(Originally published on February 28, 2011)
It is a pleasure to be here — only a few miles away from the mythical crossroads — for an event that honours the blues, America’s most significant contribution to world culture.
To hear a keynote from a British-born Canadian with a funny accent is just the smallest indication of the way this music has crossed borders, crossed continents, and crossed cultures. Never take for granted, and always celebrate, the fact that there are blues societies in Tokyo and Toronto, blues bands in Finland and France, blues enthusiasts in Bombay as well as Brooklyn, in Sydney and Saigon, in Tasmania and Timbuktu.
Forgive me, at the outset, for waving the Maple Leaf flag. Canada has much to be proud of, and much to teach its neighbour; heck, we’re DIFFERENT! For starters, we are home to three of the blues record companies who still survive — Northern Blues, Electro-Fi, and the label I’ve worked with for close to 30 years, Stony Plain. Secondly, Canada’s governments — at the federal, provincial (state) and local levels — support the arts at a level that Americans can hardly believe. The Canada Council for the Arts has an annual budget only a couple of billion short of the Natiuonal Endowment for the Arts, in a country that is a tenth your size in terms of population, even though my home province, Ontario, is bigger than Texas. The CBC, our national broadcaster, has an audience that in most urban centres exceeds that of private commercial radio. And even our commercial radio is not half as dire as yours — mainly because they are required by law to play 40 per cent Canadian music. Imagine if National Public Radio in the United States had an audience bigger than the local right wing God bothering talk radio stations that infest your airwaves?
And can you imagine the boost to your local music scenes if every American broadcaster was required to deliver a playlist that included even 15 per cent of music that originated in the station’s home state?
I come before you with a little bit of credibility — but that only comes from what all of you in room have done: Become fascinated with this music and done what we can to spread the word. I remember meeting, backstage at a ratty English jazz club, Big Bill Broonzy. I asked him — I was 17 and remarkably dumb — whether people were still singing blues in the United States for fun. “Fun?” he exploded. “No, motherfucker, they play this shit because they have to.”
That was an eye opener. After all, the first record I had ever brought — a black shellac 78 when I was 12 — was by a now forgotten vaudeville artist and film actor called Phil Harris. The song was called That’s What I Like About the South — one ascerbic critic at the time suggested Harris should slather himself with ManTan, sit on the beach at Biloxi and then ask when he liked about the south…
Soon after that, but well over half a century ago, I knew ALL about the blues. I had read Sam Charters, I had discovered Bessie Smith and the other classic artists (and it was Louis Armstrong who brought me to them), and Muddy and Wolf’s early singles came out on four track EPs in England and were devoured as the Holy Grail. We knew, for certain, the social implications of the rural Negro’s struggle for acceptance, the flight to the north, and the difficulties that black Americans faced in an urban environment.
It was only when I saw Muddy at Smitty’s Corner in — what? 1959? 1960? 1961? — that I realized that while there was truth in the intellectual recitals of the blues’ early history, there was immense passion and joy in this music, a sexuality that seemed to have missed the anthropologists’ ruminations, and a sheer sense of both show business and unbridled fun.
Later, when I had the experience — the life-changing experience — of helping bring people like John Estes, Robert Nighthawk, Muddy Waters, Son House, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, and Bobby Bland to Canada for the first time — I really began to understand both the richness of this music, and it’s sheer variety. Now, like most of you, I take this musical wealth, this enormous variety encompassed in the blues for granted, and rarely ponder the links between Charley Patton and, say, Wynonie Harris — or the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Rory Block, lionel Hampton and Louis Jordan, or Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis. At the same time, though, we often pretend not to understand the links between Solomon Burke and Jay Z, and there is little discussion of the relationship — sociological and musical — of the blues to rap and hip hop.
When I was asked to talk with you today, it was suggested I should, perhaps, be “controversial.” I’ll try, from time to time, but my intent is to be constructive — to suggest ways, perhaps, that this music we all love so much might continue to reach wider audiences.
First of all, we have to know the history of this music. Yes, that sociological stuff. And we have to remind ourselves of the sound of those pioneers — through the mists of time and the hiss and crackle of those early recordings we have to listen to those early sides by Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt, and the dozens and dozens of itinerant singers and preachers and pianists and ne’er-do-wells who wandered across this country. We need to remind ourselves of the sheer power of this raw, intensely personal music that reverberated with audiences on street corners, in tin shack bars, and — later — on juke boxes and in clubs and Carnegie Hall and in almost every country on this globe.
