Your Blues: Connecting Blues Perspective with Community Catharsis

An essential aspect of blues is its attempt to chronicle the individual’s experience while making that experience sympathetic to everyone.  The interplay between individual and collective identity in the genre is an excellent example of this.  Individuals in blues songs truly represent groups of people.  Pronouns stack up without antecedents, and third-person characters (and even second- and first-person characters) are archetypes.  This generalization makes the music more accessible and hence makes possible the African-American Saturday night community catharsis that Albert Murray portrays as a twin to Sunday morning church services in Stomping the Blues.

If it seems questionable to argue that this goal distinguishes blues from other styles of art – doesn’t everyone want to be universal? – consider some art forms also popular at the time of the blues.  T.S. Eliot filled his poetry with erudite references that, apropos as they were to the way he felt, would have lost 95% of his readers given the absence of Wikipedia at that time.  Orchestral music and opera are well-disposed to communicating universal feelings (though opera songs make more sense inside the context of a larger work with a distinctive plot and characters), but due to monetary cost and segregation they were largely inaccessible to black people.  Blues, folk, and the like lower the common denominator, but that doesn’t automatically inferior.  If music is communication, then a hit song like “Sweet Home Chicago” should be celebrated as much as “Nessun Dorma.”

Almost all blues songs and poems are written in first person about the problems of the narrator.  If a second person is addressed, it is usually the narrator’s lover (“you sprinkled hot foot powder / all around my door”)[1], such that the song reads like an open letter.  Works written about a third person, such as Langston Hughes’s “Weary Blues,” still often feature the narrator as an observer (“I heard a Negro play”) or else quote the third person so heavily that the story may well be the narrator’s way to speak obliquely about herself (“Gimme a Pigfoot”).

The third person is most often an archetype.  The fortune-telling gypsy woman is featured in “St. Louis Blues” and “Hoochie Coochie Man,” among others.  Of course, her oracles are correct, or else why would she be in the story?  The incompetent doctor, though not featured in our book, features in Bob Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues” and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues[2].”  Hannah Brown, the “woman from across town,” is another fairly popular blues character.  She is a wild, fun-loving woman, and this name symbol gets the point across faster than a barrage of adjectives would.  Her name is a tool than any writer can use, like a hammer or a socket wrench.

Two individuals who are named are Clorinda of “Beale Street Blues” and Ma Rainey’s C. C. Rider.  Both of these names could be references which link the characters to larger traditions or feelings, however.  Given Langston Hughes’s erudition, it is possible that the name “Clorinda” refers to the character from “Jerusalem Delivered,” an epic poem by Torquato Tasso.  Clorinda is a Muslim warrior-maiden who is accidentally killed in battle by Tancredi, a Christian who loves her.  Before she dies, she converts to Christianity.  So just as the Clorinda of the epic was saved directly after violence, the woman in Hughes’s poem is saved by the music, be it jazz or simple chin music, she receives from her male counterpart.  Clorinda could also identify the character as an African-American woman, as it has the same lush European stylization as popular African-American names such as Cassandra and Marcus.  C. C. Rider’s name seems to be a pun, not only on the admonition “see, see rider” but also a reference to an “easy rider,” a sexually promiscuous person.  So even when individuals are named, it is to cleverly identify them with larger groups such that the songs are really about a class.

The writer must already sacrifice some individuality to fit into a certain genre.  This is as true for blues as it is for limericks and sonnets.  By choosing a certain form, a poet proscribes his range to fit the rhythm, mood, and structure of the piece, and even taps into the historical memory, including the beliefs and prejudices of people from that era.  A sonnet, for instance, will always remind one of frustrated 15th-century love, if only for an instant.  Sometimes genre will stifle an artist, and he will fight the record label to break free of it, as Marvin Gaye did with “What’s Going On,” but other writers seem to draw strength from inclusion in a certain tradition: see Jayne Cortez’s blues homage “You Know.”

