Today, I share key overarching ideological truths about the blues. To begin, let me journey back to a time many years ago when I taught jazz dance and music (as well as writing) for a year at a large semi-rural Midwestern public university. On the first day of the class at the start of the year I asked my students to bring pictures to class for the next session of what they thought the blues represented. Most of my students were white, middle class young men and women. The largest group of students of color were Asian-descended and Latina (six, if memory serves). Two blacks were in the class. Demographically, the students represented what many Americans think of when they invoke “the mainstream.”
Almost all of the students' pictures depicted an older black man placidly strumming a guitar like the image below (this photograph by Jean-Luc Ourlin from 2005 depicts the great blues musician John Lee Hooker and it is in the public domain):
And about a fourth of the students' images depicted a white parody group called the Blues Brothers, which was created by the comedians Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi as part of a musical sketch on Saturday Night Live in 1976 (this publicity still of the comedians appears here under fair use guidelines):
I asked the students to articulate the thinking behind their selections, and I encouraged them to word-associate (to write down individual words or short phrases) if they could not quite put their thoughts into complete sentences. I stressed that no one’s thoughts were wrong because all of their images are part of our perceptions of the blues. Rather than discounting their representations, my goal was to affirm them, study them, and expand on them with deeper and more trenchant reflection.
I still have my notes from my lesson plans. Most of the students wrote words like “sad,” or phrases like “down in the dumps.” Some wrote “cool” or “funny” and a few wrote “SNL,” referring to the late night TV show where the Blues Brothers group was created. One person wrote “old black guys singing about being sad” and another wrote “black slaves singing when they feel sad.”
During our discussion, the students elaborated on their articulations and soon they acknowledged that, overwhelmingly, their assumptions about the blues were that it was a tradition represented by either old black men who sing slow, mournful, downbeat songs about their sadness while playing the guitar or cool, hip, middle aged white men with dark sunglasses and black suits who sing funny, upbeat songs that parody the sadness of the old black men.
At one point in our discussions, two students debated the ways that each scenario suggested a kind of melancholic yet entertaining passivity, a willful sense of dejection (whether actual or ironized) and an inert experience of the easily-dismissed downtrodden. One of the students likened the downtrodden people that came to his mind when he thought of the blues to the homeless panhandlers that he saw in Chicago who ask for money when they busk around the entrances of public transportation. This student even said, at one point, that he first heard the blues from just such a panhandler and when another student laughed and jocularly asked if the student gave the homeless panhandler money, the student replied “no,” because the man smelled like alcohol and he feared that the man would just use the money to buy more alcohol.
Over the course of the first unit of the class, along with sharing the history of the blues’ origination and proliferation and learning a few blues, ragtime, and jazz dances and songs (and I will selectively share a little of this history soon this week), I tried to expand and redirect the students’ assumptions while also acknowledging that those assumptions are rooted in subjective versions of the truth (just as my own witness here is a subjective version of the truth). There is indeed sadness in the struggles of the blues and the blues have indeed been seemingly endlessly coopted by whites to the point where they are often considered to be a kind of inconsequential cliché of outdated black melancholia.
Yet, I continually found myself pushing back against the notion that the blues are a washed-up American cliché, an outmoded endeavor of diminished black personhood. So engrained was this assumption that my students found it hard to accept that the blues, as I argued, contain the ingenious hallmarks of high Modernism; that they are the transformation of melancholic stories of disadvantage into enactments of bawdy, sly resistance; that however mournful the music and lyrics may sound, they are about bearing active, ebullient witness to struggle; and that personal disclosure of the struggles and joys of folk life become political witness when shared to a world that often refuses to care about the particular lives of marginalized people.
These arguments were as difficult for some of my students to embrace as my other contention: that the blues were represented by just as many women as men, and just as many LGBT people as heterosexuals and cisgender (or non-transgender) people. This contention is borne out by the evidence of the lives of pioneers like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Lucy Hicks Anderson (1886-1954), a black trans woman who helped run a network of underground Midwestern and Southern bordellos with other entrepreneurs like Ruby Taylor that showcased the most ribald blues and R&B entertainers. But, at the same time, the outspoken bawdy nature of the blues did not seem foreign to the students who discussed their constant exposure to rock and rap songs and dances, which seemed to be far racier. I was so glad that the students weren't alarmed by the blues' insistent, frank examination of sex, death, illicit practices, and the recreational consumption of substances.
After the class was over I found myself journaling about my experience. So deep was that journaling that I often return to reflecting on these arguments every year. Key to my arguments is the truth that the blues are personal and the personal is political.
For me, along with black Americans’ sorrow songs (the so-called “spirituals”), the blues constitute the original artistic wing of a centuries-old Black Lives Matter movement in America expressed in musical and poetic form. In fact, one way of understanding the current Black Lives Matter movement is to see it as part of a long tradition of radical action that seeks to draw attention to the truth that the personal is political.
Within the blues, the personal is political because there are some people whose life experiences are devalued or vulgarized: their stories are not considered with the same wealth as others. At its worse, this devaluing leads to unjust violence, incarceration, and maiming, and at its least it leads to chronic disrespect, neglect, hostility, and contempt. Yes: that’s the blues.
The blues often make people uncomfortable in a similar way as the Black Lives Matter movement makes some people immediately deflect from black people’s experiences (failing to embrace and confront such experiences directly) in favor of saying, “all lives matter” in a dismissive hope that expression of black disenfranchisement will just go away.
Sadly, just talking openly about marginalization, just singing the blues, just ironizing struggle, just creating platforms for resistance--just doing any of these things makes some people uncomfortable despite the fact that most Americans are suffering gravely with high rates of income inequality, terrible access to quality healthcare, vicious patterns of violence, frequently polarizing contact with governmental services, and all manner of disenfranchisement.
Disenfranchisement rests on a seemingly banal notion. This banal, false notion goes like this: “The life experiences of the most marginalized have no real relevance to the powerful or the favored.” This is a false notion because, invariably, the marginalized often do the under-acknowledged work that makes it possible for the powerful to be favored. The television shows that screen daily stories of marginalization and pathology literally depend on those stories for their wealth. Thus, in this false, banal notion, unless there is a proverbial riot, marginalized experiences can be ignored at the very same time that they are consumed and commodified. So deeply held is this notion that it infects both the powerful and the marginalized alike. Yes, those who are marginalized try to ignore the forces that constitute their own suffering just as much as the powerful ignore those same forces.
But, the blues puts it all out there right in our eyes and ears. The terms by which the marginalized and the powerful operate are wildly different: the marginalized are often apathetic or acquiescent just to survive because resources, opportunities, and capacities for action are so deeply limited and even actively constrained. But, for the powerful, there is little excuse for apathy in the face of suffering when possessed with outsize power and privilege: resources, status, opportunity, wealth, and access.
Most of all, the blues dispel the highfalutin, sidity, upper bourgeois, religious anxiety of the “confessional” bred within European-descended cultures--with all the trappings of shame and repression that are still dominant within “polite” societies--since Augustine wrote the Confessions around 400 AD. Rather than confessing, the blues provocatively testify and bear witness without the guilt, without shame.
These are the ideological truths of the blues.