Company enough: a phenomenology of playing the blues

Posted on December 20, 2011


Robert Johnson

If misery loves company, misery has company enough
Henry David Thoreau


Rock and roll brings us together through a shared sense of place (be it physical, social, or chronological) and our power within it.

The beat did more than make him happy. It made him feel bigger, stronger, more there. When Franki Ford sang “Sea Cruise” or Eddie Cochran sang “Summertime Blues,” Richie was actually transported with joy (Stephen King, It).

It was perhaps inevitable that the activism of the ’60s — a time in which youth from disparate parts of the globe all felt a shared sense of both place and power — played out to a sound-track scored by Steppenwolf, The Who, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones. Rock and roll requires the participant to define himself as an active member of a movement, in which he experiences a feeling of potency.

The blues, on the other hand, requires the participant to define himself in terms of community.

Rock is what we are: blues is who we are. There are no politics in the blues, no revolutions to fight, and, despite its constant presence as a theme, there are no injustices to right. The blues recognises that life may be unjust, but it puts forward no call to arms. It simply recognises the human condition: a condition which can be sometimes sad, sometimes funny, and sometimes so sad it’s funny. The blues doesn’t ignore social issues, it merely sees them from a human, rather than a sociological perspective.

I worked on a levee camp and the extra gangs too
Black man is a boy, I don’t care what he can do.
I wonder when — I wonder when — I wonder when
will I get to be called a man, or do I have to wait
till I get ninety-three?
(“When Will I Get to Be Called a Man?” — Big Bill Broonzy)

The blues is not a bonfire in the town square around which we rally with fellow rebels in order to plan the overthrow of a repressive regime; it’s the candle on the front porch where we gather with fellow sufferers in order to commiserate and draw strength through companionship. Like the best forms of humour (and the most noble instincts of mankind), the blues gains its power from that which we all share. Pain — and our power to rise above it. Loneliness — and the joy of discovering other people. And, of course, pleasure — from wherever we can find it.

To Bryce, these “guitar nights,” as he called them, were opportunities allowing a much-needed social release. Due to a hare-lip, which operations had only partially corrected, he suffered from a barely-contained embarrassment whenever he spoke. Music allowed him to communicate as an equal.

Jimmy, on the other hand, was aggressively social. A kind of modern Robert Plant, he had the manner, swagger and, most importantly, the hair of a rock star — although in reality he worked at a computer repair shop.

Normally when Bryce, Jimmy and I jammed we concentrated on old pop rock tunes. Tonight, however, was to be different. I’d recently been jamming with a black blues musician named “Junior,” whom I’d met while covering the music scene for a small magazine. Bryce had thought it might be interesting if Junior came over and we tried our hands at the blues. 

So far we were still waiting for Jimmy, hadn’t played a note, and things already weren’t looking good.

From the time Junior arrived, a distinct current of one-upmanship had flowed between him and Bryce. On the surface it was friendly. “What musicians do you like? Oh really? I guess he’s all right, but he’s not as authentic as so-and-so.” And so on. For Junior it was no more than a game he played with everyone. (He’d tried it with me early on in our relationship, but when I told him my favourite group as a teenager had been the Monkees he just looked surprised and then said, “You know what? Me too,” and that was the end of it.)

For Bryce, however, this game threatened the very defence he had so painfully constructed. Not a defence of ego, but of his self. It wasn’t so much that another person’s superior musical knowledge bothered him as it was that it could be used as a weapon.

When Jimmy finally arrived, however, everything changed. We all knew and respected his guitar work, but he could be quite stubborn in his heavy metal approach. And when it came to other musicians’ failings, he could be outright contemptuous. The last time he and I had played with Junior, Jimmy had turned in a deafening rendition of “Moondance” that owed more the Megadeath than Van Morrison. And he was always offering “tips” for Bryce on playing the guitar. (He left me alone, but I suspected it was only because, like many guitarists, he was a little in awe of the violin, and had no idea that I was far more of an amateur than he thought.)

We all liked Jimmy, but both Bryce and Junior had reason for resentment, and as soon as he walked in, the alliances shifted. Junior and Bryce began talking like old friends, leaving Jimmy somewhat on the outside.

The message was clear: the watchword of the night was to be mutual respect, and if Jimmy wanted to get into one of his moods, he would be facing a united front.

