History of blues shows true American diversity
History of blues shows true American diversity
October 21, 2010
By Ryan Neal
MONMOUTH â€” On Saturday night musicians from Vermont, Oklahoma, Chicago and the Carolinas will take the stage at the Rivoli Theatre. With them they will bring a form of music, the blues, that was born in the southern deltas of America out of resentment for discrimination, but which became the backbone of all American music.
"All popular western music is rooted in the blues," performer Robbie Mack, who performs with his son Little Joe McClerran, said. "Everybody wants to think the blacks gave us the blues. It was the whole development of American culture."
Blues traveled through minstrel shows, Mack said, and combined styles from many different regions. Musician and blues historian Scott Ainslie, who will be playing Saturday night at the Rivoli, said the blues' ability to transform multiple ideas and individuals into one culture is what makes it uniquely American.
"This is a great culture. It's not a black culture. It's an American culture," he said. "America has always been a mixed race."
The call of the blues
Ainslie's first influence with the blues came at a Mike Seeger concert. Seeger invited a little known musician named John Jackson, who also worked as a grave digger, on the stage to play with him.
"He did things with that guitar that I never could have imagined," Ainslie said.
Ainslie was 15 at the time, but he was hooked. He got a guitar and played it all summer long.
Then he started traveling, looking for other blues musicians. One time he went to a local gas station with a high black population during segregation and asked if anyone knew how to play the guitar.
"Who needs to know?" the man behind the counter said.
"I'm a blues musician," Ainslie said.
"Get it out," the man said.
Ainslie said the man wouldn't tell him anything until he started playing, but once he did he had no problem finding teachers.
"The folks that I had as teachers were not recording artists. They were local musicians who I got a chance to befriend," he said. "Between us we crossed many cultural and class barriers."
Ainslie said the music originated after WWI. Many black enlisted men had rising expectations about racial equality. When their efforts were crushed by "white terrorism" the blues was born. According to Ainslie, the blues is a metaphor for hope.
"If you can get up after whatever they've done to you and sing about it, then you won. It's courageous," he said.
But it's also mythical and expressive.
The old stories of the blues have become folk legends. The most famous story is about Robert Johnson, a blues legend who died young. According to the story, Johnson sold his soul to the devil so he could become the greatest guitar player in the world.
Ainslie has written a book about Johnson and said such stories were common at the time.
"If playing the guitar was that easy we would all play the guitar and I would meet you in hell," he said.
In fact, Johnson was a workaholic.
"People don't jump out the forehead of Zeus," Ainslie said. "What you hear is a survey of all the music that's coming out of the delta. Johnson is a survey course of cool guitar music of the time."
Little Joe McClerran and father / band mate Robbie Mack are attracted to the history of the blues. In fact, Mack said McClerran, 26, is so attracted to the history of the blues that he doesn't use the Internet or own a cell phone. The only phone he does own is a 1940s rotary phone.
"If he could get an old car with running boards," he would, Mack said.
Mack said his son first became interested in the blues when he played a Leadbelly song at a fourth grade presentation on diversity.
"He had a little boy's voice then," Mack said. "Now he sings like an 80-year-old black guy."
Mack is proud of his son's spiritual connection with his music.
"This kid is totally immersed in this thing. In my earlier days, I was in a band. I recorded for Capital Records. We were always trying to get a top 40 hit. Joe has no interest in that," he said. "I'm really proud of him. I'm proud of his defiance, if you will, of maybe selling out and make music that could be financially valuable for him."
Dave Specter's band will also play at the Rivoli Saturday. He said genuine expressiveness is an important element in the blues.
"The most important thing that I listen for is soulful playing. I'm not really interested in hearing virtuoso. I'm more into the feelings than the technical aspect," Specter said.
Specter became enamored with blues music when he was a teenager in Chicago. He used fake IDs to see musicians such as Otis Rush and Buddy Guy.
"It was really powerful. It really woke me up. I had been mostly listening to rock music," he said. "When I saw the source it really, really struck me as being incredible music."
Throughout his 20s he completely immersed himself in the blues. Now, as a teacher, he recommends all young blues musicians do the same.
"I tell them to try and get out as much as possible and hear live blues, and if you can't do that, immerse yourself in the music through records. Watching people play is really important if you're trying to learn music."
Ainslie said the blues continues to grow as an art even as it changes form.
"When the tradition moves to the next person it's always personal," he said.
He said the strength of the blues is its brashness and pathos. A great musician inspires people by what they see and their understanding of the world.
"The best of it is a remarkable document of the human spirit," he said.
Copyright 2010 Daily Review Atlas. Some rights reserved