The advent of the record player contributed heavily to the generalization of music lyrics and blues in particular.  Prior to records and radio, one could only hear music in person at live performances.  Each of these would be unique and often catered to the local audience (as did Johnny Cash’s famous set in Folsom Prison).  Whereas a live performance is distributed to a few hundred people, records are distributed nationally, so major labels are inclined to erase local color unless they can successfully advertise it as “authenticity.”  More importantly, because records are mass-produced, one take of a song will become the definitive version.  Recording has even changed the way we experience live music: bands are practically obligated to play their most popular recordings at every show because the audience comes largely to validate the experience of their favorite albums.  The more people can relate to a song, the more will buy it, and this is another incentive for blues writers to find the most universal subject matter possible.  Before records, “St. Louis Blues” might have had more local color in order to have a greater impact on its St. Louis listeners, but as is it’s about the city in name only.

There is a part of the blues community that seems fiercely individual, however: the musicians.  They had a keen interest in promoting themselves because popularity would help sell records and concerts.  Murray writes that although many musicians don’t admit it, they put a good deal of effort into creating a “look,” and the many photos in his book attest to that.  The performers expand on the blues aesthetic, including its clothing style, the same way they expand on the written music with improvisation.  Dizzy Gillespie is only the most obvious example.  Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and Duke Ellington all dressed in classy suits which were part of the jazz look, but each had a personal twist: a crushed top hat, an uncomfortable-looking double-breasted suit, and a pencil thin moustache, respectively.  Also, whereas a symphony orchestra or a string quartet will put the pieces it is playing front and center in its advertisements and records and the identity of the performers (which is just as important to one’s purchase) in the liner notes, the album advertisements for Clarence Williams, Clara Smith, and Mamie Smith provided in Stomping the Blues give three quarters of the space to an artist profile and biography and a mere quarter to the songs being performed.  A number of the more contemporary blues poems in Kevin Young’s collection are about individuals, but note who the individuals are: Langston Hughes, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Robert Johnson…these are public figures, heroes of the blues, and these poems attempt to tap into the collective memory of their music.  Blues heroes as currently presented bear more than a passing resemblance to the gods on Mount Olympus.  The performers’ individual talents deserve to be celebrated, though, because their talents help make the moment possible for the community, as Sterling Browne demonstrates in “Ma Rainey.”

The generality of the songs does not drain them of personal interest.  Songs like “Empty Bed Blues” and “Hellhound on My Trail” have interesting plots, and the listener hangs on to every word to learn that becomes of the characters, as if they are three-minute soaps.  The purpose of these songs, rather, is to relate to the millions of people who feel like they are suffering alone, as the narrator is.  “Ma Rainey” demonstrates how this experience: the first two stanzas catalogue the diverse transportation methods and hometowns of the thousands of people who come to hear Ma Rainey.  The third is a message of encouragement from the community to singer who inspires them.  In the fourth, the narrator recounts his friend’s story about Ma Rainey singing “Backwater Blues,” a song about someone who sees her home destroyed in a flood.  Note the nested perspective of this stanza: the narrator quotes his friend who is quoting Ma Rainey who is quoting “Backwater Blues,” meaning the story has run through four different people before the reader got a hold of it, an elegant representation of collective memory.  Thousands of people have nowhere to go now, but she does not end the poem with an expression of hope for her community.  Rather, she reflects more upon her own trouble: “Backwater blues done caused me to pack my things and go / ‘Cause my house fell down and I can’t live there no mo’ / Mmmmmmmmm, I can’t move no mo’.”  The last line is an interesting grammatical turn: “There ain’t no place for a poor old girl to go.”  By using this particular colloquial structure, the narrator is simultaneously talking about herself and the entire class of poor old girls[3].  Ma Rainey’s performance is a cathartic experience for the community: “An’ den de folks, dey natchally bowed dey heads an’ cried.”  Ma follows some of the folks outside, showing her solidarity with them.  The experience could not happen without her, but it also could not happen if she were not one of them[4]. The blues balance between the individual and the community, manifested in lyrics, poetry, and performance, has created a triumph.

[1] Robert Johnson, “Hellhound on My Trail”

[2] While these are Bob Dylan songs more than they are blues songs, they borrow enough of the blues structure, from rhythm to chord changes to storytelling style (starting with the vintage titles) to deserve mention.

[3] The Rolling Stones, who are often connected with blues, provide another example of this strategy: “But what can a poor boy do / Except to sing for a rock n roll band? / ‘Cause in sleepy London Town / There’s just no place for a street fighting man.”

[4] I suspect this is one reason for Murray’s disregard for talented white jazz musicians Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa.

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