The Blues: Black Twice
“ Bluesmen from the country, or Delta, tradition put away their acoustic guitars in favor of the increasingly popular electric versions, mostly as a way to be heard over those damned elevated trains. ”
“If you’re white and play the blues, you’re black once. If you’re black and play the blues, you’re black twice.” B.B. King
Upon arriving at the Geniusdome by funicular, after the customary delousing and body cavity search, you’d be welcomed into the anteroom for a cocktail, conversation, and more delousing. “Louse-free since ‘03” is more than just a slogan around these parts.
Venturing deeper into the ‘Dome, you might notice the excess of guitars strewn about the living quarters. Given the fact that you’re in the domicile of the Dean of American Jazz Humorists®, you’d expect that these instruments would be used to produce jazz. You’d also expect me to tidy up the piles of clutter that seem to form a miniature mountain range of magazines and notebooks throughout the ‘Dome before having company over. And you’d be wrong on both counts.
I got my first guitar when I was 21. Already a trained musician, I had been playing the euphonium long enough to know that if there were women who specifically dug euphoniumnists, they were few and far between at best. I picked up a cheap Strat copy and a small practice amp. Having conquered(?) classical and jazz, I was intent on making rock my next subjugation. I had visions of being the next David Gilmour or Mark Knopfler; a pale white guy scoring copious amounts of leg with little more than a six-string and a half-assed liberal arts education.
On the way out of the music store, I decided I ought to have at least some sort of stepping-off point to learn the instrument. To that end, I purchased a small book containing the rudiments of blues. I figured it would teach me a few chords and give me enough basic information to figure the instrument out by myself. Instead, it opened a whole new world. In the blues, I discovered not only a design for almost all American music that came afterwards, but an ancient and mystical formula for scoring free appetizers at participating T.G.I. Fridays’ locations.
Mention this article and receive a blank, uncomprehending stare.
Though I had long been listening to jazz, discovering this formula led me for the first time to really listen to the blues. I began with the most familiar, electric Chicago blues from the forties and fifties. The excellent Chess Records samplers, simply titled The Blues , acted as a guide. I discovered new influences, like Buddy Guy and Otis Rush. I learned that Chuck Berry was once a vital artist, not just a duck-walking caricature. I also found a way to turn the throes of first-love heartbreak into a veritable cottage industry.
It was during the 1940’s that Southern blacks first began to migrate in significant numbers to the industrial North, in search of good-paying factory jobs and that deep-dish pizza they’d been hearing so much about. They brought with them the accoutrements of their homeland, and adapted to their new environs. The staple foods of the rural South would later come to be called soul food and later sold for two prices to unsuspecting Yuppies eager for a multicultural experience so long as it didn’t involve actually interacting with poor people. The blues were quickly adapted to the urban settings they now called home. Bluesmen from the country, or Delta, tradition put away their acoustic guitars in favor of the increasingly popular electric versions, mostly as a way to be heard over those damned elevated trains. The harmonica, which was more in keeping with the itinerant beginnings of the blues than the cumbersome saxophone, also quickly found a home. Sadly, tuba players and accordionists were once again shown the door.
In the late 1950’s, a golden age existed in American music that was manifested in virtually every genre. In jazz, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker were at their heights (6’4” and 6’1”, respectively); rock saw a young truck driver from Tupelo and a bespectacled guitarist from Lubbock become unlikely sensations; country saw Hank Williams and Patsy Cline eking out the last measure of respectability from the idiom before giant hair and ridiculous sideburns permeated the massively overproduced “Nashville sound” of the sixties and seventies; and Britney Spears, Courtney Love, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, and virtually everyone involved with American Idol were yet to be so much as a gleam in some hack publicists eye.