(Explaining the Blues – Ma Rainey) Before I even began my trip a number of things were running through my mind -- typical for a writer who is still gestating a novel to digest and regurgitate ideas and images endlessly to see what they are made of. On that platform, for the next hour, the only thing I had to chew on was my own thoughts. I listened to and thought about the blues.
In Blues People, Leroy Jones (aka Amiri Baraka) writes that
the blues, had, and still has, a certain weight in the psyches of its inventor;and when writing about Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Ralph Ellison wrote that
the specific folk-art form which helped shape the writer’s attitude towards his life …and embodied…quality and tone of his autobiography was the Negro blues,but, in truth, the blues are all black folks’ autobiography.
I mean, I’m not saying anything new when I say that the blues are the definitive American music and that jazz and rock have their blues in their blood. So when I downloaded or recorded over 200 songs, blues and jazz, I did so because I wanted a soundtrack that was older than my own. The soundtrack of my life features The Jackson Five, Marvin Gaye, Minnie Ripperton, Hall and Oates, Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan with Rufus, Cameo, Prince, and (remodeled) Michael Jackson, ad nauseum. These days, it’s more about Miles than I care to admit but, in my mind, the soundtrack of this trip included Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Memphis Millie and a whole list of anonymous singers, guitar, banjo and piano players who had travelled by train or by car from the South to the cities of New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Oakland, Los Angeles. The stories of the folks I want to write about, the stories of what they left and what they found were in those songs. It seemed to me if I was retracing their steps, as best as I could, I should do so with those same stories in my ears. (Counting the Blues – Ma Rainey)
Ralph Ellison also wrote that
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.In my African American literature course, I discuss with my students a literary concept called a blues ethos or blues aesthetic, which is a way of looking at the world that is grounded in the black experience – or the way black folks look at the world -- and how that way of looking at the world, permeates much more than music. The best example of that that I can think of is watching Richard Pryor’s performance in Live on the Sunset Strip. When the man talks about setting himself on fire and you want to laugh and cry at the same time, that is the blues, creating art of pain.
(Non-sequitar – This is precisely what most of these comedians who admired Richard Pryor don’t understand – the ability to make the autobiographical experience into a universal one, to explore its pathos and its absurdity and all their complexity rather than targeting the easy laugh. They lack either the life experience or the emotionally maturity ~Copyrighting the n-word, chile please~ to create blues and therefore, genius.)
Also embodied in that blues ethos is an ability to recognize irony and embrace contradiction. The story of Pullman porters is just like that. Somehow, in that car, they were both master and servant and their survival depended upon understanding that. The irony of being, in many ways, the one of the best professions available and still being paid far less than your peers, subject to random acts of humiliation and pettiness, yet signifying all that is elegant and civilized, is innate to this story and unfortunately not uncommon.
Leroy Jones also wrote …
that the weight of the blues for the slave…differs radically the weight of that same music in the psyches of most contemporary Negroes.Jones concludes that
the one peculiar referent to the drastic change in the Negro from slavery to “citizenship” was his music.Music marks the period in which the African ceases to be African and becomes an American – that you are no longer going home and that; indeed, there is no home to go to. Recognizing that this place, crazy as it is, IS your home and your destiny lies with it --- Honey, that would have given me the blues, too.
(Non-sequitar – Viewed this way doesn’t it seem disturbingly like an abusive relationship? Just a thought.)
Blues aren’t entirely about politics of, for that matter, tragedy. In the blues is the possibility, the hope of (if not the actuality) of triumph, redemption. So it was with my journey, when I finally get downtown. (Downtown Blues – Frank Stokes)