Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Why They Call It The Blues

By Stanley Booth

MAY 10, 1999: 

Some people say the worried blues ain't tough
Some people say the worried blues ain't tough
I 'clare if they won't kill you,
handle you mighty rough -- Furry Lewis


The late comedian Flip Wilson used to say, "The reason why I like the blues, 'cause when the record wears out, it still sounds the same." Would that everyone spoke of the blues with such insight and, as they say in Jamaica, overstanding. Flip was right: The blues are subtle; the blues' appeal lies, like most true pleasures, beneath the surface.

These days the blues are everywhere, or damn near; I turned on my computer tonight and was invited by my Internet Explorer home page to "jam with blues man Buddy Guy" on a live broadcast from the House of Blues. This portends, for the blues, serious dangers. Buddy Guy is a real (genuine) great musician, but nothing exists that greed will not attempt to debase.

When musicians talk about playing the blues, they are referring not to an emotional statement about being unlucky in life and love but to a musical form, usually one of 12 bars, though sometimes eight or 16. While certain songs with the word blues in the title, such as Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen's "Blues in the Night" and W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues," have become classics of the popular-music repertoire, they are not, in the strict formal sense, blues.

However, Peter Gammond, in The Oxford Companion to Popular Music, writes, "The blues, unlike ragtime or jazz, can only be defined as a form in its more superficial aspect. The wider implication of the blues lies in its spirit, a spirit which is the basic ingredient of all true jazz."

The longtime New Yorker music writer Whitney Balliett has put it more succinctly: "Jazz would be an empty house without the blues."

Of course, black music is not all blues, but the blues are basic not only to most black music but to much modern classical as well as popular music. Blue notes -- the flatted third, seventh (and sometimes fifth) tones of the Western eight-note scale -- are found in the work of Gottschalk, Stravinsky, Gershwin, Bernstein, and a great many other composers. Thus the influence of this 20th-century music, the blues, has become by the eve of the millennium so pervasive as to be ubiquitous.

But what about the blues in the popular sense, them low-down dirty blues that Memphis audiences have known and loved? As we approach the end of the 1900s, how are the blues getting along? Are their vital signs weak or strong? The answer is, yes and no. All the original blues masters of the acoustic period are dead, and the innovators of the second-wave electric era, like John Lee Hooker and B.B. King, are getting old. (The original electric innovators, Eddie Durham, Bob Dunn, Charlie Christian, and T-Bone Walker, are, sad to say, also long-departed.) Still, there are more blues festivals than ever, and a number of notable young blues performers, many of whom are white.

Part of the reason for this is that the blues at their most characteristic possess certain qualities of permanent value. The blues speak in exalted language of dramatic situations. This is what Homer, Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Tarantino, among others, also do, in their various ways. Blind Willie McTell's method is to tell his beloved:

I'm gonna cut yo' head fo' different ways,
that's long, short, deep, and wide.
When I get through usin' this rusty, black-
handled razor,
you gonna be booked out for a ambulance ride.

Marlowe or McTell, it's all poetry.

I was at Furry Lewis' flat on Mosby in Memphis one night when Allen Ginsberg stopped by. Ginsberg sat at the foot of Furry's bed in a chrome-and-leatherette kitchen chair while Furry played.

"I'm gonna tell you, baby," Furry sang, "like the Chinaman told the Jew, 'You no likee me, I no likee you.'"

It was all in fun, and Ginsberg, charmed by the master poet Furry, played a sort of psalm of praise on his harmonium, beginning with the words, "We thank you, oh King."

Ginsberg knew royalty when he saw it, even in the ghetto.

Poetry, including especially the poetry of the blues, doesn't make much money. B.B. King says he's a millionaire, and I have to believe him, but show me another millionaire bluesman. I believe it was Edward Dahlberg who said, "There is no money in poetry, but then there is no poetry in money either."

Gus Cannon to the contrary:

I wash my teeth in diamond dust
I don't care if the banks go bust
Done got to the place
where my money don't never run out

This is poetry about money, no doubt about it, but its power lies not in its accuracy but its irony. Gus worked as a yard man all his life. Furry swept the streets in Memphis for over 40 years and retired without a pension.

"I ain't got nothin', I ain't never had nothin', I don't expect to ever get nothin'," I once heard him say. "But I'll tell you this: I'm just as smart as any man in this house."

He always was, whatever the house.

Men like Furry and Gus existed on the outer fringes of the recording industry, an industry that no longer has any fringes. You couldn't get away from music these days if you tried. Keith Richards has said rock-and-roll killed communism, and there may be truth in that contention. But music has a hard-enough time saving itself and can hardly be expected to save the world, especially when you consider the people, Ahmet Ertegun excepted, running record companies these days. The music business is more than ever characterized by our old adversaries greed and avarice. The record-company executives are not all equally reprehensible, but the better ones are unable to alter the direction the music business is going, which is toward cannibalism.

