Who's Got the Blues?


2003 is the "Year of the Blues." But as a music born of oppression becomes a feel-good soundtrack for white America, just what are we celebrating?

In the lexicon of upholstery, no other material has the cheeky pizzazz of Naugahyde Zodiac Glitter Vinyl. You know the stuff, if you are familiar with the 1970s -- it's a gleaming polymer blanket filled with neon-colored sparkles. When I was an undergraduate at nyu some time ago, I knew a high-spirited young woman in Greenwich Village who owned a handbag made of it, and I think of her and what that handbag expressed, multiplied exponentially, every time I walk into Linda's Lounge, a small blues bar on West 51st Street on the South Side of Chicago. The place is covered floor to ceiling with Naugahyde Zodiac Glitter Vinyl in cherry red -- the bar, the walls, the shelves, the drawers of the cabinets, everything. Linda's Lounge has a coating of festive glitz, an almost literal insulation from the bleakness outside, where empty lots between buckling clapboard buildings serve as both garbage dumps and playgrounds.

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Like half a million other music fans from around the world, I came to Chicago in May for the city's 20th annual Blues Festival, and I dropped by Linda's after the scheduled events on Saturday night. (I had come to know Linda's and Linda herself earlier in the year, while doing a writer- in-residency at the University of Chicago, located nearby in the white section of Hyde Park.) There were fewer than a dozen people in the club when I walked in, a bit after 10 o'clock -- a tiny, quiet old fellow in a brown suit and a rakish, diamond-crown fedora; an ebullient middle-aged man in a black double-breasted sport jacket with no lapels; and two youngish women, one in a ruffled pink dress, the other in a one-piece black-lace pants outfit configured with an almond skin-tone lining to give the impression that she was practically naked; and several others. I recognized most of them, either from my previous nights at Linda's or from the snapshots of the same ensemble during their many previous nights at Linda's, which were Scotch-taped neatly onto a long mirror across from the bar. To the right of the bar, a quartet played a set of soft jazz and soul ballads, while one couple slow-danced. I was the only white person there -- until around 11 o'clock.

Then, carloads of people, none of them African American, began emptying into Linda's, and the place changed. The band, apparently anticipating the onslaught, dropped the soul-jazz in favor of gut-bucket blues warhorses like "Sweet Home Chicago" and brought on a vocalist, L-Roy Perryman, a brassy showman in a blue jumpsuit who bellowed and strutted through the crowd. The bartender discreetly removed the basket of free hard-boiled eggs from the bar. One of the new customers pulled out a 35-mm camera with a telephoto lens and followed Perryman around. In the midst of singing "The Thrill Is Gone," Perryman turned on his heels and mugged into the lens. The quiet old fellow snapped down the brim of his hat and strode out. The couple that had been dancing followed him. By midnight, Linda's was packed tight. I counted 37 white faces -- the pair of women in the pink and black lace were the only African Americans left at the bar. The decibel level seemed to have doubled. L-Roy Perryman boomed into the microphone, "Are you having a good time?"

Yeah!" the crowd replied in ragged unison.

Isn't this a party?" Perryman prodded them on. "I say, isn't this a party?"

Yeah!" the crowd responded, hooting and applauding.

The woman in the pink turned to her friend in the lace, and she muttered, "Yeah," dripping sarcasm. "For who?"

It is a question well worth asking these days -- Whose music is the blues? -- and it leads to others. Is traditional blues still an important part of African-American life, or has the music, like so many black creations, been co-opted by white America and corrupted in the process? How did the blues, a serious form of expression rooted in the hard life of a marginalized people, become a good-time music for moneyed tourists? What's left of the strange and unique power of the blues? Does the music have a future, or is it frozen in an idealized and commodified past? The blues would appear to have reached a high-water mark of prominence and esteem lately. In a resolution affirmed last September, Congress proclaimed the period of February 1, 2003, to January 31, 2004, to be "The Year of the Blues," this particular time chosen because it marks a century since W.C. Handy, the first composer to publish a blues work, heard a fellow African-American musician playing slide guitar with a knife on the platform of a railway station in Tutwiler, Mississippi. "The weirdest music I had ever heard," Handy later wrote.

