The blues belongs to any person who can reach deep in themselves, find, feel and share the emotional meaning – the emotional groove - being communicated, regardless of superficial and superfluous considerations such as social class, skin colour, gender, history, and, religion. For many blues musicians, this has also meant playing without consistency in musical form, time signature and rhythm. For example, I saw John Lee Hooker play to a university gymnasium full of white kids in 1969. One of the student event organizer came out with an old beat up chair, a small amp and a wood plank, set the chair with the board just in front of it down on the stage, plugged in the amp, turned it on and walked off. (A microphone was already there.) John Lee was announced and he hobbled out on stage in his own indescribable, quite unique and ontologically cool John Lee Hooker way. He also wore on his head what appeared to be a Scottish beret topped with a small fuzzy tassle (a curling hat?). He plugged his guitar into the amp, sat down on the chair, left the microphone where it was, and started beating out an one chord boogie, accompanying himself with his left foot banging out the beat on the wood plank. The performance of the music seemed entirely dependent on how Hooker felt at that moment that he played it. I doubt that in those opening notes he even knew what song he was going to end up playing. Consistency in form, time and rhythm was simply not an issue. In fact, I doubt if John Lee ever played the same song the same way twice. It was one of the greatest things I have ever seen, and not just in terms of musical performance. It was numinous – mysterious, arousing, all-embracing, divine, universal – and very much about me, who I was as a mortal bodily creature. It grounded me in the reality of being human.
What I just described about John Lee Hooker gets to the point. Blues has to be authentic, inside the emotional groove, the musician playing the music
and not playing the virtuoso guitar
. Playing virtuoso guitar was simply not John Lee’s concern. Hooker, like all top true blues performers, played his music with the seriousness of a child at play.
This is what is so persuasive about the blues, if one truly listens, and as a result, it belongs to anyone who hears it. I hear people bemoan the loss of the “real
blues” belonging to old black and mostly dead blues persons. Non-sense. The old blues guys warmly welcomed white British blues lovers like the Rolling Stones into the fold. Bo Diddley said that Brian Jones of the Stones was the only person who had figured out how to play his Bo Diddley beat. B.B. King not only respected but admired the guitar tone of Peter Green
(who founded the original brilliant pre-Stevie Nicks version of Fleetwood Mac
) and so on. The blues heart travelled up the Mississippi and it kept on travelling – to England, Canada and the rest of the world. The Edmonton Blues Festival is just one branch of that musical river, performing a great community service by bringing in authentic blues musicians – it graces us with the rhythms to help us dance through another year. And, importantly, the festival organizers do with great knowledge, good taste and no pretense.
The true freedom of being human lies in not getting up caught in an image and becoming enslaved to it. Rather, it is just about getting caught up .. in the music, in the play of beat and sound.
All that old talk about how only certain types of people can play the blues because of a skin colour requirement falsifies the blues and enslaves us to an artifact or a performance or a symbol. When this happens, the blues are no longer are the living breathing heart-music of human beings everywhere but some strange kind of specialty with which people barter some sort of social prestige. I would rather have the blues.
- “Buster” Merklinger
For more information about the Blues, check out Yeglive.ca, Edmonton’s blues yellow pages.