I've spent an interesting afternoon reading the new issue of Blues Revue, a bimonthly magazine about that vibrant musical genre published in Salem, West Virginia. It's the ideal niche magazine: vastly knowledgeable about its subject, but well-written, entertaining and non-oppressively informative even for the casual fan.
I confess I'm at a loss as to where the blues begins or ends. The entry for it in Wikipedia talks about blue notes and 12-bar structures, and makes reference to a call-and-response pattern for music and lyrics that has an African origin. I do know that when you're talking about music, the blues aren't necessarily sad, but they do reflect life, and that is often at least a little melancholy.
Every other issue of Blues Revue contains a CD of new blues recordings, a nice bonus.
The magazine starts out with a number of very well-written profiles of blues performers, many of them getting on in years.
The cover story of this issue is about Ike Turner, whose contribution to the music world goes far beyond his notorious marriage to Tina. For instance, as a teenager he played the piano on B.B. King's first hit record, "Three O'Clock Blues," back in the late 1940s. In the early 1950s he sneaked a young white gravel truck driver who wanted to hear Turner play into the back door of a blacks-only club in West Memphis. Yes, Elvis Presley hid behind the piano! Ike Turner remembers his next meeting with Elvis even more vividly. It was years after in a Las Vegas casino, and later that day Turner won a $470,000 jackpot.
Fruteland Jackson seems typical of many blues performers, in that he's had many jobs ― private investigator, shrimp wholesaler, worker in a McDonnell Douglas missile factory ― but has ultimately come back to music. At 53, he believes that experience does count in the blues: "What happens with a lot of young players is that they don't have the life experience for older people to believe. You're 24 years old. How are you going to talk to me about my 'woman'? You just left your mother's house."
On his new album Jackson has what some call a protest song, titled "Blues Over Baghdad." He explains, "What caused it was watching public television every night and seeing these silent moments with these young men, with their ears sticking out from their heads and looking green ― 18, 19 years old. I said, Who's going to speak for them? They're young enough to buy into a lot of things, and there they are."
The issue contains a couple of technical features on blues playing, one on using the bottleneck slide on the guitar, the other on minor playing on the chromatic harmonica.
There are pages and pages of CD and show reviews, and that's where you'll get a sense of the many young blues performers at work, several with prior experience in well-known pop and rock groups.
In the back of the magazine are fascinating full-page obituaries of blues performers, again up to the fine writing standards evident throughout Blues Revue.
I liked one about Robert Lockwood, Jr., a Robert Johnson protégé who died at age 91 in November. A truly cantankerous fellow, he became a featured performer on the legendary regional King Biscuit Time radio show in the early 1940s. Like many blues performers, he was in and out of the business. "I done quit the music business six times," he once said in an interview. "I tried my best to live with the squares, but the motherfuckers run me back to music."
The editors of Blues Revue have also come up with a nice last-page feature. It's called "Cover Stories," and discusses the background of a legendary blues album cover.