10 July 2009


My pictures of the Mississippi Delta are in the next post down. But meanwhile, here's some reflections stimulated by having watched a 14 year old guitar player in a Clarksdale blues club:

Let’s start this out on a high note, with a reflection on the Koran. It is, according to most Islamic scholars, impossible to translate the Koran. Any version of it in any language other than the original classical Arabic is an “interpretation,” not a translation. Most classics scholars will tell you the same about Homer and the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Poetry is problematic. It is dependent on the precise meaning of every word, on the rhythmic structure of the language, on evocation and impression, on its readers understanding of it, not just in the head, but in the heart (the soul if you think you have one) the gut and the groin.

That said, Jake is 14 years old and one hell of a proficient guitar slinger. I saw him play the other night at Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi; a town with a credible claim to being the (American) birthplace of the blues. The boy’s got chops, allright. He can truly shred his blues licks.

But can he play the blues?

That’s the age old question. Greater minds than mine have pondered it. But I’ve got some thoughts on the matter.

He looks a lot more like a surfer kid than any sort of blues baby. I don’t suppose it’s relevant that he’s white. Does it?

Maybe it does. I’m trying to think of any truly great, original white blues players, and I can’t. I can think of plenty of stylists - musicians and singers with tremendous talent – people I admire, respect and listen to. But they all seem like interpreters of the blues, rather than honest to goodness, deep, dark bluesmen and women. Tracy Nelson and Mose Alison maybe come closest.

I can think of a number of truly great, authentic, original, white blues-rock musicians; and I think Jake (I never caught his last name) could grow into one of those. Clapton, Johnny Winter, plenty of others. I can think of a few great white rhythm & blues performers: Eddie Hinton comes to mind.

What makes the white performers stand out is their technical prowess. Eric Clapton is certainly one of the most talented guitarists of all time. Tracy Nelson has a voice with a range, power and expressiveness that is second to none.

Not to slight the musical chops of blues musicians – Otis Spann, James Booker and Professor Longhair could have easily held their own against almost any concert pianist, Buddy Guy can play rings around Eric Clapton, and in pretty much any style he wants to – but the blues seems to require something more than great musicianship. It’s music, yes, but it’s also a culture.

T Model Ford and Robert Balfour, who are still playing, and before them, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, are all good examples. They were, and are, all good enough musicians, but maybe not world beaters. Still, there is a deep, dark, rich soulfulness to their music that is missing in the music of white blues players.

There is a lifetime of hurt and sorrow and oppression and back-breaking hard labor and yet a concurrent, near-perverse, joy and wry humor about life, that fills every note they play and sing.

I hear white blues players with my head. I feel black ones in my gut, they burn into my core.

And they’re disappearing, for all sorts of reasons. There are very few young people in this country who will ever again grow up in the circumstances that gave us the great blues players. And the blues doesn’t pay, not like rock and roll or hip hop. An aspiring blues player is setting himself up for a life of itinerant poverty. Not much to aspire to.

And the modern world has sort of overtaken the blues. We all sell our souls to one devil or another almost every day. And if a no good mate breaks our heart, we just get online and call up another from Match.com or someplace. And no one chops cotton by hand anymore.

But, while the American blues might be dying out, not to worry, there’s still more than enough misery around the world to cause the blues to break out in other forms, in other cultures. Africa’s got more blues than it knows what to do with. (Which is only right. Sorry Clarksdale, but Africa is the real birthplace of the blues.) In Thailand, the music called Morlam sings of the tragedies of young men and women who go to the big cities to escape the wretched poverty of rural areas, who fall into prostitution and crime and suffering. And it’s mournful, soulful, gut wrenching music. (That’s not bad to dance to, either.) It’s the blues, really. And it too has got its interpreters. I hear there’s some pretty good Japanese Morlam bands.

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