Tuesday, February 18, 2003
RIP the blues?
Congress has declared 2003 the "Year of the Blues." Perhaps it ought to ask the Federal Emergency Management Agency to get involved, because the blues are in trouble. To paraphrase a line from Robert Johnson's 1936 song "Cross Road Blues," the blues are sinkin' down.
This may not be the case in the juke joints of Clarksdale or Jackson, Miss., or at Kingston Mines in Chicago, where the blues is delivered with grit and fury. But when the blues tries to grab a mainstream crowd, it cleans up and cools down a genre that began as raw field songs and work hollers. Today's popular version reeks of facsimile, with theatricality replacing raw passion, and mimicry usurping originality. Rare is today's blues singer or guitarist who doesn't call to mind his biggest influences with familiar riffs first played with fire a half-century ago. Rarer still is the songwriter who can craft an inventive blues tune. It is as if imagination has been banned.
Well, it's not exactly easy to keep coming up with novel variations on a form of music whose standard twelve-bar chord change pattern goes I-I-I-I(7)-IV-IV-I-I-V-IV-I-I(7), is it? As for theatricality, I thought that was always an element of blues playing. Hendrix was doing the behind-the-head thing even in the mid-60s, and he didn't exactly invent that sort of thing then. Same goes for mimicry (that article on Bo Diddley I linked to earlier noted how Muddy Waters knocked off Diddley's "I'm A Man" for "Mannish Boy" in the mid-50s; plus this Muddy site tells me Muddy wrote a tune called "32-20 Blues" in 1942, which I seem to recall was actually done by Robert Johnson in 1936, and Johnson adapted it from a Skip James song written in 1931). Did blues, as a musical form, really do anything original after plugging in and going electric in the 1950s?