Friday, August 30, 2013

The Continuing Evolution of the Blues

Since I've been listening to the blues, I've noticed that some people like their blues in a very small compartment.  A lot of listeners like old style, with not a trace of modern influences at all....things like rock guitar, or funky backbeat, or electronic drums, or rap.  I'm sure that back in the 60's, when Earl Hooker threw in the wah wah pedal on one of his solos, several blues lovers stuck a clothes pin on their nose, cotton in their ears, and looked the other way.  Ditto with somebody like Chris Thomas King mixing hip-hop beats and rap into his brand of blues, or when Fat Possum Records started pairing R.L. Burnside with alternative rockers on his albums.

Okay....let me stop here and say on the record that there's a distinct possibility that I might have been one of those clothes pin wearers in the past.  Yes, at one time, I was a blues snob of the highest order.....turned my nose up at nearly everyone who I felt hadn't "paid their dues."  Oh sure, some people could try to play the blues, but they were only "interpreting" the blues.....imitating a real blues man.  Sigh.....youth is wasted on the young.  As a result, I missed out on a lot of great music that, fortunately, I have been able to go back and catch up with.  To this day, I'm still not sure why I fell into that trap, other than youthful ignorance.  After all, I had been drawn to these "authentic" blues artists by listening to the music of the artists that I no longer had any use for.

What brought me out of my snobbery?  I think I came out of my blues cocoon when I started writing reviews for Blues Bytes.  I was exposed to as many variations of the blues as imaginable, and guess what?  They were all worth listening to.  I finally realized that some people had a different vision of the blues from me, their own personal spin on what the blues were.  Their versions often mixed other genres into the music, not just rock or jazz or soul, but country or folk, African or Asian or European, and they made some mighty fine music.

It finally occurred to me a few years ago that for the blues to continue to be a vital music that people will continue to listen to and enjoy, musicians will have to take chances and make modifications to the sounds, words, and instrumentation....mixing in new touches with the traditional music, but in the process, making it appealing for the older fans and the newer fans. 

Somewhere and somehow, during this process, a wonderful thing fans (like yours truly some twenty-five years ago) go back and discover the artists who influenced their favorites....sometimes back to the 20's or 30's, and older fans discover some interesting new music that puts a hop in their step just when they think they've heard everything there is to hear with the blues.  Trust me, it happens.  It has happened to me at both ends of the spectrum.  

It was blues/rocker Dennis Jones who prompted me to write about this topic this week.  If you're not familiar with Jones (we've discussed him a couple of times over the years), you are missing out on one of the most original blues men currently in action.  He's influenced by Muddy and the Wolf, for sure, but he's also absorbed plenty of Luther Allison, SRV, and Jimi Hendrix, too, and he combines that with some excellent modern-themed songwriting.  This is the kind of music that I loved at first, fell away from when I became a "serious" listener,  but then returned to eventually with a greater appreciation.  On Wednesday of this week, he posted this on his Facebook page:

I've been holding back for years trying not to write this but I've had enough. Some people in this wonderful blues community think they own it. If it's not traditional it's not the blues. Well you don't own it, most of you don't want anything to change. You probably romanticize about the good old days and the music you heard then. When I first heard Muddy Waters' Electric Mud Album I wore it out. When I heard Jimmy Page playing Since I've Been Loving You and Johnny Winter playing Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo, Hendrix playing Red House I knew the blues was endless. I read all the Blues Nazi Blogs. There's no such thing as Blues Rock. Yes there is. So sick of hearing people changing the lyrics to The Thrill Is Gone and being hailed as a songwriter. When Muddy came up from the south and had Little Walter playing that mean ass brilliant harmonica over his songs. That was not tradition. I could go on with this but I think you get my point. Ever since Marshall's and the Les Paul guitar there has been Blues Rock, nothing you can do to change it. (........) I'm not trying to be the best, just trying to be me. Long live the blues. DJ

You know, I could have just posted Jones' remarks here, and left the rest of my drivel completely off.  He says it all right there.  The blues has NEVER stood still.  Somebody has ALWAYS been making modifications to the original product, whether it was an electric guitar, a harmonica, an accordion, a funky bass line, a Farfisa organ, or a fife and drum.  This has always gone on.  Like Dennis Jones says, "...the blues was endless."  It was here before us, it will be here after we're gone in some variation or another, for sure.

The other good thing about the blues is that even though the music continues to move forward, there's still plenty of respect and reverence for the artists that came before....that inspired today's blues men.  Sure, you get that in other genres, but in the blues, many of the pioneers are still making new recordings that ALL blues fans want to get their hands on.  There's still that respect for the tradition, because not only is the blues endless, it's also timeless.

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