“Blues” for the Blues?
by Michael Brenner on 07 Jan 2024 0 Comment

Now, in our winter of discontent


When forty mishaps have furrowed our brow

And gouged deep wedges in our self-esteem

Our native proud glory, gazed on now,

Looks a tattered remnant, of little worth held


Yet – may a bequest of rueful regret to all,

sum our account? And excuse our vain folly


Americans might be expected to be singing the Blues. We, as a country, have experienced a string of painful disappointments. Forever wars that we lose outright or abandon to chaos and suffering as our legacy. We huffed and puffed in a vain effort to bring down Russia only to see the Russians prevail in Ukraine militarily and to emerge from the test in better shape than our European allies/vassals. Now, we have dishonoured America, along with every principle and ideal we supposedly embody and cherish, by acting as accomplices in the gravest crimes against humanity committed massively in Gaza and Yemen. To ensure that the future will be as perverse and dangerous as the present, we are locking ourselves into a Cold War between our camp and a Sino-Russian-led bloc which the United States has instigated and welcomes.


At home, the scene is equally dismal. We already are deep into a Presidential election season that offers no reason for hope and good reason for dread. The ship of state is leaderless and rudderless while those grabbing for the tiller are prepared to drive it onto the rocks. The inconceivable – Fascism with American characteristics – looms on the horizon. Meanwhile, the yawning gap between the super-rich and the rest of us entraps the many struggling to meet their essential needs, tax revenue-starved governments neglect basic infrastructure – social as well as physical - on which a modern society critically depends, and the strongest passions are generated by an obsession with so-called ‘identity’ issues which are the hallmark of a confused, disoriented and increasingly narcissistic society.


The outlook is forbidding: ‘We have drowned our honour in a shallow cup, and sold our reputation for a song’


But the Blues are not being heard – nor will they be. For the Blues expresses an abiding melancholy that neither will dissipate nor yield to individual initiative. It’s a condition that presumes an unchanging world of tribulation wherein only frustration and futility await those who struggle to overcome it. Yet, we must live this life as we find it.


Nothing is more alien to the American spirit than this soulful mood. Our national credo stresses a progressive improvement in all things, rewards for earnest endeavour, and a can-do ethic. “There’s always tomorrow; If at first you don’t succeed, try.. try.. try again; When the going gets tough, the tough get going; Just suck it up; Only way is up; Look on the bright side; Never say never; Somewhere over the rainbow.”


Americans always have fixed their gaze on the sunny side of the street. Its glow beckoned even to those who were not already basking in it. The ethos told us: it’s up to you to wend your way through the traffic to reach the promised land. These days, the traffic is more erratic and the passage more hazardous. In stark contrast, the true Blues was born of a fatalistic culture among blacks in the Deep South.


This essay tries to convey what it was about – and, implicitly, why today’s mainstream America will find other ways to express its pervasive discontents.  The most baneful already are on display.




The Blues is musical counterpoint to the optimistic pageant of progress motif that pervades American society. Born from the woes of blacks in the unreconstructed South, its theme is endurance in the midst of hardship. The emotions of that never ending struggle are what the sounds and lyrics of Blues ballads express. When the game of life is played with loaded dice, woe is destiny. Success is keeping one’s dignity and enjoying the pleasures that neither Man nor Fortune nor a distant God can deny you. [1]


So, the Blues are not a plaint or a vehement protest or a harsh indictment. All of that is justified, all of it is known, all of it is given. But to give in to poverty, unfairness and their tribulations is to lose. The Blues are not for losers; they are not for victims who yield to their victimhood.


The world of the Delta, and southern Appalachia, where the Blues germinated is pretty much faded. Its urban counterparts still exist – now twisted and tormented by anguish where the old is adulterated by new toxic troubles even while the lucky have waved it goodbye. True Blues has become a cultish art form. Lacking the infusion of new songs or new talent, it survives as a sort of audio museum. Yes, there are a bunch of descendants who are the hybrid product of artistic miscegenation: Rhythm & Blues; elements of Country & Western and Bluegrass; and bits of classic rock (Elvis Presley, who absorbed the Blues as a wayward, poverty-stricken youth in Memphis, was the bridge there).  But the lineage has lost contact with its ancestral roots.


