What If Everything You Knew About The Blues was… Wrong?
You know the blues. You love the blues.
But what if everything you thought you knew about the blues was… wrong?
To answer this question, we need to understand what exactly the blues are.
And therein lies the problem. It’s extremely hard to say exactly what the blues are.
Maybe it’s kind of like that old adage – “you know it when you hear it.”
Actually, I believe there’s definitely truth to that. Play a Muddy Waters record and a Taylor Swift album back to back.
One is definitely the blues. One definitely isn’t.
But it’s not always quite that simple. Other artists seem to shift back and forth between the blues and other forms of music. Other artists seem to always straddle the line. Is Billie Holiday a jazz crooner or a blues singer? Jimi Hendrix a rock god or a blues guitar genius? Lead Belly a folk musician or a blues musician – or a folk blues musician?
These questions don’t necessarily have easy answers. And I think there’s a reason for that.
The Blues Might Be Several Different Things
The blues isn’t just one thing. It’s many different things.
That doesn’t mean it’s everything. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that James Taylor or Kanye West are blues musicians. They most certainly are not, though that doesn’t mean the music they play isn’t somehow still related to the blues.
In his book The Blues: A Very Short Introduction Elijah Wald proposes several distinct theories of what makes something the blues.
I want to talk about the first of these theories. Wald points out that famed 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, at least according to one 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, aching. A heartache. A soul-ache.
The Blues as an Expression of a Sad Emotion
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 right.
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 or any other way.
Think about your favorite blues songs. One of mine is B.B. King’s “How Blue Can You Get.” “I’ve been downhearted baby / Ever since the day we met.”
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 of what the blues are.
It’s a great definition. But it does have its problems.
Why The Blues Isn’t Just a Sad Emotion
The main problem 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 celebratory songs. Traditionally blues music has captured a wide range of emotions.
Whole subgenres of the blues, like jump blues, evoke a feeling that is upbeat, cheerful, positive and even happy. And if the blues can cover the rest of those feelings and emotions, then the blues can’t be just limited to the downhearted, the down-trodden, the despairing feeling in us all.
It seems that if we really want to know what the blues are, 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 the blues.
So search on we must. And search on we shall. Stay tuned.
– Brian M. Reiser,