The mastermind of the effort to establish and promote the Year of the Blues is Robert Santelli, director of the Seattle-based Experience Music Project, the multimedia attraction funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen; the corporate sponsor is Volkswagen. The year's innumerable tie-in events began in February with a mammoth concert at New York's Radio City Music Hall featuring more than 40 performers, from veterans such as B.B. King, Honeyboy Edwards, and Hubert Sumlin to emerging artists such as Keb' Mo' and Shemekia Copeland and rock stars such as Steven Tyler of Aerosmith. This fall, pbs will begin airing a series of seven new 90-minute films about the blues, produced by Martin Scorsese and directed by the likes of Clint Eastwood, Wim Wenders, Marc Levin, and Scorsese himself. Yet, amid the celebration, those questions about the nature and place of the blues in the contemporary world linger, like the ghosts of slain lovers in countless blues songs.

The mississippi rail station of W.C. Handy's memory seems a fittingly poetic provenance for an art as ethereal as the blues. Who knows how many stops the music had made, how far it had ridden before landing on that platform in Tutwiler. We know only that the blues, an evocation of the black experience steeped in African musical traditions, coalesced as a form and a style in the Mississippi Delta during the first decades of the 20th century. Sharecroppers (and the itinerant black musicians who entertained them) took the music north to Chicago (and to other points in all directions) during the Great Migration of the early 20th century; thereupon, through recordings and radio, the blues spread nationwide and outside African-American society.

David "Honeyboy" Edwards has lived that history. The great-grandson of slaves and son of sharecroppers, Edwards started singing and playing guitar on the Delta plantation where he lived in 1929, at the age of 14. He was a protégé of Big Joe Williams and friends with Sonny Boy Williamson and Tommy Johnson. Among blues aficionados, it is a badge of high seriousness to know something about Robert Johnson (no relation to Tommy), the iconic master of Delta blues who is said to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his guitar style. Honeyboy Edwards was at Robert Johnson's side on the last night of his life.

Edwards, who is still as smoothly charming as his perennial nickname suggests, performs 40 to 50 shows per year, and he says he would do more if the work were there. When he's not traveling, he rests up and entertains friends in his apartment. It is a cozy place, a few rooms in a square brick building about 30 feet from the elevated lanes of Interstate 90 in South Chicago. To get to it, you walk into an alley, through a gate topped with barbed wire, and up three flights of pine-board steps. I came to see him on a Saturday afternoon in the spring, and he was not expecting me, but he was impeccably dressed in pressed black pants, a blue checked shirt, and suspenders. He was on his bed, watching a rerun of The Addams Family. There was a suitcase atop a bureau on the left side of his bed, ready to go, and a Bible on a flaking radiator to the right. If you were sitting up on his mattress, as he was, you would look ahead and see a wall covered with newspaper and magazine clips, record covers, snapshots, and other memorabilia of his seven decades in the blues—quite a thing to ponder before you go to sleep.

"I'll tell you how the blues started," Edwards said, his hands folded neatly on his lap. "It came from our side of the world. The blues started from slavery, by people working in slavery. They start to holler songs, and they holler all day to make the day pass by quick. That's how the blues started, and it's been the blues ever since."

Edwards spoke quickly and confidently, pausing only now and then to make sure I was following him. "The young musicians don't have their own style," he said, shaking his head. "No, they just play whatever they learned and get up there, playing fast. They're not thinking about it. They got no feeling to it, no sir. They just pick up the guitar, and they run off. They're mostly clowning. They're not playing no music. They ain't got no feeling to it in there. Instead, they look like they're just trying to put on a show. The young musician, out there dressed up and going on and on—and doing nothing.

"I'll tell you, some guys can make so many chords it don't sound good. They're making too many to put into one place—you know what I mean? You take another guy with one chord—only one chord. He just hold one chord, and everybody looking at him all day. One chord can kill a man dead. One chord and hold it there, you can kill a man dead.

"The blues is the tallest mountain," Edwards said, and he crossed his arms and grinned.

I mentioned that I didn't recall hearing that phrase before. "I just make it up," he barked, clearly offended. "That's the way I'm feeling here. What do you think I been trying to tell you? That's the blues!"

