The voice over the phone is fast-paced and soft. The language is understated and unflashy – yet perfectly articulated – alluding to a cultured Cambridge pedigree. I am talking to a man who was influential in bringing blues music to white audiences in the 1950s. His name is Chris Barber, the British jazz trombonist, and I ask him what it was about blues music that caught his attention. “Well,” he says. “It was kind of life-altering music in a way.
It was due to proselytes like Chris Barber that British musicians like Peter Green, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton were exposed to black American blues artists when they were still slogging through dismal school lunches in secondary school. This was a time of an exceedingly meagre post-war economic climate in the United Kingdom. A decade earlier, during WWII, and due to the American army presence in the UK, Barber’s musical, imaginal cells had been steeped in jazz and blues. He listened religiously to radio programmes such as the Jubilee show on the American Armed Forces Network that featured black artists exclusively. This music, according to Barber, was a refreshing antidote to “the popular music of the day which was mostly dance orchestras, [the kind] you heard in Hollywood musical films of the 30s”.
This wartime encounter with American jazz and blues steered Barber’s life trajectory away from that of a budding mathematician and classically trained violinist to becoming a jazz and blues musician instead. After the war, he had found a book on a heap of trash outside a deserted American army base. It was co-written by Mezz Mezzrow, who in the early 1920s left life in a well-to-do Jewish neighbourhood in Chicago to immerse himself in the black musical community of the day. That meant living life perilously on the edge.
This book cemented a musical calling in Barber. He continues: “Having read that book… it was like some people read the Bible for the first time and become a priest. They can’t help it. Well, I read that book and I became a priest.”
We discuss the effect of Barber’s blues and jazz music on the 1950s audiences who came in contact with it. I ask if British audiences subconsciously resonated with the experience of scarcity and suffering inherent in the words, music and feel of black music. Barber doesn’t think so. He feels the answer was more straightforward.
Barber: “They liked it. Of course!”
So why did they like it?
Barber: “They didn’t know why. Most of them didn’t know why.”
No, but you know why.
Barber: “I knew why. Sure. I played it.”
So can you tell me in your words, what it was that caught them? What was it that caught you? What was it that was so different about jazz and blues?
Barber: “It was music played with feeling, with expression of human emotions… and singing songs that also expressed playing good, straightforward human emotions, and not all dressed up in fancy language.”
Barber, like many others at the time, was hungry for this unpretentious style of music. The blues had of course existed, unbeknownst to most white people, for decades by then. It had served black artists and audiences as a vehicle for self-expression, communal bonding and an escape valve for pent-up frustration, fear and anger. It was a means of celebrating life and having fun as well, providing a respite from backbreaking labour. Through ‘signifying’, it provided a safe way to state one’s true feelings, while delivering an indirect jab at those in power, allowing an outlet for that which couldn’t be said directly for fear of repercussions. The music thus provided a temporary release from ubiquitous racism and bigotry.
The blues was a style of music that offered a musical method of emotional survival for black people, particularly before the civil rights movement made a more direct expression and action possible. After the mid-1960s, black audiences broadly left the blues. Some saw it as a reminder of an unempowered and disenfranchised past. It was at this time that blues audiences changed from being mainly black to being mainly white.
In the 1950s and 60s, many white families moved from extended family, or other more communal living arrangements, into single-family homes. Self-reliance and ‘keeping up appearances’ were paramount for the silent generation, who had battled through the horrors of the Great Depression and WWII. These parents of the baby boomer generation desperately wanted peaceful, self-sustaining, organised and individually autonomous lives – ideally behind picket fences.
But the boomer kids sensed the pressure to conform, and suspected the can-do optimism was often a façade. They picked up on residual fears from the many years of struggle, not to mention the new reality of potential nuclear annihilation. They knew their parents were dealing with much that went unspoken, but was nevertheless oozing out of their daily interactions: a latent sense of reactionary fearfulness mixed with a sense of powerlessness to deal with a rapidly developing culture. The baby boomers were longing to just rest in a liberated ‘now’, but found themselves stuck in the older generation’s expectations stemming from an outdated moral code. They wanted to throw the pretentious phoniness overboard and remake the future in their own image.
Enter blues music through all kinds of messengers into white society; bridge-builders from black to white culture like Barber, Mayall, Bloomfield, Butterfield and many others who ‘translated’ the music by infusing it with their own experiences. Sometimes they struggled to find an authentic expression that wasn’t merely a copy of their black blues idols. Here they were helped by African-American blues masters, who encouraged them to just be themselves. They learned that authenticity was not about a particular sound or instrumentation; it was about singing and playing honestly and transparently from one’s heart and soul. It was about synthesising one’s life experience with musical expression.
