A new shade of blue
When Europeans first heard the blues in America, it unsettled them.Skip to next paragraph
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"There are all these stories of European musicologists in the 19th century coming and observing slave music and scratching their heads," explains Bruce Katz, who teaches blues history at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. The spirituals they heard used minor "blue" notes in between major notes, which wasn't part of European music. "In their journals they wrote, 'They're using notes we don't have,' " Katz says. "Sometimes they would dismiss it."
Centuries later, the blues is still struggling to be understood - and heard.
The difference now is that modern generations are at least familiar with the blues sound. But blues today suffers from an image problem. Although there are more blues CDs - new recordings and reissues - available to the public than ever before, blues isn't frequently heard on radio. It's a music form tied to a rich legacy that is still shaping public perceptions, even though the blues has evolved considerably since Ledbelly, Son House, and Charlie Patton. In the 1920s, these artists first used acoustic guitars to further express the human blues wails coming out of the Mississippi cotton fields.
How far has the blues come since then? Consider the following (and see "A blues spectrum" at left):
* Bob Brozman and Corey Harris have incorporated Hawaiian and Caribbean influences into their blues, while a unique African blues led by Mali's Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate is getting exposure, thanks to collaborations with American bluesmen Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal.
* Artists like R.L. Burnside and Gary Moore are pushing the boundaries of blues with drum-loop samples, even as electronic dance music artists like Moby have begun incorporating segments of old blues recordings in their music.
* Blues players are incorporating other influences into their music: Guitarist Robben Ford dips into the jazz idiom on his releases, while Robert Cray's new album, "Shoulda Been Home," mixes soul, gospel, and R&B into his blues repertoire. Keb' Mo's new album, "Big Wide Grin," adds a bluesy take to songs by Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder, while John Hammond's new "Wicked Grin" is comprised of blues reinterpretations of Tom Waits songs.
* Recording artists like 15-year-old Shannon Curfman and other young artists like Shemekia Copeland, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Susan Tedeschi, and Jonny Lang are gaining fans through nonstop tours of their fusion of blues and rock.
Throwing blues into the mix
When the nation began to cook its cultural melting pot, blues was the first musical ingredient to be thrown into it, adding its distinctive flavor to the jazz, rock, gospel, soul, and R&B sounds that crossed racial barriers. As B.B. King, emeritus of the blues, recently told the Monitor, "Blues has been something like a grandfather of much of the music we hear today."
Many people, though, think of the blues as their grandfather's music. American culture has often smothered blues by placing it in a formaldehyde jar - preserving an iconic, romanticized, and cliched depiction of the blues.
"If it doesn't continue to grow artistically, then it will become the new Dixieland jazz, and it will be played the same way every night, the same repertoire of songs," says Bruce Iglaur, head of Alligator Records, a blues label, and president of the Blues Music Association in Memphis, Tenn.