The reach of the blues
The way Americans dance, dress, and speak, the music used to sell cars on TV - even our very concept of coolness - can be traced to the first US music form and its African roots.
When chart-topping rapper 50 Cent delivers a rhythmic rhyme or busts a move onstage, he's got his blues forebears to thank - whether he knows it or not.
Without the blues, we wouldn't have jazz, rock, gospel, soul, R&B, country, or rap music - or even George Gershwin's masterpiece, "Rhapsody in Blue" (note the word "blue" in the title). The way we dance, dress, and speak, the music used to sell cars on TV - even our very concept of coolness - can be traced to the blues and its African roots.
"It's a safe bet to say that the blues is the foundation of just about all popular music forms that were born in America in the 20th century," says Robert Santelli, director and CEO of Seattle's Experience Music Project (EMP) museum and the driving force behind Congress' declaration of 2003 as the Year of the Blues.
To celebrate, this fall PBS is airing a seven-part series edited by Martin Scorsese and featuring segments directed by Wim Wenders, Clint Eastwood, Antoine Fuqua, and others. The series should do for blues what Ken Burns' "Jazz" did for that genre, says Mr. Santelli, who is also executive director of the Year of the Blues project.
"We want to make sure that there's a chance for young people to understand this music form and get them to look backward as well as forward.... 2003 is the year in which it comes out of the shadows, and hopefully, stays out of the shadows."
The Harlem renaissance of the '20s, black literature, teenage slang "virtually everywhere you look," you can find blues roots, Santelli says.
It's the awareness that's lagging behind. Despite Congress's decree, Top 40 charts aren't exactly filling up with straight-ahead blues singles, though current industry darlings Norah Jones and the White Stripes are among many who owe debts to the genre. Still, blues music is always lurking in the background of American culture. And, music historians say, that low-key profile has always suited the first purely American music form.
"Whether it's Charlie Patton on one hand or Ernest Tubb on the other, it's always been music of subcultures, and not the pop music of the day," says California-based singer-songwriter Dave Alvin. "Because of that, it's always been removed, it's always been in the shadows."
Every decade or so, a performer comes along - a Hank Williams, Muddy Waters, Elvis, or Bob Dylan - who brings blues into the light But it's always gone back, because the shadows are where it thrives. And when it does, he says, it reformulates and comes out again with a different twist.
Today's twisters include the White Stripes, who imbue their garage rock sound with heavy doses of blues, and pedal-steel phenomenon Robert Randolph, who just won a W.C. Handy Blues Award as Best New Artist for his melding of gospel with blues and hip-hop influences.
Commercials have become another way for the blues to reach a wider audience.
John Wooler, who worked with blues giant John Lee Hooker as president of Pointblank Records, says, "I remember when Levi's used a Muddy Waters song [in 1999]; it was the first time he had a Top 40 song in the U.K. It reached a whole new audience who thought it was really cool, who had never heard it."
That's the goal of the PBS series as well, and Mr. Wooler says such shows do have an impact. "It puts the music in the homes of the consumer who might not actively be seeking out these types of music.... You really need to make it easy for them. Stick it in front of them."
The "collision" of African and European musical influences and instrumentation that led to the blues and what followed could only have happened here, scholar and musician Scott Ainslee asserts, because blacks and whites have coexisted - "uneasily but intimately" - for a couple of centuries.
Even bluegrass - long considered white music - has characteristics of black music. Take its flatted-note fiddling and harmonies, and the laments of displaced rural people mourning the life they lost - not to mention its use of banjos, an instrument associated with blacks before it was co-opted by whites lampooning blacks in minstrel shows.
Blues-oriented singer and guitarist Robert Cray characterizes the genre as "real emotional music, in the sense that you can spill your guts, so to speak. You can brag, you can laugh, you can dance. It's just what Americans are all about. Open and out front."
Strides in feminism, race relations, and the sexual revolution ... so much social change also point back to blues music, though Ainslee notes that being "open and out front" did not come naturally to whites before they were exposed to physically expressive music and rhythms of Africa, and the sometimes not-so-veiled lyrical content of songs that described black life.
Those unaccepting attitudes continued to grip white America as Puritan-based ethics clashed with blues-based rock music (think Elvis on "Ed Sullivan" - from the waist up).
Even for today's culturally desensitized audiences, conflicting mores can occasionally provoke controversy - the results of which include "clean" and "dirty" album versions, parental advisory stickers, and a periodic uproar over an MTV video or song.
Yet the frustrated venting of Ice-T's controversial 1992 "Cop Killer" is basically just an updated - and more graphic - reaction to the kinds of experiences referenced in blues pioneer Robert Johnson's "Cross Road Blues," in which he conveys his fear that white police will beat him up because he's not off the streets in time for the sundown curfew imposed on blacks.
"The impulse that created the blues, I believe, is the same impulse that created hip-hop, which is to share in a public forum what is essentially private," Ainslee says. "To take your experience and put it on the line in a performance medium as a warning and a comfort to the people who follow you."
As pioneering rapper Chuck D once said, "Rap is the black man's CNN." It's a function handed down from delta cotton pickers' work songs and rhythmic call-and-response field hollers, coded in language whip-wielding bosses couldn't understand.
Regardless of the performer's race, Santelli says, the common thread uniting these sounds is the raw expression of human emotion, and the use of music for communication and solidarity.
Country father Jimmie Rodgers' catalog is half blues. Aaron Copland drew from it for his classical compositions. Bob Dylan and other '60s folkies - and their Beat poet forebears - reveled in its talking rhythms. The improvising skills so prized by jazz and hip-hop artists are also distilled from blues.
"It's an old music form, but a vibrant one as well," Santelli says. "It was black folk music, and as the music form spread, it became American music."