This is the second death of the Blues. It pretty much passed from the scene after WW II, displaced by other forms of jazz in the exuberance and prosperity of the era. Its Second Coming owed to the cultural and political turbulence of the 60s and 70s when it was rediscovered by the civil rights movement and the counter-culture’s thirst for the “authentic.” Several of the old Blues men reemerged from the shadows into the limelight – playing for inter-racial audiences they never had encountered in their heyday down South or even in Chicago, St. Louis and New York. Mississippi John Hurt, Lonnie Johnson, Alberta Hunter and others finally had their day in the sun – and no worries about a regular square meal.


That golden age, too, has slipped away. The Old Guard are long gone, their original 78s treasured antiques sought by the nostalgic connoisseurs as relics to be cherished. Cherished as artefacts of history-makers as much as a physical tie to the music that “talks” to them the way contemporary pop music absolutely cannot. Remastered versions, readily available, serve the latter purpose but not the former.


For the devoted audience of a Second Coming, the Blues did not have to be ‘remade’, adapted or updated in any manner. For it always has been universalistic in its sentiments. At heart, Blues is humanism on guitar strings. It resonates with the downtrodden and the stricken – those who never gave up on life and could still tap its vitality no matter what. In its first decades, the Blues was indeed “black” music in every respect. As it travelled out of the rural Deep South, though, the Blues – like jazz generally – acquired an ecumenical status albeit most artists were black. Understandably, too, given its distinctive musical diction, it appealed to a narrower, less diverse audience than mainstream jazz.


The Blues men never were black activists - or separatists. The jazz scene generally was not obsessed by colour (which is not to say that its participants were not acutely aware of it – as inescapably they were black in white-controlled America). Whites played in black ensembles and the other way around. Some jazz big bands - Benny Goodman’s, Duke Ellington’s and Bix Beiderbecke’s - were aggressive in breaking through barriers of segregation and mixed professionally. It was commonplace for groups to visit each other’s gigs, to sit in, and even to hold informal “cutting sessions.” Perhaps the most famous and recounted of which is the Goodman Band’s contest with Chick Webb’s at the latter’s Savoy Ballroom “home court” in 1937.


Black vs White in the jazz world was a subject that mainly interested two types of people:  black “intellectuals”; and those who have little else to hold onto as supports to their self-esteem.  As to the former, there was a much publicized sparring between Norman Mailer and James Baldwin over the metaphysical question as to whether whites could understand and feel jazz in the depth that Baldwin claimed was an exclusively black aptitude. [2] Not many were terribly interested – in part because neither was taken to have much of a jazz soul, too cerebral to be “cool cats.” Players themselves were indifferent. That was especially so for the Blues men. They are serious musicians who work hard at their craft and appreciate anyone who does the same.


It is instructive to listen to the banter at recording sessions, now included in several remastered formats, among the artists and the sound engineers (invariably white). The atmosphere of geniality was strong and unaffected. It is obvious that the last thing on Louis Armstrong’s mind when preparing the great rendition of St. Louis Blues with Velma Middleton was the pigment of his “brother” George in the control room. The same for the Duke Ellington small group recordings at Variety in 1939-40. (The Great Ellington Units – BGM)


(Louis Armstrong wore a Jewish Star of David on a chain around his neck. It was in remembrance of an elderly couple in New Orleans who first hired him as a boy to do odd jobs around their shop and then acted as godparents).




The themes of Blues ballads were recurrent. They can be summarized this way:

Women (or men), God, women, liquor, women, death, Jesus, women, food, women, guns/knives, women, natural disasters (e.g. the 1927 Mississippi flood that displaced many blacks who then were forced to work on the levees under duress)


These topical labels should not be read as evidence of dissolute lives. After all, most were also the preoccupations of their white contemporaries living comfortable, middle class lives. The difference is in the openness and the expression of intense feelings through music. The fact that Rosemary Clooney singing “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window” topped the charts for months in the early 1950s does not mean that those listening to it who experienced cold sweats in anguished dreams did so because they obsessed about beagle puppies in the pet shop in town.


Here are the opening stanzas from St. Louis Blues (composed W.C. Handy – one of the “fathers” of the Blues and a trained musician):

I hate to see the ev’nin’ sun go down,

Hate to see de ev’nin’ sun go down

Makes me feel like I’m on my last go-round.

Cause ma baby, he done lef’ dis town.

Feelin’ tomorrow like ah feel today,

Feel tomorrow like ah feel today,

I’ll pack my trunk, make ma git away.

