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Genius Guide to Jazz

The Blues: Black Once

By Published: April 29, 2004

The blues spread nationally after World War I, due mostly to the exposure of troops from all over the country to white soldiers from the South who had grown up with the blues. In return, Northern troops exposed their Dixie counterparts to such Yankee staples as pastrami and obscene hand gestures. Returning from France with a taste for the exotic pleasures of their own country, America saw an explosion in the popularity of both blues recordings and packaged luncheon meats. This may explain the striking similarity of the popular Oscar Meyer jingle ("My bologna has a first name...") to an eight-bar blues, but it probably doesn't.

Wynton Marsalis has said repeatedly that jazz is nothing but blues speeded up (which is why I rarely have him over for dinner any more. Roundheaded bastard's like a broken record on the subject), and while the blues are indeed a primary influence on jazz, it was the popularity of jazz that ultimately enabled blues recordings and led to the inextricable place of both blues and jazz into the lexicon of American popular music. Thus, whitebread folk songs were forever relegated to campfire singalongs or wherever overeducated Caucasians with acoustic guitars gathered.

The burgeoning recording industry in the 1920's found one of its first superstars in blues singer Bessie Smith. Though the blues had primarily been considered a masculine art, like map-folding and lawn care, Smith's bold, soulful voice leapt off those primitive discs and sold millions. Spotting a trend, record companies began releasing anything even remotely bluesy and thus began a long tradition of beating a fad until it drops and then selling off the carcass piecemeal that continues to this day (Thursday, April 22nd).

With the blues firmly ensconced (ensconced?) in the collective consciousness of all right-thinking Americans, it is perhaps no surprise that the influence crept into every part of our culture from Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue to the widespread use of the word blue to denote any feeling of sadness, loss, loneliness, weariness, dizziness, numbness, nausea, shortness of breath, short-term memory loss, ringworm, psoriasis or tetter (for which a topical application of the aptly-named Blue Star ointment is also recommended).

The 1930's began with the onset of the Great Depression (I personally don't think it was all that great. I like the Depression of 1893 better. It had all the drama, and none of the snotty Woody Guthrie songs), the national mood was ripe for the raw, plaintive wail of authentic Mississippi Delta blues. Artists like Charlie Patton, Son House, Sonny Boy Williamson, and the aforementioned Robert Johnson came to prominence, and with them the image of the bluesman as a solitary soul wandering the countryside with little more than his trusted instrument and a mojo. Ostensibly some sort of mythical voodoo charm, the mojo was perhaps a manifestation of the influence of the varied occult traditions that converged in the Mississippi Delta. Or, it may have just been an early version of the Leatherman™ multitool.

One of the most striking features of the Delta blues was the kinetic and surprisingly complex guitar style that developed. Delta musicians would often tune their guitar to an open chord, rather than the standard tuning (EADGBEADGB—keep going in a like fashion until you run out of strings), and play both lead and accompaniment. They would also use a slide, a piece of glass or metal (or sometimes bone) that was used to give the instrument an almost vocal quality. Owing heavily to the Hawaiian "slack key" guitar style, a debt the South would later repay by sending our beloved Elvis to do his part for their vital film and tourism industries, the Delta style would become in itself one of the most influential trends in American music since an unknown woman threw her panties on the stage during a performance by Enrico Caruso at the Metropolitan Opera House.

Well, kids, this seems as good a place as any to pause our odyssey. Uncle Genius has a Carolina League baseball game on deck, and the city of Salem has a desperate beer surplus that must be attended to. Next month, we'll get into the development of the Chicago-style blues, the worldwide impact of the music, and how the blues continues to get geeky white guys laid to this very day (Thursday, April 29th).

Till next month, kids, exit to your right and enjoy the rest of AAJ.

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