And, too, we need to remind ourselves of the stories, the legends, of so many of those pioneers. My dear friend — since 1965 — Dick Waterman tells the wonderful story of Son House, meeting the late John Hammond. Mr. House listened in disapproving silence as the great producer enthused about Robert Johnson and his attempts to find him to play his legendary Carnegie Hall concerts. Later, in the bar, Waterman proposed a toast to John Hammond, for signing Mr. House to Columbia Records. The response: “Let’s drink to Robert Johnson, for being dead!”
The legends, often based in truth — devils at crossroads, backwater floods, Natchez burning, untimely deaths by lynch bob, poison, shotgun, even starvation — are part of the history, and their telling and retelling over the decades has helped bring people way outside those times and those places into the big tent we call the blues.
The other thing we have to remind ourselves about is that this was music that was not “art” — the blues became, in the 40’s and 50s, popular entertainment, and cheap pop music entertainment at that. The first B.B. King album I bought, on Crown (or was it Kent, Superior or United — who knows how many labels the Bihari Brothers had) cost me $1.98. No sleeve notes, a picture of a pretty black woman on the cover, and a list of other available albums on the back, including A Tribute to Tommy Dorsey, the Drink-a-Long Singalong Gang, and Jim Day’s Organ Favourites. This wasn’t art, it was unbridled commerce. Sam Phillips, Phil and Leonard Chess, Sid Nathan and the Bihari brothers were not philanthropists; they were bare-knuckle entrepreneurs.
Secondly, let us acknowledge — and celebrate — the basic fact of cultural expropriation; that what began as music almost exclusively by and for African Americans, now belongs to the world. Like other forms of popular music, the blues changed — and the audience changed. The basic elements of this music — simple chord changes, standard song constructions, simply comprehended lyrics — made it easy for people with drastically different racial, national and cultural backgrounds to adopt and adapt it. As I said at the outset, the idea of artists playing this music in all four corners of this world would have been incomprehensible to the men and women who created and nurtured this music in rural Mississippi and the west and south sides of Chicago. In fact, the night I first walked into Smitty’s Corner, the folk in the audience stared at me in amazement — I must have arrived from Mars, rather than in a cab from the railway station.
So: Today’s basic question — and one we are all asking ourselves this weekend in Memphis: What’s the state of the blues nation? The gloom in some quarters is palpable. Little blues on the radio, except at the far left of the dial. Fewer and fewer live venues. Clubs failing and falling. Disappearing record sales — and dramatically shrinking record companies. Failing blues festivals. Vanishing record shops, and certainly no more than a handful — a small handful at that — of blues-related material in your local Wal-Mart store.
What can we all do, as a community, to halt this perceived slide? I’ve some suggestions.
First, accept other forms of music and encourage different approaches to the blues. Listen to rap. Listen to the best songwriters (you might think of starting with Randy Newman or Ray Davies). Just try — and it’s hard, but try — to figure out WHY a Canadian, Celine Dion, has sold more records than any other woman artist in history; how and why does she connect with so many millions of people?
Some of us — actually, I think most of us — aren’t very good at any of this. My friend Paul Reddick put out a CD a year ago called Sugar Bird, a title that came from his day-to-day work as a dog walker during which he became an enthusiastic bird watcher. The cover, with Audubon illustrations, was derided by some left-dial radio folk as “not looking like a blues record” — and many never even cracked the shrink wrap, possibly because they also spotted a song title: John Lennon in New Orleans. Pity. They missed the music of a truly original artist, deeply informed by the blues.
A couple of years ago, Elijah Wald came up to Toronto to do this gig — be a keynote speaker — at the Blues Summit the Toronto Blues Society organizes ever couple of years. He began by playing a tough, rockin’ 12-bar blues; feet tapped, people nodded appreciatively — until Elijah told everyone that the artist was Christine Aguillera. His point, of course, is that this music is so pervasive, so deep into the heart and lungs and brains of the popular music world — and that many of us are apparently unable or unwilling to reach out beyond the limits our own narrowly circumscribed definitions of what is and what isn’t blues.
Why can’t we accept that sort of thing, why can’t we embrace it?
So let’s be more adventurous. Let’s stop the internal bickering and bitching about the blues-based artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Stones and Eric Clapton — if the popularity they acquired brought people into our blues tent, should we not honour them, and praise them to the skies? If Mick made more money than Muddy that’s the way the stone rolls — move on, nothing to see here except reality.