Even if these black blues musicians were older and far more experienced than their white apprentices, they did not condescend. The black performers, unlike the white silent generation parents, teachers and other role models, were not concerned with hiding their emotional scars. On the contrary, they let ’em all hang out. They told it like it is. They sang and spoke of lust, heartache, deprivation, loss and fear as simply a part of the human experience. It was liberating. Here questing boomers found a genuine connection to someone from the older generation. And they longed for this kind of transparent relationship. The old black masters demonstrated that the musical format of the blues wasn’t premeditated; it ebbed and flowed in a steady stream of inspired spontaneity. It was intoxicating to white young musicians who had grown up in a stiff-upper-lip, bottled-up culture.
They discovered that finding an authentic expression was about claiming the blues as a synthesis of one’s own experiences and talents, while honouring the tradition of the blues. They learned to love that simple musical structure that allowed for infinite variation, expression, spontaneity, immersion and the ability to express much between the notes. The blues was much more than a musical skeleton of three chords; it was an invitation into fearless emotional immediacy that connected them to a place within, where the music spoke a language beyond words.
The main audience for the blues in the 21st century is white baby boomers – and they are often men. They typically feel dedicated to the genre, and state that their lives are improved in various ways because they found the blues. As an example: in the mid-1960s, a young, folk music-loving college student named Bruce Iglauer – who later founded Alligator Records, the famed and long-lasting, dedicated blues label – was initiated into the blues. He heard Fred McDowell at the University of Chicago Folk Festival in 1966.
In a written interview with me, Iglauer stated: “His performance reached out to me across rows of seats, slapped me across the face and said, ‘Wake up, boy! This music is for you!’ Considering that Fred was an extremely poor and uneducated black man from the deep south and I was a comfortably middle-class college student from the midwest, we had little in common culturally. My first reaction to blues was thinking that it was the most honest, direct and unadorned music that I had ever heard. It made a lot of what I had listened to – up until that time – seem ‘plastic’. I certainly could feel the tension and release in some songs. As a teenager, I had a lot of personal angst and blues helped me deal with it. By then I was already aware of the roots of blues, but began reading liner notes as well as blues articles in folk music magazines. Over a period of time, I began immersing myself in the music, buying what albums I could afford, and eventually doing the blues show on my college radio station.”
Iglauer highlights some of the elements that contemporary blues fans in my research study broadly echoed en masse: that blues, once it reaches you (and this might not happen during the first, second or even third exposure to it) penetrates beyond the critical faculty and opens up a world of musical sensitivity and astuteness. Many blues fans could recall the exact moment in time when the blues found them, and it was often – like Barber’s and Iglauer’s conversion experiences – powerful and life-changing in scope. Secondly, they start the treasure hunt: a search back through time to discover which artist influenced whom. They read biographies, liner notes, seek out obscure artists either online or in concert. They connect to the stories, and often find that blues artists’ emotional transparency provides a safe and indirect (subconscious or acknowledged) window into their own emotional register that might otherwise be opaque and inaccessible. They listen for licks, lyrics and singing or playing styles that were borrowed from an earlier tradition.
For many modern fans, like both Iglauer and Barber, their new love of the blues becomes intertwined with personal pursuits and hobbies, or it becomes part of a new career. Others might deepen the musical study of the blues by wanting to play it, or play it better, themselves. They become involved in blues groups, or they start to promote it in some fashion, even if only by becoming a blues missionary among their friends: that person who wants to turn others on to the life-altering music they themselves have discovered.
When I spoke with Thomas Ruf, a Germany-based blues record label president, he addressed the ability of the blues to seemingly break down cultural, racial and social barriers. He recounted an event in the early 1980s, when Luther Allison was playing a show in Germany. It was Ruf’s first time as a promoter, and he hadn’t considered that the band might want to eat something after the show. Running around the small German town where the gig was held, he finally found a small establishment that agreed to cook for Mr Allison, although it was already way past the kitchen’s closing time.
