Monday, July 9, 2012

The Blues Are Alive

T-Model Ford--"So She Asked Me So I Told Her" (mp3)

So she asked me.
So I told her.
That is why I am here.
--T-Model Ford, "So She Asked Me So I Told Her"

Yep, that's the whole song.  Give it a listen while you read.  Two chords.  Thirteen words.  The blues are alive and well, thanks in part to Mississippi "Hill Country" bluesman 90+ year old Mr. T-Model Ford.

What if you had to write an entire song in 13 words?  Would it be as good as the one I've quoted above?  What if you only had that many words to tell a story?  Could you do it?

Do those three sentences tell a story?  I think they do, but if you really pressed me to clarify the story that they tell, I'm not sure that I could do it.  Maybe something about how she wanted to know the truth--as generic as the Geico commercial where Mrs. Lincoln asks Honest Abe if the dress makes her fat or as dmaning as what he might have done with another woman, this being the blues.  The point is, he told her the truth.  "So I told her" doesn't leave any doubt about that.  And, for better or for worse, that is why he is a) in this bar, b) standing in front us on stage telling his tale, c) beyond space and time. 

We just don't know.  But, this again being the blues, we suspect.  And we suspect he is being punished, that he has been cast out, that he is in the dog house, or, at least, that he has come to sing or drink his troubles away.

Or, better yet, what if you didn't have to write a song in 13 words?  What if you just wanted to because those words told the whole story?

I have written a fair amount of poetry in my life, with a fair amount of success, and by success, I mean, I felt equipped to write it and it pretty much said what I wanted it to say.  But I'll be damned if I can write a decent verse of the Delta blues.  Even if you don't know, you do know how a verse of the Delta blues goes:  A, A, B.  As in, first line makes a statement, second line repeats that statement, maybe with slight modification, and the third line somehow embellishes or illuminates.

For example:

Well, I got up this morning, looked around for my shoes,
Up this morning, looked around for my shoes,
I had them ol' walkin' blues.

--Robert Johnson, "Walkin' Blues"

Sound pretty easy, doesn't it?  The lines can be as short or as long as you want.  The way you sing it allows you to either stretch out just a few words or cram in a whole bunch.  The verse is rhythmically very forgiving.  And you don't have to be very creative since two of the lines are the same. 

But that's maybe the problem.  The blues are not a creative writing class.  I shouldn't be trying to write poetry.  Or should I?  There's a lot of clever word play in the blues, a lot of rich sensory language, skillful uses of understatement (see T-Model's song above) and outrageous exaggeration (try Muddy Water's "Hoochie Coochie Man"), irony, and humor.  There's also a lot of "borrowing."  The lines attributed to Robert Johnson above appear in any number of songs before and after him.  It's one of the stock verses out there for the taking if you're tapping into that well.

But I'm not.  I don't have that well to tap into.  I don't necessarily want to have that well to tap into--there's pain and disenfranchisement and poverty and discrimination and lean years.  Things I just haven't experienced.  But what does that leave me with? 

I find modern attempts at blues lyrics to be pretty silly.  A suburban raised guy like me?  Or you?  Do we complain about taxes?  The abstract economy?  Do I have the "private school blues" because my students won't do their homework?  Is there a more central vein that I can tap into, something like this:

Power's out, what am I gonna do?
Power's out, oh, what am I gonna do?
I got thirty people coming to dinner and an electric barbecue.
Barbecue Bob, "Power's Out"

Half-kidding, but I do often find modern blues lyrics to be a bit inauthentic, especially when written by people without the background circumstances to write them. 

Nevertheless, I am here to say that the blues are alive and well.  I have been studying the blues this summer on a school grant, have been reading and listening and traveling and playing.  Mississippi in general, and the Delta in particular, is alive with the blues, enhancing its heritage and celebrating its future.  Are the blues what they once were?  No, but what is?  This summer, I've heard them played at a festival, on a street, in a club, at a juke joint, in hotel rooms and in my car over hundreds of miles.  People say they're in rap, in country, in blues, obviously in rock.  Yeah, they're out there in ways as complex as this great world, but maybe in no way better than in the ultimate simplicity of "so she asked me, so I told her, that is why I am here."  We've all felt that one.

And, yes, I keep trying to write that blues verse.

Too many friends too many years dead,
I got too many friends too many years dead,
Never makes me wonder why it wasn't me instead. 
(Or, Makes me wonder why it wasn't me instead.) 
(Or, Wonder why it never makes me wonder why it wasn't me instead.)

Barbecue Bob, "Too Many"

ENDNOTE:  Mr. Ford recently suffered a stroke and, sadly, it may be that his performing days are over.


Billy said...

I liked what you wrote.
I clicked that I Liked what you wrote.
Didn't have much more to say.

-- BadBluesBilly, "Facebook Blues"

Robert said...

Recently saw Model T and wrote my own piece about him here:

troutking said...

Great post. That is too bad about Model T. I'd like to have seen him perform, but missed him by a day or two when I was in Oxford, Mississippi once. There is a great documentary on him on Netflix, if you haven't seen it.

I agree with you on people using the blues format who haven't experienced the conditions that created the blues. I don't want to hear James Taylor sing the Steamroller blues. People in other circumstances need to figure out how to rework the blues into something new and different like Dylan's "wild mercury sound" on Blonde and Blonde. Or some other way to express the sentiments the blues carries so they, for example, can be called, as Springsteen has, a "white bluesman" by no less an authority than Brother Cornel West.

Bob said...

Billy--you broke the rhyme scheme; you ain't no bluesman!

Robert--I enjoyed reading your piece; it must have been pretty cool to meet him, and I was in Red's a week or so ago, so I can imagine what that was like. Thanks for reading the blog.

Trout--I have to agree. Though I prefer the stadium version of "Born In The USA," there is no doubt that the original version, and especially the lyric, captures the essence of the blues in a number of ways.