An astute critic of his art, Honeyboy Edwards provides a cogent analysis of the shift within the blues over the years—from an early modernism, giving primacy to personal expression, to a mandarin absorption with craft. The blues, once an intimate, veracious, and mercurial way of telling idiosyncratic stories about men and women and everything that unites and divides them, has grown progressively orthodox, self-referential, and fixated on instrumental technique. In other words, the blues has become more like its miscegenational spawn: pop music of the classic-rock era.

I asked James Cotton, the revered elder of blues harmonica long associated with Muddy Waters, how the music has changed since he started playing, 60 years ago. "The first thing is," he said with a chuckle, "it's changed from black to white—it's changed from black to white. People listened to the Rolling Stones playing the music, and they wanted to know where it come from."

Indeed, the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Cream, and other blues-oriented rock bands of the '60s opened the ears of young white people to the blues; but in an aural equivalent of the Heisenberg principle, the listeners altered the music. A powerful bloc of ticket buyers and record collectors, they sought the blues that reminded them most of classic rock.

"When I came to Chicago in the '70s, blues was considered a music of older people, of Southern people, of people who came from poverty—not upscale, not hip, not fresh—already old and a little stale," recalls Bruce Iglauer, the founder of Alligator Records, one of the leading independent blues labels. "Then white people discovered it, and there began to be good gigs for blues musicians working for white people. Black blues artists were beginning to see that there was a good future performing for white audiences who got turned on to blues through rock 'n' roll. There was the economic reality of 'Hey, some white people are going to pay some money to hear us,' and it's going to be a more secure existence, because the black clubs, if they had a bad night, the likelihood of not getting paid was pretty great."

Because the sound of the electric guitar dominated rock, young whites gravitated toward guitar-heavy blues, and veteran bluesmen known for their guitar work—chief among them, B.B. King—found a new audience. (King's peers who were primarily vocalists, such as Bobby "Blue" Bland, would never achieve the same kind of crossover success.) "Suddenly," says Iglauer, "the flashy guitar solo became much more the centerpiece of the musical event than the words or the singing."

Bob Koester, a firebrand who has run the jazz and blues label Delmark Records for 50 years, assesses the rise of guitar worship more bluntly. "A lot of white blues fans," he says, "remind me of the idiot who goes to the opera house to listen to the orchestra."

Even listening has come to seem less and less the point in recent years, as the House of Blues chain (run by "Blues Brother" Dan Aykroyd) and tourist-oriented nightclubs such as B.L.U.E.S. in North Chicago have repackaged "the blues" as an entertainment experience. Artful, idealized evocations of gritty "authenticity," they have made the blues into a theme-park ride—a simulation that feels a little dangerous but doesn't really take you anywhere.

At the same time, the rise of blues festivals across the country has further commodified the blues as a feel-good music geared largely to whites. There will be no fewer than 280 such events this year in locations from Anchorage to Fort Lauderdale. Chartered to conjure an atmosphere of casual fun in the name of boosting tourism and civic pride, the festivals use live blues as background music for families and young singles checking out the concessions and each other.

"I think that what happened to the blues," says Tom Mazzolini, director of the San Francisco Blues Festival, the longest-running event of its kind in the country, "is that it became a kind of a boogie thing. A good time—'Let's have a party!' I really feel that the blues has gotten away from what this music is supposed to be about. Once upon a time, it was a way of culture, a way of life. I think that a lot of people who go to blues events don't think, 'What is this music about?' I think a lot of events are just perpetuating a lot of beer drinking."

From a financial point of view, Mazzolini says, festivals are essential to the blues' survival. Record labels and musicians cater to the festival audience, which they need to stay in business. "I'm all for that," he says, but he worries about the spiritual toll on the music. "Every community in America wants to have a blues festival. You know what it is? It's a generic festival. It's the same names going from town to town. Where's the uniqueness? Where's the magic?"

To their municipal sponsors, moreover, blues festivals serve as a civic gesture toward black culture—but an abstracted black culture of the past, only distantly connected to the contemporary world of hip hop and its less-than-boosterish view of urban life. "The blues has become a good civic device," notes Koester, who struggled for decades to give African-American artists broader exposure. "I mean, white politicians who used to try to 'keep the niggers in the alley' now invite them to perform in the city's annual blues festival."