As Jim Dickinson famously observed, "The music business is a self-devouring organism that vomits itself back up."

The problem is, you don't want yourself or anyone you care about being devoured. All of us who were around at the time saw what happened to Elvis Presley. Some of us watched as Alex Chilton went from having the number-one record in the country at the age of 16 to washing dishes in New Orleans a couple of decades later. Alex is okay now, but he's had to be a survivor. Keith Richards, another survivor, has talked with me about our seeing our closest friends fall by our sides. He didn't exaggerate.

That's why, when a kid with talent comes along, you feel fearful for him and for yourself. If you're like me, you've had your heart broken too many times already.

One of my most valued friends is a wonderful crazy man who is both a judge and a blues lover. A little over a year ago, he told me to meet him at Rafter's, a second-story blues club near the beach on St. Simons Island. St. Simons is off the South Georgia coast not far from my home. Eight o'clock found us sitting at the end of the bar, watching Barbara, the attractive barkeep, draw beers. It was an open-mike night, when players could sit in with the house band. Up the stairs came a white boy, not quite 12 years old, carrying a guitar case. Opening it, he strapped on a solid-body electric approximately as big as he was and stepped onstage. His first note brought me to my feet; I stood up on the rung of my barstool. The kid was blond and looked as if he should be wearing a baseball glove, but his attack, his tone were those of a ferocious professional musician. He played 12 lacerating bars, then leaned into the vocal mike: "Everybody wants to know/ Why I sing the blues."

I was still standing.

"You want to go sit down front?" the judge asked.

"Yeah."

The set was short but most impressive. It included songs associated with B.B. King, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin' Wolf, Elmore James, and an amazing version of "Voodoo Child" the kid performed on his knees with the guitar behind his head. When he came off the stage, I asked him how he'd gotten into the blues.

"My mama and daddy are divorced," he said. "And my daddy lives in Jacksonville. I go down there sometimes to see him. He has a lot of CDs, and one day I picked up one and played it 'cause I thought the cover looked cool, and it was by Stevie Ray Vaughan."

The boogie bug had bitten the boy.

Given a cheap pawn-shop guitar by his father, he took it into his bedroom and for the most part, his mother told me, didn't come out for a couple of years. When he finally emerged he told her he'd figured it out. He had, too. Now if he only knew someone who could figure out what to do about what he figured out. Talent, as every artist learns sooner or later, isn't enough.

Once the legendary Memphis drummer Phineas Newborn Sr. and his wife Rose were visiting B.B. King and his wife Martha. In those days Martha was working at a laundry and trying to convince B.B. to get a real job. Martha had purchased some draperies, and the two couples sat and watched the man from the department store take them off the wall and repossess them.

Still, B.B. stubbornly persisted in wanting a career in show business, and Phineas, ever the clear-eyed optimist, said, "It's money in it if you can ever get to it."

Getting to it is the hard part. Allman Brother Butch Trucks' prodigious nephew, Derek, whom I first saw when he was 12, has been from at least that age a remarkable guitarist. He did not, however, sing, write songs, or look at the audience. Now he is grown and has become an Allman Brother himself, and that's fine.

The kid I saw at Rafter's, though, plays phenomenal guitar, sings, and engages the audience completely. The first time I saw him I happened to sit near a couple of older black men who obviously thought this white boy who sang "If you don't love me, girl, I know your sister will" was the cutest thing since Sammy Davis was a pup.

The kid is now 13, has grown quite a bit, is living in California, and has acquired two amateurish-appearing semi-official "managers," which is two more than he needs, but he doesn't know any better, and neither does his family. Atlantic Records paid for some demonstration recordings that, the kid told me, had been judged "not MTV-quality." Which is crazy, because MTV doesn't play blues anyway. The boy is a real talent, but his circumstances are so unprotected that I can't bring myself to give his name. May he prosper.

After we saw Bireli Lagrene, the great Belgian jazz guitarist, when he was 18 -- in London, 1985 -- my friend asked what was going to happen to him.

"People will rob him," I said. "Women will break his heart. If he's lucky, in 18 years he'll be 36, and if we're lucky we'll be around to hear what he's doing."

Bereli is still around, still performing and recording, and looks likely to be doing the same in 2003. The kid from Rafter's is still around, too, and so are you and I, but as the Bible says, none of us is or are promised tomorrow. We are not, in fact, promised anything. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: That's why they call it the blues.


Stanley Booth is a former Memphian currently living in Brunswick, Georgia. He is the author of "The True Adventures Of The Rolling Stones" and "Rhythm Oil: A Journey Through The Music Of The American South."


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