Blues Rules, and Here are the Rules
The blues is a distinctly African-American form of music by lineage, but it is often said, truly enough, that “the blues knows no color.” The astonishing, global, and continually evolving breadth of its influence somewhat obscures its origins, its core—so that what we call “the blues” in our time includes a far greater stylistic diversity of material than the term might have denoted even fifty years ago—and I suppose that, as a musician, a great part of my fascination with the blues stems from the fact that this music is a cultural phenomenon which sprang from the humblest of origins right here in my part of the world, the southeastern United States. I know of at least two places near my home where you can come by a guitar made from a cigar box and fishing twine, and I’m familiar with a couple of guys who can tear the holy sh** out of them on command. Equipment junkies: go home and count your overdrive pedals, k? Thanks. ;-)
In my experience as a performer and teacher, the charge that “white people can’t play the blues” comes usually (actually, always) from the mouths of white people frustrated by an utter lack of soul in their own playing—and soulful musicianship is most assuredly not governed by melatonin counts. One has only to consider the careers of Caucasian giants from Django Reinhardt to Dave Brubeck to Duane Allman and Stevie Ray Vaughan to quickly ascertain the falsity of such a claim; and this is not to mention the fact that there are almost certainly a profusion of competent bluesmen and blueswomen of several ethnicites in every major city of my country, and of various nations abroad.
For lack of a better way of phrasing the idea, I would suggest that the essence of the blues is primarily a state of mind combined with intimate knowledge of a specific musical style. It is authenticated not by the color of the skin, but by pure musicianship, life experience, world-weariness, and the heartfelt drive for self-expression. Unfortunately, there are a number of individuals who fancy themselves true-blue wailers in the absence of some or all of these qualities.
Posted at Mad Stratter, here is a humorous take on “bluesmanship” in the form of a list of compositional rules and qualifications. I got a hearty chuckle out of it, and, I’m betting, so will you. I got a hearty chuckle out of it, and, I’m betting, so will you. If you don’t chuckle heartily, now, well—babe, I just don’t know what I’m goan do:
1. Most blues begin “woke up this morning.”
2. “I got a good woman” is a bad way to begin the blues, unless you stick something nasty in the next line. I got a good woman – with the meanest dog in town.
3. Blues are simple. After you have the first line right, repeat it. Then find something that rhymes. Sort of. Got a good woman with the meanest dog in town. He got teeth like Margaret Thatcher and he weighs about 500 pounds.
4. The blues are not about limitless choice.
5. Blues cars are Chevies and Cadillacs. Other acceptable blues transportation is Greyhound bus or a southbound train. Walkin’ plays a major part in the blues lifestyle. So does fixin’ to die.
6. Teenagers can’t sing the blues. Adults sing the blues. Blues adulthood means old enough to get the electric chair if you shoot a man in Memphis.
7. You can have the blues in New York City, but not in Brooklyn or Queens. Hard times in Vermont or North Dakota are just depression. Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City are still the best places to have the blues.
8. You can’t have the blues in an office or a shopping mall; the lighting is all wrong.
9. The following colors do not belong in the blues:
10. Good places for the Blues:
a. the highway
b. the jailhouse
c. the empty bed
11.Bad places for the Blues:
b. Gallery openings
c. weekend in the Hamptons
12. Do you have the right to sing the blues?
a. your first name is a southern state-like Georgia
b. you’re blind
c. you shot a man in Memphis.
d. you can’t be satisfied.
a. you were once blind but now can see.
b. you’re deaf
c. you have a trust fund.
13. No one will believe it’s the blues if you wear a suit, unless you happen to be an old black man.
14. Neither Julio Iglesias nor Barbra Streisand can sing the blues.
15. If you ask for water and baby gives you gasoline, it’s the blues. Other blues beverages are:
c. muddy water
16.Blues beverages are NOT:
a. Any mixed drink
b. Any wine kosher for Passover
17. If it occurs in a cheap motel or a shotgun shack, it’s blues death. Stabbed in the back by a jealous lover is a blues way to die. So is the electric chair, substance abuse, or being denied treatment in an emergency room. It is not a blues death if you die during a liposuction treatment.
18. Some Blues names for Women
b. Big Mama
19. Some Blues Names for Men
c. Little Willie
20a. Persons with names like Sierra or Sequoia will not be permitted to sing the blues no matter how many men they shoot in Memphis.
20b. Other Blues Names (Starter Kit)
a. Name of Physical infirmity (Blind, Cripple, Asthmatic)
b. First name (see above) or name of fruit (Lemon, Lime, Kiwi)
c. Last Name of President (Jefferson, Johnson, Fillmore, etc.)