It’s one thing to suggest the opposite of what you mean—classic verbal irony.
But, what if two different statements suggesting the opposite of their meaning follow each other in tandem.
Then, what if these statements were followed by others whose subtle meanings were deliberately scrambled.
And, further still, what if the entire scenario—the overall meaning itself—runs counter to what the statements suggest.
Well, this complex experience represents one of the most powerful formal characteristics of the blues.
I call this, “ironic juxtaposition” and it is one of three formal attributes that I discuss today.
The prototypical irony of the blues is that dejection is not only dejection, but something else: it could be rage, vindictiveness, or hope. The blues dramatize this root irony within their subtly clashing statements.
Let’s examine a 1951 song called “The Thrill Is Gone” by Roy Hawkins and Rick Darnell made famous by the iconic blues musician, B. B. King, as an example of ironic juxtaposition.
Photo by Roland Godefroy, 1989, public domain
King’s work has been fresh on my mind because he died this summer.
And don't get me started on Aretha Franklin's 1970 version!
Take in mind that many versions of the lyrics and score of this song exist because each blues person adapts it for her or his own purposes. But the essential ironic juxtapositions remain.
After the first repeating statements, you’d think that the “The Thrill Is Gone” is a simplistic lament that only shares sadness.
Yet, as the statements progress, we gradually learn that the song is a rebuke of a malevolent lover who wronged the singer and, even more than a rebuke, the song threatens the beloved, suggesting that rather than the singer only being dejected and lonely for losing the beloved, the beloved will instead be sorry for the loss.
These subtle ironies keep commingling and soon, by the time we get to the song’s final lines, which often convey something to the effect of “I’m free from your spell,” we realize that the lament is, in fact, an acknowledgement that the thrill is very much alive: the wonder comes in the singer being rid of the beloved and living to testify about it.
Thus, the song itself is an anthem masquerading as a lament—a terrific form of situational irony.
Midway through Franklin's version, the chorus is sung by backup singers who splice into the song the great civil rights anthem rooted in the spirituals, "Free, free at last, thank God almighty I'm free at last!"
Franklins' interpolation becomes the pinnacle of ironic juxtaposition for me among all the adaptations of this song.
Even in the late 1980s, I was telling folks in my life that the music and poetry of the blues and jazz constitute Modernism just as much as the poems of extremely well-documented virulently racist poets who we are often taught heralded Modernism like T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. For an in depth exploration of T. S. Eliot's awful cultural bigotry, I highly suggest reading Anthony Julius' T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form, and even though Allen Ginsberg "forgave" him, and many apologize for him, Pound's bigotry was appalling.
In middle school, high school, and college poetry classes, youth are often taught that these problematic individuals are the kings of Modern poetry. Yet, so much of the time, black blues and jazz traditions are excluded from the annals of Modern poetry and that has bothered me since I too was taught a version of "high Modernism" that consistently left out home-grown black American folk artistry.
One of the most fabled hallmarks of poetic Modernism is the complexity of allusion to prior elite literary texts within "great modern poems." These allusions are said to represent the highest forms of greatness and the public must unlock the key to these references with arduous study.
But high modern poems by white men like Eliot, Pound, and Hart Crane are not the only sophisticated artistry that weaves allusion. The blues frequently depend on complex allusions to black cultural life, and, without exaggeration, these allusions require just as much penetrating study as those within poems like "The Waste Land."
I called this hallmark "fractious allusion" because, in fact, one of the enormous impediments to understanding the intelligence of the blues is their contemptuous over-simplification, and this dismissal is bread in an undervaluing of the very lives referenced in the work. That's why I took the time to say that the blues are a kind of Black Lives Matter movement this week.
If you did not understand the allusion of "free, free at last" in Aretha Franklin's rendition of "The Thrill Is Gone" then your understanding of the formal ingenuity of the work is seriously compromised.
Yet, these allusions within the blues are fractious because they also raise issues of access, power, and privilege. Many of the allusions in the blues point tropes of low-to-no income black life, including lots of inside references to popular figures and social traditions spawned within rural and urban jookin' joints, speakeasies, and nightclubs. These references are often invisibilized by a mainstream public that may only encounter very limited, watered down or white-washed versions of these figures and traditions in the most commercialized popular songs and music videos.
Improvisation As Composition
This last hallmark is simply expressed: composing is improvising in the blues, and ongoing structuring and invention is endemic to blues form. (This contention—that improvisation is composition—is examined in relation to black vernacular dancing in this essay.)
Next up: I close with a discussion of a blues lyric by Bessie Smith.