at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, at the hands of white lynch mobs, at the hands of racist Northern whites who didn’t want them as slaves, but didn’t want them as neighbors either, at the hands of segregation laws and bussing and inferior education, at the hands of Nixon and Regan’s failed “war on drugs,” and most recently, at the hands of an increasingly militarized and systemically biased police and criminal justice system.
Here are some things to chew on, then we’ll get back to the blues:
Fact: The United States (land of the free) incarcerates more people than any other “free” society in the world. By Far.
Fact: Among male offenders, Black and Hispanic Males make up nearly 60% of the prison population, while white males only account for 32%.
Fact: The mandatory minimum sentence for crack cocaine (primarily associated with the Black community in the 1980s and 1990s) is 5 years for 5 grams. It takes 500 grams (that’s right, half a kilo) of powder cocaine (the more expensive and predominantly “white collar” drug) to get the same sentence. Source: ACLU.
I could go on, but you get the idea, and this post isn’t just about the injustice that continues to this day. It’s about what that injustice birthed. Because Black lives DO matter. And we (White America) have been systematically de-humanizing people of color for far too long.
But some people remain unmoved by the statistics. They still can’t see past the years of prejudice and ugliness under which they were raised. So I’m gonna try another method here. Let’s talk about the music.
The Blues: The Root of All American Music. And More…
The Blues has always been about catharsis. It’s a bloodletting. Some white people mistakenly think that listening to the blues makes you sad. Nothing could be further from the truth. The blues is designed to make you feel better.
The blues was born in the cotton fields. It was born under the yoke and the lash. It was crying out for deliverance, knowing full well that none was coming. And when you’re in the depths and you don’t see any way out, sometimes all you can do is cry out.
In the case of Black Americans, particularly in the Mississippi Delta, that crying out was the most mournfully beautiful sound the world would ever hear.
If Robert Johnson hadn’t recorded those 29 songs of his… If Muddy Waters hadn’t ever got a hold of them… And if some white DJs weren’t courageous enough to play them in the ’50s and ’60s, there’d be no Elvis Presley, no Beatles, no Rolling Stones, no Cream or Eric Clapton, no Led Zeppelin. There wouldn’t even be Pink Floyd.
Each of those artists were directly influenced by blues greats like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and John Lee Hooker.
And each of those artists went on to influence countless other musicians after them… Without Led Zeppelin, you don’t get heavy metal. Without the Beatles and Stones, you don’t get punk, pop, or any other modern rock. Without Pink Floyd, you don’t get… well YOU DON’T GET PINK FLOYD!!! And without any of those artists, I wouldn’t have been who I am. So, you might say, I owe my life as it is to Black lives.
And yet, another indication of the white-washed culture that we live in is the fact that the first blues music I ever heard was from white musicians. It wasn’t until I really got into Clapton, the Rolling Stones, and Stevie Ray Vaughan that I started to go back and listen to B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker.
And people, I’m telling you, there’s a difference. I’m not saying “white guys can’t play the blues.” They’ve been doing it for 70 years now. They just play it differently. Again, myself included.
When I play the blues, I’m letting out my pain. My pain is very different from the pain any Black American feels. And it sounds different when I play my pain on the guitar. If you don’t believe me, listen to Eric Clapton play the blues, then listen to Buddy Guy. Hell, even Stevie Ray Vaughn played his blues differently than Albert King or Robert Cray.
Also, please understand that I’m not trying to say that blues played by Black musicians is somehow more “authentic” than blues played by white musicians. What I’m saying is that the blues is personal. The only time it’s not authentic is when you’re not singing/playing your truth.
Sure, Rock and Pop Were Influenced by the Blues, but What About Country?
First of all, let’s get this straight, and I’m going to fully acknowledge that these aren’t my words (I saw them on a meme), but singing pop/rock music with a southern accent doesn’t make it “country.” So if you’re thinking “yeah, but blues didn’t influence Luke Bryan…” you’re a moron. Anyone playing “country” music now is just a pop star for the Wal Mart crowd. And yes, I know that makes me sound like an elitist snob, but I’ll wear that shit like a badge of honor. I see nothing wrong in acknowledging that I’m smarter and more sophisticated than that rabble. So yes… all modern country is just pop music in a hick accent, and therefore, still born of the blues and Black lives. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
But what about old-school country?
I submit to you Willie Nelson’s “Night Life.” as exhibit A. Further, I submit that those old songs were lyrically consistent with the blues as exhibit B. In fact, there’s a terribly worn out joke about how if you play old country music backward you get your dog back, your wife back, and your truck back. So, then, if all real country music is about lamenting losses, then it’s a lot closer to the blues than you might be comfortable with.
There are also many chords and phrasings in old country music that are borrowed from the blues and especially jazz, which grew out of the blues as well.
So yes, if you really want to avoid any type of blues influence in your music, you’re left with tradition ethnic music from non-African regions of the globe, European classical, or polka. Pretty much any modern music you listen to is ultimately born of the blues and of Black lives. Try telling me they don’t matter now.