Talking about the experience 30 years later, Ruf’s voice reveals the excitement he had felt as he improvised the late-night spread, as well as the tender admiration he felt for what Mr Allison accomplished that night. It was all due to the bluesman’s straightforward humanity and his ability to improvise on and off the stage: “There were these old Black Forest musicians performing in there. Like three musicians with a fiddle, and they were doing waltz music in 3⁄4. And then Luther got so excited… after we were done eating, he grabbed his guitar and jumped on stage and smiled at these guys – and these guys were like 75 to 80-year-old German men. Nobody spoke a word of English. Luther didn’t speak a word of German, and he just started jamming with these guys. This black man was probably the first black man that these old Black Forest guys ever saw… [but] if you use a language like the blues, you can really cross borders and cross barriers and communicate – even with people that you don’t share the language with, or you don’t share the background with. Still you can communicate: get through and make them like you, and you like them. It was a beautiful thing… Everybody in that room lit up through that presence and through the power of music. Everything was loose.”
Generally, blues fans appreciate the ability of blues music to help them “get loose”. They talk about how the blues gets their hips swaying, toes tapping, hands clapping, head rocking, and provides them with a much-needed break from whatever weighs them down. The ability of the blues to be fun and entertaining has always been one of the primary functions of the genre, and it continues to be. And there is nothing like it. Many blues fans appreciate how blues music helps them to let go and “get out of their heads”. The music helps them slip into something more comfortable as they ride the pulsating, repetitive rhythms: that improvisational space of immediacy, and the lyrical and chordal light trance-inducing minimalism.
Jay Sieleman, the former CEO and president of the National Blues Foundation in the USA, talks about blues as entertainment, highlighting that he felt a bit guilty about stating this observable role of blues music today: “I came to it as entertainment. Music is fun! And blues is the most fun music there is. And I used to be sort of apologetic about that or embarrassed or whatever the right word would be. But the more I’ve read, the more I’ve found that, jeez, that’s what’s the original purpose of the music is in the first place.”
Blues recharges our batteries and provides release. Even long ago, when it offered an emotional outlet for black communities in America’s south, it was also an essential go-to music for fun. Obviously, the circumstances of oppressed sharecroppers versus modern blues fans are completely different, but blues provides those to whom it speaks an experience of reckless abandon mixed with invigorating elements of deep verbal, as well as nonverbal, communication that does a body, heart and soul good.
The majority of blues fans I interviewed stated repeatedly that the blues just made them feel good and they didn’t really know why. Even when the songs were about sadness, listening to it – or playing it – still made them feel better. It’s cathartic, but it is more than that – the blues has an uncanny ability to facilitate connection. It was the most consistent finding in my research: a blues musician sharing his or her own experiences can jolt an emotionally charged memory in those who listen. The audience recognises it, and moves through the emotion in a shared experiential space with the musician.
If the music is experienced live, blues fans look around and see others who resonate with the experience as well. This connection is healing and can be an antidote to 21st century feelingsof loneliness and separation. The message of the blues is that others have walked through destruction, fear and heartbreak and made it out the other side – and therefore we can too.
Art Tipaldi, a long-time blues writer, magazine editor and fan, also speaks of the ability of blues music to connect people. “There’s a real special community,” he says. “It’s the shared, soulful, honest experience. When you walk out of [the blues concert] with those 300 people who were there, you have all shared the most magical, soulful moment and you just look in each other’s eyes differently.”
Dealing with life in the 21st century is challenging. In many ways, we have lost close communal ties in an increasingly competitive environment. We do not sleep well: lights and noises from ever-present media screens bombard our nervous systems night and day. Most of us have more stuff than we know what to do with, and we hunt for the latest gadgets hoping that they might help us feel better. It can be difficult for us to reclaim the deep interpersonal connectedness we sacrificed on the altar of material and technological progress. Our celebrity culture compels us to compare our success and our looks to impossible ideals. Our political process is frequently reduced to being an arena for talking heads who act more like verbal gladiators than mediators. Our commercially-based culture encourages us to look outside of ourselves to find products that will fill the void we feel inside.
In this sea of our modern daze, the blues offers an alternative to separation and superficiality. The blues is as alive and just as relevant as we make it. And for those of us who allow it into our lives, blues enriches our existence in countless ways. Beyond simply being a fun and accessible form of entertainment, it facilitates contact with the language of the heart. It leads us into a shared experience reminding us that our human lives are worthy of celebration, even when they are flawed, full of warts and shortcomings.
Today, as it always has, the blues tells it like it is: honestly and transparently, providing a musical lifeboat on the rough waters of petty pretentiousness and vast societal changes. The blues connects us through a shared, historical soundtrack. It flows through us into the future like a river of bittersweet communal recollections of what it means to be fully human. And with the tradition of old blues masters accompanying us in our continuing musical exploration, we can simply listen to it and play it in new variations that highlight and elucidate who we are right here and now.
And modern blues fans agree: it is kind of life-altering music in a way.