The Blues Impulse
The blues ain't nothin' but a good man feelin' bad. Hard to beat the definition for clarity, except to note the obvious flip side: the blues ain't nothin' but a good woman feelin' bad. Lord knows, there's a temptation to leave it there. After all, the blues are mostly about what you're feeling here and now.
But, however much the blues resist abstraction, there's a bit more to say. The blues force you to deal with the man with the knife, your lover's wandering eyes, the fact that when the devil comes calling, plenty of good respectable folks are waiting at the door. If you really hear the blues, you know you're one of them, that life's a hell of a lot more complicated than those lines between saints and sinners, or the black and white sides of town, let on.Blues guitarist Eddie Kirkland breaks down the blues about as well as they can be broke: "What gives me the blues? Unlucky in love for one, and hard to make a success is two; and when a man have a family and it's hard to survive for." If there isn't enough money in the house, all those little things-the hole in the window screen, the third straight meal of beans-grow real big real fast. By a conservative count, 180 percent of blues deal with sex or money. The extra 80 percent accounts for the times sex and money are the same damn thing. Once the spiral starts-once your man doesn't bring home enough money for the rent, once your woman puts on that red dress and goes out the door-there's no stoppin' it. All you can hope for is the strength to face another day. On the good days, you can laugh about some of it. As bluesman Furry Lewis, who worked as a Memphis street cleaner, recalled: "You know, old folks say, it's a long lane don't have no end and a bad wind don't never change. But one day, back when Hoover was president, I was driving my cart down Beale Street, and I seen a rat, sitting on top of a garbage can, eating a onion, crying." Or, as B. B. King commented, "Singing the blues is like being black twice."
For Ralph Ellison, the blues present a philosophy of life, a three-step process that can be used by painters, dancers, or writers as well as musicians. The process consists of (1) fingering the jagged grain of your brutal experience; (2) finding a near-tragic, near-comic voice to express that experience; and (3) reaffirming your existence. The first two steps run parallel to the gospel impulse's determination to bear witness to the reality of the burden. But where gospel holds out the hope that things will change, that there's a better world coming, the blues settle for making it through the night. As Ellison's friend Albert Murray wrote, they deal with "the most fundamental of all existential imperatives: affirmation, which is to say, reaffirmation and continuity in the face of adversity."
The blues deal with the unavoidable problems that come with being human. You wake up in the morning and they're waiting for you all around your bed.
It's not a question philosophy can answer. All you can do is reach down inside the pain, finger the jagged grain, tell your story and hope you can find the strength to go on. You never really get away, transcend. If you're lucky, though, if the song's call gets some sort of response, some echo in the parts of your head that believe it may be worthwhile, a smile from that woman at the dark end of the street, that's all you can hope for. Reaffirmation, the strength to say, yeah, I'll be. Chicago blues master Willie Dixon stated the blues answer to Hamlet's question with irreducible clarity: "I'm here, everybody knows I'm here." Knowing all that time that tomorrow morning the blues'll be right there beside his bed. Good morning, blues.
Murray's rephrasing of Ellison's "transcendence" as "reaffirmation" clarifies the meaning of "near-tragic, near-comic lyricism." Sometimes the blues make you laugh, but the real "comedy" resembles Dante as much as Richard Pryor, who, we might note, had his own "inferno" and used it as a source for much grim humor. If tragedy describes a world in which loss is inevitable and irrevocable, comedy describes one where balance, however tenuous, wins out. Dante's point was that hearing the harmony behind the screams required a perspective close to God's; that's why the comedy's "Divine."
And why human life, as Richard Pryor can testify, mostly isn't. On the human level, evil's not something you can change, just something you have to deal with. Singing the blues doesn't reaffirm the brutal experience, it reaffirms the value of life. The blues don't even pretend you're going to escape the cycle. You sing the blues so you can live to sing the blues again. A lot of times the blues are mostly about finding the energy to keep moving. That's why they're such great party music and that's why you hear them echoing through rock and through rap.
The blues tell you that as long as you can hear your voice, as long as you can find even a little bit of the laughter in the tears, you can most likely find the strength to wake up in the morning and deal with the fact that you messed it up again, that the devil's back at the door and you're putting on your shoes, humming his song.
Sad as the blues may be, there's almost always something humorous about them-even if it's the kind of humor that laughs to keep from crying.
The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.
No wonder Hamlet came to debate with himself whether to be or not to be. Nor was it, or is it, a question of judging whether life is or is not worth living. Not in the academic sense of Albert Camus's concern with the intrinsic absurdity of existence per se. Hamlet's was whether things are worth all the trouble and struggle. Which is also what the question is when you wake up with the blues there again, not only all around your bed but also inside your head as well, as if trying to make you wish that you were dead or had never been born.
Perhaps I love them because the attitude toward life expressed in blues recordsthat everyone has troubles but they can be endured, that happiness is not lasting, so don't be fooled by your good times-is truly the essence of "blackness. " Blues do not promise that people will not be unhappy, but that unhappiness can be transcended, not by faith in God, but by faith in one's own ability to accept unhappiness without ever conceding oneself to it. Blackness is not an Afrocentric lesson, nor a coming together of the tribe in fake unity. It is this: a fatalistic, realistic belief in human transcendence, born in the consciousness of a people who experienced the gutwrenching harshness of slavery, of absorbing the absolute annihilation of their humanity, and who lived to tell the world and their former masters about it. And it is about how they reinvented their humanity in the meanwhile.