Riffing on the blues

Riffing on the blues
June 6, 2010
Howard Reich
The Chicago Tribune

he blues runs through American music like blood coursing through our veins. Without it, there's no jazz, no gospel, no rock 'n' roll — no soul.

Yet the blues, so deeply embedded in the cultural fabric of Chicago, stands at a perilous juncture. Nearly banished from radio, marginalized by rap and rock, celebrated in just a few scattered clubs, the blues struggles to be heard in the 21st century.

Can the blues survive? Will it? Should it?

Three Chicagoans have devoted their lives to exploring these questions and others, and they've shared their expertise in important books: musician Lincoln T. Beauchamp Jr.'s "Blues Speak: The Best of the Original Chicago Blues Annual"; broadcaster Steve Cushing's "Blues Before Sunrise: The Radio Interviews"; and writer David Whiteis' "Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories" (all on University of Illinois Press).

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They'll discuss the music at the Chicago Tribune Printers Row Lit Fest, but each recently riffed on the subject with me. What follows is an edited transcript, each author telling it straight — just like the blues.

Lincoln T. Beauchamp Jr.

(aka 'Chicago Beau')

I was kind of born in the house of blues. (From) when I came of age and started playing, the biggest change has been the change that comes with time, when so many elders and originators have passed on.

When you see what the offshoot of that change is, sometimes it's very good, and sometimes it's kind of a sad attempt at replication. Given the blues history, where it comes from, I think it's becoming homogenized.

People have said to me over the years, "My grandmother listened to that stuff." I've always held that if some of the real prominent African-Americans would speak up and say this is a big part of our culture, better than basketball, that would get the attention. But I have a feeling we may be waiting a long time for that to happen.

I think that it's silently, quietly being listened to in African-American communities, but in pockets. But it's not being done to the degree where it gets the attention, because we're not the ones that put the money behind it. We put the money behind hip-hop and so forth.

But I think that it's not correct to think that African-Americans don't listen to blues. I know we do.

But it's such a natural part of our being that we don't see the need to push it. It just doesn't strike an economic note for us.

(Chicago bluesman) Fernando Jones has been making some headway to educate younger people.

I have a feeling there are going to be people out there who will appear on the scene. Things are cyclical. There will be some younger blueswomen or -men.

Lonnie Brooks' son (Ronnie Baker Brooks) is out there playing. Shemekia Copeland is out there playing. I don't know if they're talking about the blues, but they're playing.

Steve Cushing

I'm accused often of not being able to make the change and not appreciating the new music, and I will agree that's 100 percent true, but there's a reason.

Throughout its recorded history, blues was always a music in change. Every 10 years, a major innovation would come to the world of blues. But these innovations were always made by musicians who had grown up listening to the music that came before them. They were well versed in the history of blues, so when they made these changes to the music, it sounded like blues when they were through.

For instance, maybe the biggest major change is B.B. King bringing string bending to the guitar. It had been done before, with Lonnie Johnson and others, but (King) was the real popularizer of that style of playing. But he had grown up all his life listening to blues music, so when he made this change, it still sounded like blues.

What you've got today are people who are coming to blues and playing blues who were never students of blues or listening to blues. They came from soul and rock 'n' roll and rap, so what they play sounds not like the blues we've known in years gone by. I think the music is the worse for it.

(Delmark Records owner) Bob Koester said this to me, and I think it captured the situation perfectly: Right now, there are a couple of big stars, B.B. King being one of them, who are alive. And there are a handful of guys who were teenagers in the 1950s, when Muddy (Waters) and Elmore (James) and Big Walter (Horton) were around. People like Willie "Big Eyes" Smith." They're still here, though all in their 70s.

And when B.B. and "Big Eyes" and people like them go, it's going to be young guys, black and white, who don't have much background in the blues. I'm not sure it's going to be worth listening to.

David Whiteis

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The blues has always been a growing, evolving form. Blues musicians have always incorporated other music into the repertoire. From what we know, Robert Johnson played polkas. Charley Patton sang songs that definitely came out of the black vaudeville tradition, going back to the folk days.

Yes, some of the post-war people like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf pretty much stayed to the 12-bar form. And (when) the producers tried to pull them out of it, the results were questionable. But Magic Sam definitely played soul-oriented stuff. Buddy Guy will tell you that just to keep the gig, you played what was on the jukebox, because that was the gig.

In terms of who goes out to the blues, it's a wide variety of people. On the South and West sides, it's a somewhat older audience, but not as old as you might think. Go to Lee's Unleaded Blues out south (at 7401 S. South Chicago Ave.), the audience is basically 30s on up, so it's not exactly a hip-hop audience, but it's not a bunch of old folks looking back on the old songs, either, and the music reflects that.

The music is soulful, it's funky, it's like old-school R&B, to a certain extent. A lot of the younger singers use hip-hop phrasing. The instrumentation in soul-blues is close to what's on mainstream contemporary R&B.

In terms of radio, we hardly have any in Chicago. One interesting phenomenon in the black community is that a lot of the contemporary blues artists, or soul-blues artists, rarely play in Chicago because there aren't many venues.

There is a stereotype among listeners that blues means sad and downtrodden. Not true, never has been true. I don't know why blues gets stuck with that, and heavy metal and punk don't get stuck with that. I don't know why it gets denigrated that way.

It's about overcoming. It's a defiant celebration. If you can dare to celebrate in the midst of a very difficult life experience, that's an act of resistance, and to me that's the heart of the blues expression.
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