Posted by: Mark Nielsen | March 15, 2008

Land of the Free, Home of the Blues


How do you define something as mysterious, spiritual and universal as blues music? It’s like defining air, or love: to put mere words to it lessens its beauty and power.

The blues is being so happy you gotta cry, so sad you gotta smile and make jokes about your troubles, so full of life you gotta scream like you’re dying, or start a fight, or get drunk (though the drinking usually precedes the fighting and dying… let’s be safe out there on St. Paddy’s Day, my friends).

I went to Bill’s Blues in Evanston last night, after a prayer vigil for peace in Iraq (fifth anniversary of the start of the war was this week… my how time flies when you’re –wait, …um …never mind). I needed to hear whoever they had up on stage, over a beer or two, just to blow off some steam. In other words, I had the blues.

Lucky for me, they had a great performer on the bill, Sammy Fender. That’s Sammy on the far right in this YouTube video, with the white Stratocaster (what else?!) . More about him later, probably tomorrow.

After all the snow melts (which it hasn’t yet), after the corrupt or inept police captains get fired (which they did this week, by the bold new Superintendent we got from the FBI) and after the ordeal of a long and busy work week, I am so very glad I live in Chicago, the undisputed Home of the Blues. (Unless you count Memphis, or Clarksdale, Mississippi, or Austin– for Stevie Ray Vaughan-style Texas blues, or New Orleans–for zydeco, which is just the blues with some Cajun spices added…)

Along with jazz, blues music is America’s other great musical gift to the planet and its various peoples. Sure, we sort of “invented” rock and roll too, and rap, and a dozen other sub-genres, but most of those were just an outgrowth of the blues and some of the old European folk traditions (lyrically speaking).  But the blues –with that howlin’ flatted fifth in a pentatonic scale, a new dialect in the eternal language of music– was uniquely a product of poor African Americans and the life they endured.

If I had lived another life than my own, followed a different rainbow, I’d have probably been a perpetual grad student in musicology. Or I’d have worked for the government like John Lomax and his son Allan did, recording blues and folk music by regular folks from cultures all over the world. The Lomaxes’ work for the Library of Congress in the Forties and Fifties is nothing less than a national treasure, as they recorded and filmed songs and musical styles that were in danger of disappearing forever.

Or I’d have been a traveling blues musician, the Leadbelly or Robert Johnson of the 21st century. Ah, …those nicknames. I’ve always wanted one. And bluesmen both old and new have some of the great ones: Honeyboy Edwards, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Magic Slim, Keb Mo’ and Blues Boy King (you know him as B.B.). Let’s see, what would my nickname be? Stutterin’ Mark? Lazyboy Nielsen? Whatever… just so long as it stuck.

I picked up a couple episodes today of the documentary minseries on the blues that my man Martin Scorsese put together a few years back. It’s just amazing to sit back and listen to these old men and women talk and sing (though it’s mostly men, I must confess). They’re like classical poets on acid, as if Virgil himself spoke with a thick drawl and could capture all the wisdom of the world in a single figure of speech. I would quote the film, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t do them justice. So go get it and see for yourself.

I was hoping to wax lyrical here about the essential aspects of a good blues guitarist or vocalist (I saw both last night). But I’ve already run off at the mouth for far too long today. So my flailing academic analysis of what makes for a great solo, or a good “talkin’ blues” song, will have to wait till tomorrow.

Until then, keep on rollin’ and tumblin’



  1. 168786 beers on the wall. sck was here

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