It’s that time of year again. The air is just starting to get colder, and the days are just slightly longer. The leaves begin to change colours, and the last of Edmonton’s summer festivals take place. This time around it also happens to be that time of year when the awful bronchitis I have been fighting for a week teams up with terrible, terrible food poisoning to completely and utterly prevent me from attending the first night of the Edmonton Blues Festival.
But fear not, o valiant demographic! I have cooked something up for you. Yes, it’s just what you’ve always wanted, an interview with famed bluesman Phil “Buster” Merklinger about the blues itself. You can bet that Charley Musselwhite would be saying these same things, were I able to interview him without violently coughing sputum amongst his harmonica collection.
In part one, we ask just what is this “blues” anyway? Many people of my generation know it only by stereotype, imagining homeless African-Americans in fine tattered suits, or perhaps the distinctive guitar bends of the Chicago and Texas forms. Today, we dive in the Mississippi a little deeper than that.
Sound and Noise: What is the blues?
Phil “Buster” Merklinger: The blues is a form of music originating with transplanted Afro-Americans in the Southern United States. It is very much about the existential – about what it feels like to be a particular human being in a particular time and place with a particular set of personal circumstance. In other words, blues is musical expression of the human heart.
It started first as the laments of an oppressed people and as rhythmic patterns to assist the doing of tedious, hard manual labour. These motifs of wanting better conditions (and the injustice of it all) and of making better conditions with the music itself.
”Feeling blue’ is about being alienated or down, depressed, rejected by a lover, lonely, and so on. But the blues themselves are also about joy and ecstasy, pride and dignity – ‘strutting your stuff’ – celebrating one’s own particularity, self-overcoming, getting the lover you love, etc …. Certainly, the most cliched themes are about frustration over powerlessness, over not being a ‘man’, or rejection of a lover or by a lover, attempts to compensate for loss or powerlessness through drink, drug and other vices, and so on. But, the blues covers a wide range of mood and emotion and they do so within a variety of traditions and styles, all traced back to the slaves on the plantations in the South.
You can hear the development of the form in the early folk-blues traditions and styles, from the one string blues of Delta blues, let’s say Mississippi Fred McDowell ‘s ‘You Got To Move’
, through to the one chord songs as found in John Lee Hooker
‘s boogies or Bo Diddley’s ‘Shave and a Haircut, Two Bits’ songs
. You can trace the development further from the field songs of the Southern slaves to the highly urbanized, electrified blues of Chicago by following the Mississippi and its tributaries up to the industrialized north and to the rural white eastern states, like Tennessee. Going north it mutates into jazz and going east it partially mutates into country and western. And, as they say, the blues had a child and called it rock’n'roll.
I think that music is the most fundamental and wholistic way of expressing and understanding life in its all inflection and nuances. Music is a fundamental way of being in the world, even to how we fit in with nature and its rhythms and melodies. It’s all primordial, or even aboriginal, in the sense that music is indigenous to being human – expressions of what it is like to be human.I think the best description of the blues as a musical form comes from my supervisor at the first job I had working in a music company in Ontario – he said: Musical genres are like sex… rock and roll is like foreplay, jazz is the sex, and blues and country and Western is what comes afterwards. Like Keith Richards said of rock and roll – ‘It’s crotch music; it has nothing to do with the head.” Both descriptions don’t quite capture it all.