I spent two days at this year's Chicago Blues Festival and had a few beers myself. There was some exquisite music—Otis Rush, as fierce as ever—as well as too many interchangeable bands noodling predictably. Within two hours on one afternoon, I heard "Sweet Home Chicago" three times. I stopped some people at random to ask them about their interest in the blues, until one fellow stumped me with better questions than my own. He was a casually dressed AfricanAmerican man who said he was 32 and named Thomas. "Do you want to talk to me because this is a blues festival and I'm black?" he asked firmly. "Because that would be presumptuous."

I showed him my credentials and told him I was trying to get a feeling for the crowd.

"I can't help you there," he said. "But do you mind if I ask you something? What the fuck does it matter if I'm black or if these other people are white, green, or purple? We all came out for this music. What more do you need to know?"

When W.C. Handy was walking through Tutwiler station, American popular music had not yet pulled out of the 19th century. The songs of the day, published in sheet music for womenfolk to play in parlor musicales, tended toward sing-along novelties and Victorian laments such as "Oh Promise Me." They had their moments and passed as all fashions do—much like innumerable other musical styles popular at one time or another during the 20th century: ragtime, the Charleston, boogie-woogie, the rumba, calypso, doo-wop, disco.... Yet the blues endure. The music's historic masters—Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and their progeny—have achieved the status of icons, with their music preserved, fetishized, and repackaged in increasingly elaborate boxed sets. Their music is a canon, like the classical repertoire, interpreted and imitated by generation after generation of admirers, black and white, male and female.

"The music is so universal," says Susan Tedeschi, a Grammy-nominated blues guitarist and singer who is 33 years old, white, and female. "It talks about the relationship between a man and a woman. That's what Son House used to say: 'Blues is about a man and a woman—everything else is monkey junk.' He's got a point. You're talking about everyday-life stuff that people can relate to because it's funny or it's raunchy or it's sad or it's uplifting and exciting. It makes sense that all kinds of people are into it."

To at least one rising musician, though, the essence of the blues is not its universality, but its specificity as an expression of African-American discontent. Chris Thomas King is wholly capable of replicating the style of the Delta blues; the Coen brothers chose him to portray Tommy Johnson in O Brother, Where Art Thou? His blues pedigree is unimpeachable: Literally raised in a juke joint (Tabby's Blues Box in Baton Rouge, which was run by his bluesman father), King, who is now 39, was the last blues musician to be discovered and recorded by a folklorist from the Smithsonian. However, the music he makes today draws upon and recombines a range of musical resources, including rap as well as the blues of his antecedents. He released his most recent album, Dirty South Hip-Hop Blues, on his aptly named label, 21st Century Blues.

As King sees the musical tradition of his heritage, the blues is a philosophy more than a form. "What a lot of people have been calling blues for the last 10, 15 years is not what the blues is, and it doesn't represent my culture," King says. "If you really knew what the blues were, you would not be trying to preserve that. The essence of the blues is, people didn't sing in the cotton fields because they were happy. You know what I'm saying?

"When my dad opened his place," King explains, "he opened it in a part of town that was decaying. Everybody started moving out. But the blues didn't leave. The blues never left the hood. People don't really know how to make the connection from Muddy Waters to Master P, but it's all the blues."

How can hip hop also be the blues? "Because it comes from a disaffected people," he says. "It comes from people who don't really have a voice, don't really have an outlet. When people say it's the devil's music, that's the first sign that there's some blues in it—nwa or 'Cop Killer,' you know, things that mainstream black Americans are ashamed of. Back in the '30s, if you were a white kid, you couldn't bring some poster of Robert Johnson home and put it on your wall and say, 'Hey, Mom, Dad, this guy's cool—listen to this.' That's about the equivalent of bringing 'Cop Killer' home and putting a poster of Ice-T on your wall.

"I'm talking about honest music. It's not music that's eager to please or find acceptance. Does it sound like Muddy Waters? No. Does it sound like Blind Willie Johnson? No. Is it the blues? Yes."

If King is right, then perhaps the legend of Robert Johnson is wrong. The devil took only his body. His blues soul lives on in an unknown kid at the next crossroads, inventing a new sound to scare the hell out of the rest of us.