Lamenting The Future Of the Blues

Lamenting The Future Of the Blues
June 10, 2010
by Jim Fusilli
The Wall Street Journal

In early May, I traveled to Memphis to attend the Blues Foundation's 31st annual two-day gala, which included its Hall of Fame induction ceremony and awards banquet. Buddy Guy received a Lifetime Achievement Award. Pinetop Perkins, now 96 years old, turned up, as did 80-year-old Bobby "Blue" Bland and 78-year-old Hubert Sumlin. I heard folk blues, country blues, jump blues, Chicago blues, Delta blues, Texas blues, fast blues, slow blues, good blues and bad blues. What I didn't hear was new blues, and I flew back home no less relieved of my own blues over the genre's troubling future.

Today's blues music isn't only steeped in the past; it's anchored to it. During the performances before and during the banquet, I could trace to almost every song, instrumental solo or vocal style I heard its originator or its most celebrated proponent—and I'm far from an expert on the history of the blues. These tales of heartache, oppression and fleeting joy sounded all too familar.

According to Jay Sieleman, the Blues Foundation's executive director, most blues fans aren't looking for something new. "We all don't want the blues to be the same ol', same ol'," he said, "but it'd better be close."

For those blues afficionados, the music is the common bond of a social scene, at blues festivals and cruises, featuring famous artists who play and then meet fans. The high spirits at these events can create the impression that the blues is still a thriving and growing art form. It is not.

"The blues is getting to be like an endangered species," Mr. Guy said by phone. "It's like somebody put a spell on it."

The 73-year-old Mr. Guy was talking about the paucity of radio airplay for the blues, but he might as well have been discussing the blues as contemporary popular music. Young fans who still fuel the music marketplace may admire veterans like Mr. Guy, but they're right to ask if there's a new way to play the blues, one that's affiliated with new sounds and styles. On disc, the rapper Nas riffed on Muddy Waters's "Mannish Boy" in his song "Bridging the Gap" and Chris Thomas King married hip-hop and the blues on his album "Dirty South Hip-Hop Blues," but that sort of experimentation isn't encouraged. When people in the blues establishment talk about new artists, they usually mean young musicians who work in an old style, like those who play jug-band music or pay homage to the Mississippi Sheiks. If you can sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan on electric guitar, you can find a place in today's blues world.

In 2004, Skip McDonald, who works under the name Little Axe, released "Champagne and Grits," which mixed traditional blues with spoken word, drum loops, Indian percussion and a dab of reggae. It was the kind of album that could bring young listeners to the blues: Give it to a Citizen Cope or a Massive Attack fan and they'd feel at home. It wasn't well received by the blues community.

"I upset a lot of people," Mr. McDonald told me. "People are so traditional in their approach. It was a hybrid amalgamation, but the blues was my first stop."

The blues establishment seems to have little interest in reaching out to other musical communities. No rock, hip-hop or jazz artists with a musical debt to the blues were part of the activities in Memphis. Perhaps in turn, blues musicians aren't invited to participate in most major rock festivals: There were no traditional blues artists at this year's Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, nor will there be any at the Glastonbury Festival in Britain later this month. At this weekend's Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn., only Trombone Shorty and Big Sam's Funky Nation, both from New Orleans, and the string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, adhere to blues traditions.

But many artists on the Bonnaroo bill who draw from the blues—the John Butler Trio, the Black Keys, the Dead Weather and Galactic, among them—have the kind of younger audience from which the blues as a commercial entity could benefit.

"We're all worrisome about getting a young audience," XM Satellite Radio's Bill Wax said over sweet tea in Memphis. At the same time, though, he said: "I don't believe the blues world looks for the next big thing. We love people who play around with the form, but we don't want people to mess with the tradition."

For the blues to have a future in which daring artists bring in new listeners, the establishment needs to share the blues with people who have a different idea of what it is. The future can be built on new modes of expression if musicians and fans remember the blues isn't merely a form. It's a feeling. Capture it, as so many artists did in decades past in so many ways, and you're playing the blues, whether it's with a bottleneck, a big band or a studio full of digital effects.

Jason Moran, the gifted jazz pianist who eagerly explores the blues, explains how he connects with a feeling necessary to make authentic music: "I remember saying to an older musician that I wanted to play bebop, and he said, 'You can't. You didn't live in that time.' That really fired me up to think about what was going on in that time to make those musicians play that way."

As for Mr. Guy, he profited from some outreach when his daughter Shawnna asked him to appear on "Block Music," her 2006 platinum album. "It's a new thing, a different way," Mr. Guy said of the rap-blues marriage. "Like when Muddy put electricity to the harmonica."
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