Let’s remind blues players, wherever they come from, that they are involved in entertaining folk. I suspect Charley Patton and Robert Johnson knew that and I know for certain that Muddy and B. and Wolf always knew that. Is it SO hard to dress up for the stage, and deliver a SHOW? Is it so difficult to be professional? That means playing as if every single date is important, that the smallest audiences may include an influential person who could advance your career
Let’s all try to write better songs. Let us retire — permanently — Sweet Home Chicago, Mustang Sally and In the Midnight Hour. And, while we’re on, could we deep-six those awful Saturday afternoon jam sessions? I know the newbies have to learn this stuff, but not in public please.
Next, I urge the radio folk — bless ‘em for their dedication and devotion to the cause — to raise their standards. Too many of the folk on the left hand end of the dial (and there are two or three of them in almost every community) need to learn to be better broadcasters.
Too many of them play — usually in the interest of supporting local talent — too much music that isn’t good enough yet. Worse, they’ll play one good song from a fine new CD — once. The big bad music industry learned years ago that what sells is repetition. Play a song once, and people might like it, but it won’t really register until you play it six times, or seven. Yes, I know radio programmers are not in the business of encouraging their listeners to buy records — but if they do, the whole scene moves forward. But this is how you build stars — you encourage the best, and leave the rest behind to either get better, or fall by the wayside. Darwinian, I guess, but there you go
Radio folk have to be realistic — and the record companies that are left certainly are. An Australian radio programmer asked me for a CD by one of my clients; I passed the request to the record company, who tartly told me that there were three blues programmes in that relatively small community, that it cost (with time, packaging, product and postage) about $10.00 to send the CD, and that not one single sale had resulted from airplay on the other two stations in the previous three months.
Radio folk: Get ready for this – you’re gonna have to PAY to get music to play, or you’re gonna have to get used to get new music via e-mailed MPs. And to encourage record companies to be supportive, you’re going to have to play key tracks more than once, report to the folks who you deal with, put your programming up on the web, report to Living Blues, Billboard, and anywhere else who publishes “charts” — however special and inconsequential those charts may be.
Moving on: The entire blues community — musicians, radio folk, fans — have to be more supportive of each other than they often are. Less bitching, moaning, whining and complaining. Less politics, more of a united front. The role of blues societies — and the Blues Foundation — is central to this.
And, to be honest, I not only have no complaints about the Blues Foundation —¬ although I still wish that it hadn’t dropped W.C. Handy’s name from its awards — but I have nothing but praise for the work that’s done here. The awards have greater significance than they used to (despite the name change!), this weekend’s event, and the Blues Awards in May, are unifying forces that helps bind us all together.
All that said, we HAVE to break OUT of the blues ghetto. The first way to do this is to renew our efforts to sell this music to different communities. For instance, there are dozens and dozens of folk festivals all over North America — and hardly any of them have a blues component. In Ontario we have 28 folk festival every summer — and some of the continuing, long-established festivals in western Canada draw 16,000 people a day for four days. And have you noticed that the blues component of jazz festivals — and this music gave birth to jazz — is so marginalized.
Good God, if the music born of black American roots isn’t folk music and isn’t jazz, and isn’t rock and roll, I don’t know what the hell is.
We have to sell this music to younger audiences — our kids, our grand kids. God bless the White Stripes for covering Son House, and U2 for recording with B.B. King. I love — and applaud — the idea of blues in the schools programmes; I just wish they were called something else.
Let us find and encourage new artists whose music touches on our field. Encourage artists like my friend Treasa Levasseur, who came to the blues from a folk singer-songwriter background, came to Memphis for a folk-music convention, and fell in love with the blues. Encourage the artists from all over the place who have come to Memphis from all over North America — and in many cases much, much further away — to compete in this truly international Blues Challenge.
Success here WORKS, by the way; my friend Shakura S’Aida, who came second in the Blues Challenge two years ago, is currently touring Europe (for the sixth time since her success in Memphis), got an international record deal, and is ready to play festivals and major venues in the country in which she was born. (Plug: Look for her new CD on April 13 – it’s called Brown Sugar).
