The blues is melancholy, right?

Posted on December 27, 2010


The blues is melancholy, right?

Tough times.  Three simple chords and twelve bars.  An African-American male with a guitar held together by bailing wire.  To a man’s troubled soul, you add a few blue notes, a little trochaic rhythm, and you got the blues, right?


Except that it’s not really so simple, and a lot of that stuff is just plain wrong.

Play it for us, Jim Jackson.

I heard the voice of a pork chop say, “Come on to me and rest.”

(Hear the actual 1927 performance of “The Voice of the Pork Chop” here.)

Oh yeah.  Don’t that sound good now.

But maybe, not so sad.

You see, Slim, just because somebody told you that the blues is sad doesn’t make it so.  To

someone culturally accustomed to European musical traditions, the blues feels like it’s being played in a minor key, and in European traditions minor keys are used to denote sadness.

But that’s a cultural thing, Jack.  It ain’t the same the whole world over.  In Japan, they wear white to funerals and red to weddings, and dress codes aren’t the only things that change over cultural boundaries.

The blues, we should remember, arises from an African musical tradition, not a European one.  It’s easy to forget that, because, like that other African American creation—jazz—the blues is now everywhere.  Like jazz, the blues has become a fundamental part of our joined musical thinking.

Jimmie Rodgers, the Father of Country Music, sang the blues.  So did the man who made the music of Jimmie Rodgers–what was once called hillbilly music–into a national music, Hank Williams.  Bill Monroe, whose band, the Blue Grass Boys, gave their name to a whole musical genre, infused his creation–bluegrass–with a generous dose of the blues.  So when Elvis came along to bind together country music—the music of Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Bill Monroe—with rhythm and blues to create rockabilly, he was fusing two strains of music both of which already incorporated the blues, and that’s why there is so much blues in rock and roll.

As Muddy Waters says, “The blues had a baby, and they named that baby rock and roll.”

(Here Muddy sing it here.)


But at one time, before the blues and jazz came along to make much modern music possible, the world was square.

Of course, they didn’t know it and I guess that eased the pain.

But the fact was, until the end of the nineteenth century, there was no blues or jazz anywhere.

No worry.  Help was in the works.

In New Orleans, Jazzman Prime Buddy Bolden was saying, “Funky butt, funky butt, take it away.”

And what people took away from that was sudden need to put on their dancing shoes.  Jelly Roll Morton was there to witness jazz being born, and he testified about it, naming names, Buddy Bolden being the most iconic among them.

Jassman Prime.  (Yes, there was even a time when jazz could still be spelled jass.)

And contemporary with Buddy Bolden, somewhere out in the obscure, unwritten African American South, lived Bluesman Prime as well.  Unfortunately, because of his social class and the political and societal realities of the time, we don’t know who he was or anything else about him.

We know so little we have to guess at his (or her, maybe) existence.

Blues has always been the rougher, more countrified second cousin to jazz.  We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, that nobody was around to take down names and fill in the register when the blues was born.

So who Bluesman Prime was, we’ll never know.  But that he was real, I’m absolutely convinced.

Why I think so will be the subject of my next discussion.

Posted in: music