by Phil Baker –
Things happen when cultures collide–some good, some bad, but always interesting. The Crusades, when medieval Europe clashed with the Muslim world, led to the Renaissance. US soldiers, exposed to early twentieth-century European culture during World War I, produced the roaring twenties. African religion, brought to the new world by African slaves, mixed with Catholicism to form voodoo in Haiti, santeria in Cuba, and candomble in Brazil. The music of Africa and Europe also mixed in the new world to create salsa in Cuba, samba in Brazil, and the Blues in America.
I consider the creation of the Blues one of the most important and influential musical developments of the last few centuries. The influence of the Blues can be found in almost every genre of music. Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” and the theme to the television show “Batman” are just a few examples. One could draw a family tree and show how the blues spawned jazz, rhythm and blues, soul, and, more recently, funk and rock and roll. The iconoclast Jimi Hendrix combined the Delta Blues with a Fender Stratocaster and a Marshall amp to forever change the guitar and rock. All the great rock guitarists studied the Blues. Jimmy Page, Billy Gibbons, Keith Richards, and Joe Walsh are just a few. What do you think separates Eric Clapton from the legions of fleet-fingered guitar slingers? It is the depth of expression he gained from studying the Blues. I think the golden age of rock, 1967-1972, was epitomized by
the prime of the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Cream, ZZ Top, and Jimi Hendrix. All were heavily influenced by the Blues. The corporate hair bands that followed were pitiful and soulless. This vacuum of emotion and expression led to the revolt of the grunge bands, full of rebellion and angst but lacking innovation and depth. Woodstock, almost forty years ago, is still the high water mark of rock and pop music and culture. Can you imagine the music and fashion of 1928 at Woodstock?!?
Some of the most easily recognizable trademarks of the Blues are the “Blue notes.” These notes are found between the minor and major thirds and the fourth and sharp fourth. On instruments that can’t play these notes (piano, organ, etc.) there developed licks that trilled between these notes. Guitarists started bending strings to get at these notes! The Blues is the first genre, to my knowledge, that combines minor and major tonality.
Playing over the changes of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” or learning the slap bass part to Larry Graham’s “Pow” can be challenging but you have not had your butt kicked until you’ve tried to solo over a slow blues.
What do you think of when somebody says “The Blues?” John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in black suits? Dark smoky nightclubs? It may be cliché to think that the Blues represents sorrow and hardship but there is usually some truth found in a cliché. I value the time I’ve spent in Blues bands and studying the Blues and would recommend both to any aspiring musician to broaden and temper the depth of their musicality.
The Blues, like pornography, might be hard to define but easy to recognize. Anybody who has played a distorted electric guitar or listened to Elvis’ “You Ain’t Nothin’ but a Hounddog” has been touched by the Blues.