Monday, July 23, 2012

Feelin' The Blues

My two musical loves are the blues and rock n roll. Rock n roll is all about attitude and energy and rebellion. The blues is about sadness and soul. Both feature a rich history of prominent guitarists, but it's always been the fusion of rock and blues that has been the primary target of my auditory affections. Rock songs that are steeped in the blues tradition, and blues that rock.

So in the music I listen to, I'm never far from either. I tend to gravitate toward the sort of rock that is more heavily blues influenced, and if you know me, you'll probably notice that I describe a lot of the music I like best as "bluesy". So when I described Joe Bonamassa's latest album as being heavily blues-inspired (even within the context of the very bluesy career of a very blues-inspired musician), my friend made a comment that emphasized, for me, the difference between traditional blues and 'progressive' blues, the latter of which is where I'd place Joe Bonamassa's music.

Now, when I think of the blues, I think of the 12-bar format, I think of shuffle beats, slow tempos, and I think of biting electric leads punctuating simplistic but stingingly depressing lyrics. Then again, I'm a fan of slow, electric blues. I imagine a lot of people think of something closer to folk blues, or more specifically, delta blues, where the modern blues tradition arose from. A lot of this is acoustic music, and so, although I've listened to it and have a lot of respect for it as a blues fan, I don't actually like it as much as electric blues (I'm particularly fond of the Chicago and Texas blues traditions).

In any case, thinking on this, I confronted the fact that a lot of the 'blues' music I listen to is derived, contributing to the fact that my CD collection contains at least ten times more blues-inspired rock (mostly classic rock bands who were heavily influenced by the blues) than actual blues musicians. Not that there's any problem with that - I listen to what I like - but it gave me the great idea to create a compilation of some of my favorite songs by genuine blues musicians, as a sort of document to myself and anyone else who might listen to it in my presence (or not) about what the blues is, as opposed to what the blues has inspired.

I call it - simply but effectively, as blues lyrics often are - Feelin' The Blues:

Feelin' The Blues

1. B.B. King - The Thrill Is Gone
2. Albert Collins - Cold, Cold Feeling
3. Big Mama Thornton - Ball N' Chain
4. Freddie King - Going Down
5. Buddy Guy - Damn Right, I've Got The Blues
6. Otis Rush - Homework
7. Albert King - Got To Be Some Changes Made
8. Jimmy Dawkins - Welfare Line
9. John Lee Hooker - Moanin' Blues
10. Lightnin' Hopkins - Bring Me My Shotgun
11. Muddy Waters - Still A Fool
12. Howlin' Wolf - Smokestack Lightnin'
13. Elmore James - The Sky Is Crying
14. T-Bone Walker - Stormy Monday
15. Robert Johnson - Me And The Devil Blues
16. Son House - Grinnin' In Your Face

My approach was to try to get as many different artists as I could (limited by my actual CD library), with an emphasis on covering 'all the bases' (or at least most of them) of your classic, traditional, blues artists. I decided to allow only one track per artist, to allow for more variety. Where possible, I have selected hard rockin' or slow and solemn electric blues (because that's just what I like), but I made a specific effort to include the old delta blues format as well, for a historical perspective.

Thus the tracklist reads as a veritable who's who of the blues. You've got the three kings - B.B., Albert, and Freddie. You've got Albert Collins, Otis Rush, and Buddy Guy - who I've always considered to be the Jimi Hendrix of the blues. You've got Big Mama Thornton who sung Hounddog before Elvis picked it up. You've got Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. You've got John Lee Hooker who brought boogie to the blues. And I threw in Jimmy Dawkins as a personal favorite.

As you head towards the end of the disc, you start to move back towards the folkier roots of the blues. Lightnin' Hopkins sings Bring Me My Shotgun, a mellow but sinister blues that caught my attention the first time I heard it. Elmore James, the king of the slide, contributes The Sky Is Crying - a song that, like T-Bone Walker's Stormy Monday that follows it, has been covered ad nauseam yet is one of my all-time favorite blues standards.

By the end of the disc you've reached the legendary Robert Johnson, said to have sold his soul to the devil, and who has inspired generations of musicians across genres. But going back even further, you reach Son House, the Father of the Delta Blues. I had a hard time picking the song I liked best for this compilation, but I think that I ultimately chose the right one.

Grinnin' In Your Face represents the blues in its purest form, and echoes the first time I learned about Son House - in a video documentary of the Newport Folk Festival, where he talks about the soul of the blues. All of the trappings have been stripped away, and in this song Son House doesn't even play the guitar. It's just depression with a beat. But not without a faint glimmer of hope. After all, the blues, in all its sorrow, is a healing music.

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