The blues. It owns all your senses.
You can smell it: sweat, smoke, love, bourbon.
You can see the blues. It’s the only music named after a colour. Not light blue, more indigo, because it is nocturnal music – smoky, seductive and sensual.
You can hear the blues. Obviously, because it is music. But you have to really listen, because it’s not background music. Whether shouted, whispered or growled, the blues is always up close and extremely personal.
You can feel it. It’s tactile, visceral music. Just listen to blues men and women’s fingers hitting snares, keys or skins, their soles tapping the floor or their vocals crashing into the mics.
And you can feel it. As many blues songs go, “Woke this morning…” followed by a litany of woes, misfortune, regret, hangovers or duplicity.
Yet, somehow, expressing the blues make you feel better. It’s emotional, but cathartic, when you get it off your chest.
A blues sensibility
It’s not only about feeling blue or cheated, it’s also party music, make-out music, not to mention music that expresses resilience.
Nobel laureate Toni Morrison called it a “blues sensibility”.
“The blues is about some loss, some pain and some other things,” she said in a discussion with philosopher Cornel West in 2004. “But it doesn’t whine; even when it’s begging to be understood in the lyrics, the music contradicts that feeling of being a complete victim and completely taken over.
“There’s a sense of agency, even when someone has broken your heart. The process of having the freedom to have made that choice is what surfaces in blues. I don’t see it as a crying music.”
It has, after all, its roots deep in African-American history, which was so much about survival.
“Its inventors were slaves, ex-slaves and the descendants of slaves, African-American sharecroppers who sang as they toiled in the cotton and vegetable fields,” explained online publication All About Jazz. “It’s generally accepted that the music evolved from African spirituals, African chants, work songs, field hollers, rural fife and drum music, revivalist hymns and country dance music.”
‘What blues meant to black people’
American bluesman Willie Dixon (1915–1992) was tough because his life was tough. It was the embodiment of the blues. He grew up in the south of the United States, born in Vicksburg, a tiny Mississippi town. Dixon experienced the brutality and violence meted out to so many black Americans living in those times.
At the age of 12, he spent the first of several spells in prison.
Slavery abolished? No problem, simply arrest as many black men as you can on spurious charges and use them as free labour on the cotton farms and in the plantations. Dixon was one of them.
“That’s when I really learned about the blues,” Dixon was quoted as saying in a recent article in CounterPunch magazine, relying on Dixon’s autobiography, I am the Blues. “I heard these guys down there moaning and groaning these down-to-earth blues.
“I really began to find out what blues meant to black people.”
Not a citizen
Dixon moved to Chicago in 1936, where as a strong, big man – 1.95m tall and weighing nearly 130kg – he briefly took up boxing, but quit after a dispute with a crooked manager.
He got into music, using his talents as singer, upright bass player and guitarist to get some gigging jobs.
In 1940, he was called up for World War II but refused to fight for a racist country. “Why should I go to work and fight to save somebody that’s killing me and my people?” Dixon asked when he was arrested.
CounterPunch wrote that he told the court he didn’t consider himself a citizen of the United States, but “a subject” without full rights. He was sentenced to five years in prison.
Influential in Chicago
After the war, Dixon started working for well-known blues label Chess Records, where he became one of the most influential figures in the creation of Chicago blues as a musician, arranger, producer, talent scout and, especially, a songwriter.
Musicians like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter recorded some of his music, with the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Cream later popularising his songs. He wrote or co-wrote more than 500 songs, including blues classics like Hoochie Coochie Man, I Just Want To Make Love To You, Back Door Man, Little Red Rooster and Spoonful.
But Dixon’s most powerful song was one he never recorded himself, as far as I could establish, although he used its title for one of his solo albums as well as for his autobiography: I am the Blues. Muddy Waters recorded it as the opening track for his sixth album, After The Rain, which was released in 1969. And what an interpretation.
I am the Blues is universal blues for all tormented people. It is slow, brooding, spooky and apocalyptic. It is proof of how the blues can be political, protest music.
I am, I am the blues.
I am, oh I am the blues.
I know the world knows I’ve been mistreated
And the whole world know I’ve been misused.
I am the moan of suffering women
I am the groan of dying men
But then there’s Toni Morrison’s “blues sensibility”:
I am the last one to start
But I am the first one to begin
Dixon was always a fighter for justice. As Bruce Eder wrote for the AllMusic website, he “was one of the first professional blues songwriters to benefit in a serious, material way – and that he had to fight to do it – from his work also made him an important symbol of the injustice that still informs the music industry, even at the end of the 20th century”.