I have a number of colleagues, friends, and family serving the public interest and I am sure that serial dysfunctional governance by Continuing Resolution, critical positions at senior levels being unfilled, and now a shutdown that will affect their ability to make ends meet are weighing on them at this moment. Thus, a bit of blues music for our times seems to be apropos.
For those not familiar with the history or the form of the music, rather than a music that leads one to hopelessness and resignation, the blues catalogue through the human folk tradition the day-to-day worries and challenges of everyday people.
The blues were born from the work songs of African-American slaves–a brutal environment that punished summarily any sign of protest or rebellion. Thus two outlets were allowed to them–the use of music during heavy labor and mundane work that the slave owners encouraged as a way of ensuring quiescence and productivity, and in religious worship, which was thought as a means of pacification through the acceptance of sanctified music. The slave owners and slavery’s supporters did not fully understand nor recognize the subversive message in the lyrics of these two musical roots, which communicated human dignity, perseverance, and–yes–hope, in the face of oppression, rape, murder, and brutality. The rhythm of the music is organic, borrowed in part from the African rhythms of the different tribes from which the slaves originated, but also derived from whatever was at hand in the New World borrowed from the ruling white society and indigenous American tribes, many of whom accepted runaway slaves and, later, freedmen among their tribes. Thus, forged from the fire of oppression, came a music that embodied the aspirations inspired by the promise embodied in such ideas as freedom, democracy, and equality in a uniquely American way, The blues are the musical soil and soul of American ideal.
The blues carried itself into jazz, which elevated the simplistic folk forms, and has become an elegant, groundbreaking, and uniquely American classical music that continues to push the limits of musical improvisation and expression. It also carried itself into and influenced American popular music, where its deceivingly simplistic forms were imitated and evolved into other musical styles, merging and developing over time.With the great African-American migration to northern cities to escape Jim Crow, the music evolved and incorporated urban influences, with the added dynamics of electrified instruments, and a new defiant message that included elements of black pride, black power, and northern attitude.
Other countries adopted and unabashedly mimicked the music, reviving interest in the music during times when it was undervalued and ignored in this, its country of origin. The British Invasion of the 1960s reintroduced the music to the U.S. through the hybrid of blues-rock, thus anyone familiar with the Rolling Stones, Led Zepplin, early Fleetwood Mac, The Yardbirds, Cream, and others are listening to the blues adapted and recycled to a new generation. It continues today with a broader mix and diversity of musicians that have taken the music of those first generations of African-American blues musicians–Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Son House, B.B. King, Albert King, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and others–and have broadened it, continuing in both the tradition and in extending the music to make it an urgent and vital expression of the human experience. It reveals in its best form the interconnectedness and basic humanity that we all share, across cultures, across generations, and across time.
Unfortunately many blues performers cannot be readily found on YouTube in authorized forms for sharing. No doubt, this post, as with posts in the past that covered blues and jazz will record below average traffic compared to even the esoteric and specialized subjects of Big Data and project management. Fortunately, however, individuals like Don Odell and his Legends studios in Massachusetts records the new generation of bluesmen and blueswomen and so I can share these artists tonight. Each of the musicians below–all amazing and talented in their own way–provide a diversity of perspectives of life and its challenges through their music.
The first artist is Samantha Fish. She hails from Kansas City, Missouri, a town that is rich in blues and jazz history. She lists her influences as visiting blues musicians who performed at Knuckleheads Saloon, a popular musical venue. She began performing in 2009 and she has been mercurial. Her blues album, Wild Heart, charted as the top blues album in 2015. Her latest album is Belle of the West.
Nikki Hill is from North Carolina and, if you aren’t familiar with her the clip that follows should bring you running to the store to find her music. She combines intelligent lyrics, strong woman attitude, and powerful vocals to her music–all hallmarks of a great blues vocalist. Her first album is Heavy Hearts, Hard Fists.
Mike Zito, like Samatha Fish, also is from the mid-west. In his case it is St. Louis. Born in 1970, he began singing at the age of 5, and performed locally in the St. Louis area for many years. In 2008 he gained his big break and was signed on by the Eclecto Groove label. The title song from his 2009 release entitled Pearl River won Song of the Year at the 2010 Blues Music Awards. In 2013 his album Gone to Texas also garnered critical reviews and was nominated for best album at Blues Music Awards in 2013. His latest album is Make Blues, Not War. Here he is covering “Fortunate Son.”
Joe Louis Walker is, of course, a living blues legend and a living national treasure. He took up guitar growing up in the San Francisco bay area. He hooked up with Mike Bloomfield, Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead and other musical pioneers that pushed rock and psychedelic music to new pathways. Burned out on blues after 1975, he turned to sanctified music. However, after attending the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 1985 he returned to his blues roots. Here he is performing “One Time Around.”
Last, but not least, is Popa Chubby. The name is actually the nom de plume of Ted Horowitz, who grew up in the Bronx, New York. After working the woodshed for a number of years (he was born in 1960) he was finally “discovered” in 1992 by the public radio station in Long Beach, California, which sponsored a national blues talent search. Since that time his album production has been prolific, spanning and incorporating other musical genres within a blues structure. Idiosyncratic and eclectic, Papa Chubby combines showmanship, independence, and amzaing musical chops to keep the music vital and interesting. In the clip below Popa Chubby is the large man who plays lead guitar, and like a good leader who showcases the talents of others, has deferred to his keyboardist to take the lead vocals on the song, “Not So Nice Anymore.”