Culture Rover

#60 - The Seesaw Theory of the Blues

The two books have been on my desk for a long time, dueling it out in an epic slide-guitar cutting contest. The Music Makers Relief Foundation's Music Makers: Portraits and Songs From the Roots of America and Fat Possum Records' Darker Blues reveal two sides of the blues -- two of the sides that make the music so powerful.

Music Makers emphasizes the soaring regality of blues musicians who have suffered in obscurity, making music in places such as the drink houses of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. People like Guitar Gabriel. The book is all about rescuing the roots of roots music, getting to and documenting and helping out the authentic blues makers.

The book is full of photographs of men and women -- almost but not entirely all African-American -- who are proud and resilient despite their circumstances. These people, the photographs and profiles insist, are rich despite their supposed impoverishment. They deserve better material conditions to match their spiritual condition.An epigraph from Guitar Gabriel starts things off: "Blues will never die because it is a spirit. It is an uplift and the way you feel it, that is the way it is. And it brings a lot of joy to people. Music is made to make happiness, make you smile and forget your troubles. In the Good Book it says to make a joyful news. It doesn't say what kind of noise, just as long as you make one. So that is about the size of it. That is what we are trying to do."

The book, edited by folklorist and Music Makers Relief Foundation founder Timothy Duffy, sometimes moves toward a kind of Neal Deal WPA photography realism and a positive outlook that turns away from the darker, lonelier, and naughtier sides of the blues. There's nothing wrong with positivity; in fact, the world and the blues are a whole lot better for the work of the Music Makers foundation. The book does hint at the fullness of the blues (when Duffy was Guitar Gabriel's manager, their deal was that Duffy didn't cheat Gabriel or Gabriel would shoot Duffy). But in order to make a case continually for its righteous cause, Music Makers leans toward a one-sided argument: all see and no saw.

This is more a folklore problem than a blues problem. When you try to lift up a vernacular form like the blues, you lose a bit of its blueness. The blues swings like a seesaw: what you gain in the see of dignity, you lose in the saw of murkier desires. What Music Makers gains in historical accuracy and a kind of redistributive cultural justice, it loses in the netherworld of dream and myth and viscous, bloody cultural ectoplasm.

Darker Blues, by contrast, is, well, darker. It emphasizes the human needs and nastiness about which the blues can speak truth. It is more forbidden, more painful, and more abject than Music Makers. Raucous, wild Mississippi juke-joint funksters such as T-Model Ford and R.L. Burnside lead the way as Fat Possum label founder Matthew Johnson brings out the punk in the blues, releasing music that is raw, electrified, buzzing mayhem.

The photographs in Darker Blues move from monochrome to woozy color, letting the musicians turn from timeless wizards into postmodern tricksters. There's even a vaguely offensive fold-out comic poster, "The Rude Blues," that chronicles the adventures of Ford and Burnside R. Crumb-style.

There's something so wrong about Fat Possum, but is it able to reach levels that Music Makers does not? Because it doesn't look away or shirk human suffering, anger, rage, violence, or pain; because it doesn't hide from how the blues is a mediation on power, getting shat on and shitting on others in return; because it notices how the blues confronts sin and lust and weakness. It follows the music's bleary ooze into the dreamworld, the bleak dawn, the neon, whiskey-soaked corners of consciousness. It doesn't turn from what feels or seems forbidden or inappropriate.

There's always the danger of exoticism with this kind of project, but maybe the point here is that Fat Possum lets blues artists themselves explore the exotic, on their own terms. Freed from the see of positioning the blues only as a regal thing (which it is), Fat Possum lets blues makers explore the saw of less noble aspects.

At first, Fat Possum's approach is shocking. But on second thought, it's meant to deal in shock; the way that those who get administered shocks can shock back. "Fat Possum is always being criticized for being disrespectful, or for not being reverent in our marketing and publicity," Matthew Johnson notes. But Johnson argues that he just records "blues guys who were overlooked by other labels because they hadn't toured, or had only limited repertoires, or were unreliable or refused to play standing up. Guys who sometimes have trouble standing up, yet excel at falling down. But that's the blues. At least what I call the blues."

I'd disagree with Johnson about his essentialization of the blues. His characterization is not the essence of this deep, vast, rich, complicated musical form and life force. It's only one half of the seesaw. But it's the part that often vanishes in folklore preservation or salvage rescue efforts. And it's the part that gets passed along the margins, through unrevered channels, in the static: to rock and funk and punk and hip-hop like a lightning-bolt sulfur match, flaring up to illuminate the starless night, stinking and smoking up the place in its magical, spectral flash.

I think I'll keep these two books on my desk, battling it out on the seesaw between high and low, heaven and hell, light and darkness, joy and pain, laughter and tears, blues and blooze.

27 April 05

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