Let agents book blues-based bands in unusual circumstances and settings; let them sell this music to churches and festivals and venues where people don’t expect it, and wouldn’t accept it if they knew it had the “blues” tag. Let’s spread this music outside the familiar blues clubs across this continent and slide it into rock venues and concert halls and coffee houses and supper clubs and jazz joints. Let artists and agents build “package” tours — sell themselves in combination with other artists whose music is complementary; there is strength in numbers.
As we celebrate the one area of the music industry that’s successful — live performance — we have to get used to the coming demise of the CD. Although I believe it will not completely vanish in the next decade, just as the LP hasn’t, we must face the fact that young people don’t have the compulsion to “collect” music and records in the way we do. They want music on demand, they want it now, and — preferably — they don’t want to pay for it. Sorry, that’s a fact of life, and we have to get used to it; the genie can’t be stuffed back into the bottle. As much as we may rail against the cultural philosophy of “free” we have to live with it. And what the music business — the canary in the coal mine — learned the hard way is a lesson the film business and the book publishing business are going to have to come to terms with very shortly.
As a result, we must learn to use the new media more effectively than we do, and on every level. We must participate in the on-0line revolution — let your voices be heard on list-serves and blogs and websites. Become a slave to e-mail — I trashed more than 50,000 of ‘em last year, but along the way I spread the word about my clients, I learned a lot of stuff, and I moved my business and my personal life forward by leaps and bounds.
Make sure your music can be found on YouTube (the greatest miracle since parting the red sea, and a lot more practical and informative). And your bio better be on Wikipedia and you’d better have a Facebook page and a website and a Sonic Bids account; learn to Tweet – that’s my next task, better late than never, when I get home. Yes, I know it’s hard. Yes, it takes too much time. Yes, it’s a pain the ass. Welcome to the new world of information overload; join in or get left behind.
However, at the same time that we work to close ranks, engage in our ritual group hugs, and build strength from the inside, and play our music to the audiences we have built to date — we have to face an important and interesting fact of life:
That is that the very term “blues” is seen by many people — perhaps most people — as a negative. You’ve all heard the clichés — it all sounds the same, it’s depressing, there’s nothing new, etc. etc. That, somehow, it isn’t relevant.
There’s a historical precedent for this, of course — the black audience which, almost overnight, deserted the fold in the 60’s, apparently abandoning music that they felt did not portray their current mood. There were no blues bands at the March to Washington — instead, even on that occasion, folk singers like Peter Paul and Mary and Bob Dylan seemed to capture the zeitgeist.
Of course, black audiences — while their tastes changed — still listened to blues, as long as it wasn’t labeled as such. And the nature of “blues” for the Afro American changed, and it continues to do so today. And much blues-based music is still found in the work of newer black artists, rappers, DJs and hip hop stylists alike.
Today, while we celebrate among ourselves and in our blues community, perhaps we must — we have to — ask ourselves how we can widen our audience. And I suggest that the most important way — again, OUTSIDE our community — may be to drop the word “blues.”
In Canada, Downchild — an institution that’s lasted for 40 years — used to be called the Downchild Blues Band (and it still is, on rare occasions). The band and its management long ago felt that the B-word tended to limit their audience. The music stayed the same, the old fans didn’t notice, and most people who dance to the band, party to the band, don’t even know or care that it is, still, a blues band — and a damned good one, too. Same goes for Colin James, another veteran Canadian artist — who never describes himself as a blues artist, although he undeniably is. I am sure you can all think of similar artists in this country — Bobby Rush comes instantly to mind — who have struggled to keep the fame alive and yet have realized that for many the tag has been detrimental.
Finally, I want you to take away this thought. This music that we love is special. I often tell folk that any kind of music, to reach people, has to touch at least two of the following four parts — head, heart, groin and feet. The best blues can touch all four, simultaneously. It makes us think, it reaches our emotions, we can have great sex to it, and we can dance to it — however clumsily, in my case.
The blues has been a major element of popular music for almost a century. Once an American phenomenon, it has spread — certainly more effectively than even the latest flu virus — to every corner of this world. It keeps changing, it keeps evolving, it keeps transmuting into different kinds of music.
But it’s always there — just as Bach is always there (and has been for three hundred years) and that Beethoven, however many times you hear the Fifth, still resonates.
The blues — sad, heartfelt, funny, joyful, inspiring and profound— makes music around the world better than it would have been had not those itinerant sons and daughters of slaves — and their descendants — created them.
The blues will grow, change, and probably turn into something else — just as we all will. We are privileged — and we all have the almost sacred responsibility —to help keep the flame alive.