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Summer time is blues time

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Do I even need to say that it’s blues time? Summer is always the ideal time to hear the best blues and jazz acts in the country and this year is no exception. I listen to and think about the blues a lot. Eventually, I hope to write a blues novel. I particularly muse about the blues this time of the year because it is when the three or four-day blues festival sponsored by the Cascade Blues Association takes place in Portland. This year it is called the Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival and is July 3 through 6 at, you guessed it, Watefront Park.

The roster has included legendary acts as well as local and regional bluesmen and women, with a special focus on women. Among the big names appearing are Taj Mahal, Etta James, Steve Miller, Susan Tedeschi, Roy Rogers and Norton Buffalo. The rest of the 100 or so performers are worthy souls, too.

Whenever I talk about the blues with a general audience, I make sure to define what I mean by blues and correct some misconceptions.

Blues are a kind of music that developed in America from the various musical expressions of African Americans. The blues are an extremely flexible type of music, and various musicians have created individual styles of performing them. The blues contributed greatly to the development of jazz. . . .

The basic blues design is a 12-bar form that is divided into three sections of four bars each. Most blues lyrics consist of several three-line stanzas. The second line of each stanza repeats the first, and the third line expresses a response to the first two. Many blues lyrics reflect loneliness or sorrow, but others declare a humorous or defiant reaction to life’s troubles.

Blues may have developed after the American Civil War (1861-1865) from short solo calls and wails called field hollers. Field hollers were used as a form of communication among black plantation workers in the South. In the late 1800’s, country, or “down-home,” blues developed in the Mississippi Delta region. These songs were sung by a male singer, usually with the accompaniment of a guitar. Blind Lemon Jefferson and Mississippi John Hurt were well-known singers of country blues.

Music historians trace the history of the blues from the late 1800s in the South to the 1900s in other regions as African-Americans migrated to the Midwest, West and North. Modern blues echoes the themes of traditional blues — romantic relationships, the hard work of the laboring classes and the vicissitudes of fortune. Contemporary popularizers such as Keb Mo, Mem Shannon and Robert Cray have made a full circle with the music, bringing the influences of jazz and soul back to a genre that was the roots of both.

A common misconception about the blues is the music is always sad. The mood of a blues song can range from joyous to dolorous, from high as a Georgia pine to lower than a worm’s belly. Blues lyrics reflect the full panoply of the human experience.

Mem Shannon has mastered the tongue-in-cheek blues song.

Been seeing these new vehicles running round

Ain’t got no trunk and standing way up off the ground.

Now I know they was made for climbing mountains
and driving in the snow,

But every one I see tryin’ to run over me

When I’m driving to the grocery store.

I’m sick of these S.O.B.’S driving these S.U.V.’S

Tryin’ to run over me when I’m in my beat-up car.

Tryin’ to run over me when I’m in my beat-up car.

Hear “SUV” here.

Or listen to any album by Portland bluesman Lloyd Jones, one of the most clever songwriters and versatile guitarists I’m aware of. His career has been built on on a grasp of the variety inherent in the blues. “Trouble Monkey” is a good example.

Trouble monkey, trouble monkey that’s what I got.

Trouble monkey, trouble monkey that’s what I got.

I know she’s trouble.

I know she’s trouble, but I can’t stop.

She give me the eye, then she wiggle her hip,

That’s all it takes now — I’m right back in her grip.

Trouble monkey, trouble monkey that’s what I got.

I know she’s trouble, but I can’t stop.

(Voice) I got it bad now!

Trouble monkey, trouble monkey about to get me killed.

Trouble monkey, trouble monkey about to get me killed.

I know she’s trouble, but I got to have my trouble still.

You can’t go wrong visiting the masters either, whether original or covered by contemporary blues singers. Sometimes, I like to listen to “Drop Down Mama” by Sleepy John Estes, Lloyd Jones and Curtis Salgado back to back. They all do the song differently, but each does it well.

A couple of other unfounded myths are that the blues are for black people and old people only. In reality, most modern blues fans are white. The music has very strong followings in many European countries as well as in the United States. I believe it takes a mature mind to truly grasp the subleties of blues and jazz. But, by mature I don’t mean old. By the time people who like music reach their late 20s or early 30s many are looking for something more meaningful than the Top 40 and discover blues and jazz.

Like I said, it’s blues time. If you haven’t been listening to the blues perhaps it is time to start.

Note: Some of the material in this entry is from the World Book Encyclopedia for Mac OS X.

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  • cjones

    Wonderful article and I like your perspective.

  • Eric Olsen

    An excellent sentiment well expressed. In addition, this is Delmark Records‘ 50 anniversary, and it is also the official Year of the Blues.