Saint Louis woman with her diamon’ rings

Pulls that man ‘roun’ by her apron strings.

‘Twant for powder an’ for store-bought hair,

De man ah love would not gone nowhere, nowhere.

Got de Saint Louis Blues jes as blue as ah can be.

That man got a heart lik a rock cast in the sea.

Or else he wouldn’t have gone so far from me. Doggone it!

I loves day man like a schoolboy loves his pie,

Lak Louis Armstrong plays so loud and high.

I’ll love ma baby till the day ah die.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uPEVmBOfiC8 (Louie Armstrong/Velma Middleton)


Many Blues songs have evocative titles that signal the theme. Some examples:

Laid My Burden Down (Mississippi John Hurt)


Glory! Glory! Hallelujah

Glory! Glory! Hallelujah

Since I laid my burden down

Nor more sickness No more sorrow


Since I laid my burden down

I’m goin home now to live with Jesus

Since I laid my burden down

I’m goin home now to live with Jesus

Since I laid my burden down

Glory! Glory! Hallelujah

I’m goin shake the hands with angels

Burden down, Lord

Since I laid my burden down

Burden down, Lord

Since I laid my burden down

Trouble In Mind (Lightnin’ Hopkins)



Sweet Marijuana Brown (Barney Bigard)

John The Revelator (Blind Willie Johnson)

Hurry Down, Sunshine (Leroy Carr)

Whiskey Is My Habit, Good Women Is All I Crave – (Leroy Carr)

Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground (Blind Willie Johnson) [3]



(Dark Was The Night--Cold Was The Ground, was included on a golden record that was sent in the Voyager space probe – along with Louie Armstrong’s Melancholy Blues and Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode).


Hesitation Blues (Armstrong/Middleton) 1954)



Nobody knows you when you’re down and out (Bessie Smith)



Careless Love

You robbed me

Out of my silver

And you robbed me

Out of my gold

I’ll be damned

If I let you

Rob me out of my soul (Lonnie Johnson)



And here is what a contemporary (revival) Blues ensemble sounds – and looks - like:



The early Blues men lived simple but not uncomplicated lives. The complications arose from the conditions they endured and the human condition. One heightened their sensitivity to the other.


Our lives are anything but simple. The conditions that afflict us are partly of our own doing, and in greater part due to betrayal by our elites. Understandably, feelings of victimization are rife. If we let it rest there, we act destructively. The country just did – and now we all must endure. There are more constructive ways to act. In the Delta, they didn’t exist. So it was booze and women and Faith that together kept a man going.


And solace from music:

Midnight Hour Blues https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aU0goGqWSUA

In the wee midnight hours: long before the break of day

When the blues creep up on you: and carry your mind away


While I lay in my bed: and cannot go to sleep

While my heart’s in trouble: and my mind is thinking deep


My mind was running: back to days of long ago

And the one I love: I don’t see her anymore


Blues why do you worry me: why do you stay so long

You come to me yesterday: been with me all night long


I’ve been so worried: I didn’t know what to do

So I guess that’s why: I’ve had these midnight hour blues

(Composer: Leroy Cole)


Eric Clapton is a white Brit. At times, Clapton has been “accused” of “singing black.” The many great Blues men with whom he’s performed and recorded scorn such a notion. This same pejorative has been thrown at Renee Fleming for her sultry rendition of Summertime



The notion that suffering is a natural part of human existence is un-American. So, too, are endurance strategies. Blacks have always known otherwise. The Blues can teach us how to survive in the age of the Orangutan.



1] Johnson was one among several Blues men who were blind. The main cause was glaucoma which, even today, is 15 times more common among blacks than whites as a cause of impaired vision – probably due to limited access to health care and early treatment. In addition, it is correlated with diabetes and hypertension which occur at higher rates among blacks. Johnson’s blindness was caused by his stepmother’s throwing lye in his eyes.

2]The most informative account of the Blues’ genesis and its world is:

“Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta” Robert Palmer (Penguin 1982). The film “Crossroads” (1984) offers a glimpse of the Blues lingering presence in the desegregated South.

3] Norman Mailer “The White Negro” 1957;  Baldwin, J. (1961). The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy Esquire. It is perhaps noteworthy that political activists like Charles Mingus and Max Roach were not Bluesmen.

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