When Europeans first heard the blues in America, it unsettled them.
"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.
"I see this happening to some extent with blues clubs in Chicago - especially the ones with more tourists. There's one club whose policy is that the band come with a black female singer. And they have to fit the image, so they have to be black - and of course 'big' is good," Mr. Iglaur says.
"If you just focus on the music of people that lived 40 or 50 years ago, you're looking at folk music, you're not looking at popular music," says Howard Stovall, executive director of the Blues Foundation in Memphis, Tenn. "The popular music of the blues is the music that's been created - even in traditional formats - by new artists with a host of new influences, from rap to country to jazz to whatever.
"It's like in country music: The music of Hank Williams Sr. and Hank Williams Jr. are wildly different."
Country music has been able to reinvent itself as "new country" by moving toward pop music and selling itself as a commercial radio format for a young audience.
But new blues artists are seldom able to get the heavy radio rotation needed to create a hit song. The only outlets have typically been college radio, public radio, or a Sunday night slot on rock stations. ("I wonder what they do Monday through Sunday," comments B.B. King wryly.)
Lack of airplay "creates problems for the average blues fan, who is sitting there at the record bin and doesn't know Coko Montoya from Koko Taylor," Mr. Stovall says. "In the absence of radio, how does one differentiate between these artists? How do you know who's interesting?"
Bluesman Hammond says he has always felt an antagonism toward blues on the radio. "I've been at radio stations where they have 'no blues records allowed' posted on boards.
"Everything has gone to the format of appealing to a very young market.
"I think blues is more of an adult genre," he says. "It has more to do with a look at the human condition, and that's maybe a little uncomfortable to the stylemakers out there or those dictating what's popular."
As the Blues Foundation's Stovall puts it: "There are certain themes that have remained constant in blues, and throughout literature in general: love, betrayal, trouble, redemption. They've worked for Shakespeare, and they've worked for Buddy Guy."
The blues can be "feel-good music"
But the problem of misogyny in a lot of blues lyrics remains. Songs about "grabbing my shotgun to hunt my old lady down" and other sexist lyrics don't exactly fly with a younger generation, as a young and inexperienced Mr. Cray once found out.
"In the early days, we did this song by B.B. King called, 'I Don't Want You Cutting Off Your Hair,' " Cray says. "We lost about half the audience in San Francisco. And we knew right there that we had to change."
Cray observes that a lot of people also stay away from blues because of a misconception that the lyrics are all about misery: "It's a feel-good music, I think. People at a blues concert, they don't sit there and cry," he says, chuckling. "They're up there dancing, and they're going 'yeah, that's right!' "
For all the talk of lack of airplay, Berklee's Katz says it's important to remember that, even at its peak, blues was never huge. "It was probably biggest in the '60s. But even before that, Muddy Waters was just playing a club in the south side of Chicago, and then he was discovered and went to Europe," Katz says.
Ironically, it was largely the Europeans who introduced white Americans to blues, even as African-Americans largely started to shun a music they felt had too many "Uncle Tom" connotations.
It was Britain that first discovered Jimi Hendrix, and British bands like John Mayall's The Bluesbreakers (featuring Eric Clapton), Fleetwood Mac (with guitarist Peter Green), and Led Zeppelin were among those who opened doors for the blues artists who had first inspired them.
"I remember we played in Atlantic City with the Rolling Stones, and there must have been a hundred and some thousand people," recalls B.B. King of the early '60s. Before then, he says, "You were never counted. But now you can play the blues in the White House."
No one plays "air piano"
When blues does manage to gain some radio airplay, as in the case of Tedeschi or Shepherd, it's usually a rock-guitar-based blues - a legacy of that '60s British-blues boom. "Guitars are flash instruments - you rarely see people play 'air piano,' you see lots of people play air guitar," Iglaur says, lamenting the difficulty of selling blues piano, harmonica, or accordion players to radio.
It was another guitarist, Stevie Ray Vaughan, who sparked the last blues boom. "His death definitely hurt us, because he was the person who was perceived as the torchbearer, and he brought new rock fans into blues in a way that no one since Eric Clapton had," Iglaur says. "In a world of pop personalities, music needs spokespeople, it needs personalities."
A future pop personality for the blues may turn out to be 15-year-old singer and guitarist Shannon Curfman. Those who hear her sing or play on recordings presume she must be in her 30s.
"With the radio, and publicity, and my age, it attracts people because they like seeing their own age group," Ms. Curfman says. "Just being in Teen People magazine, that really helps, [but] we're not just focusing on teenagers."
The blues's audience potential, Curfman says, is that "emotions are really bare, raw, and real in blues. Blues isn't something that you can fake."
Ultimately, though, the growth of blues may continue not through radio, but in other ways. The presence of blues in movies, TV, and commercials has never been greater, observes the Blues Foundation's Stovall. Last night, the foundation hosted its annual W.C. Handy awards, the blues version of the Grammys (see www.handyawards.com). Stovall hopes the awards will awaken interest in blues.
Word of mouth is also advancing nonmainstream music like the blues. Berklee's Katz points to the interest in the Cuban music of the "Buena Vista Social Club" and the phenomenal success of the blue-grass soundtrack for the recent movie "Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?" as indications of a renewed international interest in different forms of roots music. And blues is America's root music, observes Hammond, noting that more blues is played in clubs and behind garage doors than any other kind of American music.
If blues remains on the fringes, that's fine with Keb' Mo.'
"It's a niche audience - all the people who don't want to listen to The Backstreet Boys," the blues songwriter says.
Blues guitarist Shepherd says that his constant touring has taught him that "once you get some blues fans, they're fans for life.
"So every time you get a little surge in popularity, you gain some fans, and they never go away - just like this music is never going away."
Lisa Leigh Parney contributed to this report. For sound clips of some of these artists and audio clips from a Keb' Mo' interview, visit www.csmonitor.com.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor