Every few months or so I get fed up. The prospect of a promising new release just doesn’t entice me in any way. So, inevitably, I have to take a little sabbatical from my beloved rock music and cleanse the palate with the music that refuses to bore me, no matter how many hours I spend listening to it. I refer to America’s music, and, no, I do not mean jazz. I hate jazz. Goosebumps don’t spontaneously form on my skin after hearing an alto saxophone spill supposedly brilliant line after line of notes that, to my untrained ear, sound random anyway. Augmented chords and modal improvisation do not make me salivate. I am, admittedly, stubborn and dense. In other words, I’d rather listen to Joni Mitchell’s decisive “Blue” than Miles Davis’ more suggestively sufficient “Kind of Blue” (and I do own both). Even more accurately, I’d much rather listen to the entire genre of the color. I refer, of course, to America’s most remarkable contribution to the history of popular music, the blues.
The blues has a long, strange history stemming from the Mississippi Delta and then sprouting anew in Chicago due to arduous cultural migration motivated by the commercial aspirations of the musicians. Since I grew up surrounded by steel mills, glaring reminders of America’s irrevocable plunge into industry and modernism, I learned to love electric Chicago blues artists like the inescapable Muddy Waters and my personal favorite, Howlin’ Wolf, whose lion’s voice never ceased to chill my bones. Still, this was all tailored towards the diluted expectations of the innately unctuous music industry, and I had to dig deeper in order to unearth the vulnerability of the music’s purest form.
Following the Mississippi River will take you straight to the Delta, where you will immediately encounter Robert Johnson, the undisputed “King of the Delta Blues.” Songs like “Dust My Broom” and “Come On In My Kitchen” became staples in the sets of the electric artists, and one, “Sweet Home Chicago,” now grates my nerves because of the modern version’s exclusion of the “land of California” line that beautifully conveyed the hope that a new city promised. His popularity has been attributed to his mischievous guitar playing that always defied convention, and his mythology about the whole “sold my soul to the devil at the crossroads” remains extremely cool to this day, but he was still a newcomer, and even his sound had roots in older artists like Son House and Charlie Patton.
It’s hard to keep track of all of the wonderful artists that precede electric blues, but I enjoy juggling them according to the spasmodic vacillations of my mood and will now suggest a few to explore when Super Tuesdays bore you:
When you’re feeling evil, go for Robert Johnson: He shook hands with the devil.
When you’re feeling grumpy, go for Charlie Patton: His garbled, cantankerous voice defies most attempts at comprehension.
When you’re feeling fatalistic, go for Blind Lemon Jefferson: His “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” will make you appreciate all your daily trifles.
When you’re feeling cheerful, go for Lead Belly: Even his murder ballads, like “Duncan and Brady,” and most ominous songs, like the relentless “Red Bird,” bounce.
When you’re feeling exhausted, go for Son House: The then-septuagenarian’s a cappella versions of “John the Revelator” and “Grinnin’ in Your Face” make “Eye of the Tiger” sound like “Three Blind Mice.”
When you’re feeling restless, listen to Lightnin’ Hopkins: When he played in my hometown, Gary, Ind., Charlie Musselwhite says he brought a little light into even that old wasteland.
When you’re craving a woman’s perspective, listen to Memphis Minnie: She’s tougher than any of these guys.
Finally, if you feel more than any one of these things at any given time, listen to Blind Willie McTell: He’s just unbearably sweet. When I first heard him, I thought a woman was singing. “Kind Mama” possesses the sort of relentlessly coy teasing that only a lady can muster and sound authentic. Whereas other blues artists rely on the consistent aggression of their throaty voice, McTell sings with unmodified purity, allowing his words to resonate as innocently as the timbre of his voice. Once you explore the other jewels, like “Your Southern Can is Mine, “Broke Down Engine Blues” and “Lord Send Me An Angel,” his inimitability utterly captivates you until you realize that the sun is setting and you really should get some sleep.
The other blues artists consistently play strict blues in their predetermined structures, but McTell has a remarkable ear for rhythm that emerges in his guitar playing. Although he definitely plays and sings the blues, his guitar always suggests the complicated rhythmic arrangements of ragtime. Combined with his playful lyrical flair, his music will ensnare you with its sweetness and then enthrall you with its depth. In the words of the immortal Bob Dylan, “Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.” I see there’s a new Modest Mouse coming out soon (YAWN).