what the blues aren’t

If you write you’ve done it: you try to describe something and no matter what, the words don’t come. Or much worse, the slightly wrong words come, but you can’t think of better so you, ummm, let it go. It’s the old ‘difference between lightning and a lightning bug’ thing.

For years, I thought about how weirdly bad most blues-rock sounds, how disconnected from anything it is. Blues-rock was in its terrible prime when I was 14, 15 years old, and as much as I tried to like it back then – hey, I had to have something in common with the guys I went to high school with – I can clearly remember nodding off from boredom  listening to bands beat blues riffs to death for 15, 20 minutes at a time.

And as I got older, I developed a weird revulsion to things like beer brand-sponsored “blues festivals.” People seem to enjoy them and I should leave well enough alone, but they always seem, at best, beside the point, and at their frequent worst, the exact opposite of the blues. They make the blues into nothing more than good time music, with hard-hearted men and mistreatin’ women as comic book characters. But finding the right words to explain all this? Not me.

Thankfully, Amanda Petrusich‘s “Do Not Sell At Any Price,” does the job. The passage below is incidental to the larger themes of the book, which concerns itself with collectors of rare 78 rpm records and the nature of collecting in general, but I’m awfully glad she wrote it:

“The commercial presentation of “the blues” is often disastrously corny, wholly divorced from – even antithetical to – the grimness of the songs themselves. It’s a young woman at an open mic night, oversinging “Chain Of Fools” with her hands in the air. It’s a guy with a T-shirt  tucked into his shorts, nodding appreciatively at a bar band with three shrieking electric guitars. It’s bright colors and branded guitar slides and old, pinkish-white guys bellowing about women. It’s three squat, wonky statues in a fountain in Wisconsin.”

Exactly. Couldn’t have put it better. When it comes to culture, we kill things without meaning to, when our intent is to preserve, hold onto, support, but we kill anyway by making the thing not-quite-itself. That’s what Petrusich catches.


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