We were now tuning up.

The common and simply phrased motifs covered in blues lyrics act as a lingua franca.

Nobody knows you,
When you’re down and out.
In your pocket,
Not one penny,
And as for friends
You don’t have many.
(Jimmy Cox: “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.”)

No one is a complete stranger to the indignities of life, and putting such experiences into words can help create a bond. Sometimes hearing someone speak of misfortune in a way that demands we see the reality of his experience, and the similarity to our own, can bring home to us the reality that his relationship to the world is essentially the same as ours. That he is, in fact, real in the same way we are.

As Coleridge put it, “we know a man for a poet by the fact that he makes us poets. We know that he is expressing his emotions by the fact that he is enabling us to express ours.”

Such an expression need not be clever or particularly articulate, it need only be recognizable as an expression of truth. When we hear expressions which originate directly from internal states familiar to us, we are compelled to wrap the speaker into our own existence. We recognise him as “us” in another location and circumstance.

But the words are only part of the story in blues. The structure of the music itself is a mirror of our own way-of-being with other people. It is slippery, unstructured, and yet there is form, manners and patterns.

The blues presents us with a personable informality. We can sit where we wish, bitch about the day, and take a break to go to the bathroom and pick up another beer from the fridge on our way back. Few blues singers have what we would call “good” singing voices, and in many cases even their playing skills are nothing special. But this only adds to the shared experience.

When amateur rock musicians play “Smoke on the Water,” there is a general consensus that their rendition is less authentic than that of Deep Purple’s. There is no more meaningful compliment one can give than, “Wow! That sounded almost like the original!” As a result, those participating in rock and roll jams are almost always doing so from a position of weakness — or perhaps it would be more fair to say from a position of “duplication.” They are once more defining themselves in terms of a “movement” in which they are members of greater or lesser standing, and as members of that movement they are fulfilling their duty to promote its values.

Conversely, authenticity in the blues is less a case of doing it “as good as” B B King, but rather of doing it with the same involvement. There is no movement to be promoted. The blues simply provides us a community; a meeting place as comfortable as a friend’s living room. It could be said that what the blues does is to recognize R. Collingwood’s admonition that by attending to an emotion, we master it. When playing the blues, we achieve this mastery in the company of others.

As the evening progresses, rivalries fade. Status is a function of community, and we’ve reached a point far more fundamental than that. We’ve reached the very foundation of community, where the standing of its members is still unformulated and all that exists is a recognition of each other.

We’re in the middle of some piece I’ve never heard of before, but Junior says it’s called “Rollin’ & Tumblin’.” Revealing ancestral roots planted firmly in the banks of the Mississipii Delta, it’s one of those dirty-blues numbers with a slide guitar that slips around like Fred Astaire in a mud patch. Towards the end I leap obliquely up the musical monkey-bars to gain some higher ground I’ve had my eye on for a while. Once there, I’m surprised to find myself running neck and neck with Jimmy, who has arrived at the same place by a different route. We look at each other and laugh. Junior smiles. “Nice scramblin’ boys. Now walk it on down.” Still happy to be together, Jimmy and I keep each other company as we do a step-and-skip descent, our footing illuminated by the dark light of Junior’s bass. On the way we pick up Bryce and come to ground as a group.

Junior trades his bass for a lead. “We don’t wanna be workin’ that hard again right away. See how you guys feel about this one,” he says, and begins Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues.” It’s a slow piece with a laid-back boogy beat in its spine. We listen for a moment, each of us looking for his way in. Leaving Junior to take the detailed and delicate finger work, I come in high, slow, and drifting just behind the beat. Jimmy takes a similar path, staying to a lower register so as not to step on my toes, while Bryce provides a rhythm that keeps Junior’s embellishments company even as he supports Jimmy and I with a solid foundation for our dance.

As we each find our respective places in this little segment of humanity, we surround Junior like a family around the bereaved.

The blues moves as we do. It may focus on any number of things, but there is always an indeterminacy around the edges — just as there is always an indeterminacy around our own actions and motivations. The music is less a matter of form than it is an expression of what it is to be a person.

We can easily imagine Beethoven’s 9th being played to a universe devoid of people. It is as eternal and self-sufficient as the stars and planets themselves.

But if there were no people to hear the blues, the universe would be forced to invent them.