Los Angeles, Blues in the 21st Century - My Opinions, By Jerry Rosen

Posted on 9/23/2009 by Monica Yasher

In this piece I will give some opinions and reflections on the current state of the blues in the U.S.  In a previous post I outlined my experiences with blues and these have given me somewhat of a perspective on the blues world.  The abbreviated version of my blues resume is: I have owned two (not financially successful) blues labels and have played in many blues bands, two of which did some touring and played several top blues festivals.  I have also read every issue of Living Blues and Blues Revue (and Blues Access, before it went under) for 15 years.  First and foremost, I have been a hard-core blues fan for 35 years.  Having said all this, I am far from an expert and all I have to offer are my opinions.  If you disagree or have other ideas, don’t hesitate to blog back.

Most people who follow blues music are aware that blues CD sales are abysmal.  I have read estimates that blues CD sales account for about 1% of the total CD sales.  There are numerous reasons for this, such as: lack of exposure on radio and in the mainstream press, the cultural dumbing down of today’s youth, which drives up the sales of the 'tween superstars, downloading, etc., etc.  Also, fewer people are going to clubs to watch live blues.  Consequently many blues establishments have either closed or are no longer booking touring bands.  Fortunately, the blues festival scene remains strong.

However, in this article I want to focus on the music itself. Perhaps this is the most complicated part of the equation to solve, but it hardly ever gets mentioned as being a cause for the paltry sales of blues music.  I think that if significantly more people believed it was a highly creative art form, then more blues music would be sold, in some manner.  Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Rush Magic Sam, Etta James, Koko Taylor, the three Kings, and the multitude of blues artists that were either contemporaries of these people or influenced them, were true artists.  Robert Johnson’s box set sold millions of copies.  I know Clapton had a hand in bringing Johnson to the masses, but Clapton (like all the Brit blues players) was drawn to the artistry of black blues.  People such as Albert King and Otis Rush also influenced Stevie Ray Vaughn, one of the most successful blues stars of the second half of the 20th century. In fact, his band - Double Trouble - was named after one of Otis Rush’s most famous and haunting tunes. 

Blues is adult music and grownups will recognize and embrace true greatness.  Many blues rockers were so taken with the guitar work of the blues elite that they tended to emphasize technique over substance. When you listen to the words of a Willie Dixon penned tune you realize that the man was a musical genius.  When you add brilliant, but nuanced instrumentation, a sound is created that will move you to tears, or at least move you to buy it.  Otis Rush is an amazing guitarist, but the sheer power of his early compositions has inspired 50 years of imitations.  When Muddy sings about 40 days and 40 nights, there is a mesmerizing power to his message.  I’m going to write the lyrics to this song so the reader can see the artistry in the writing:

“Forty days and forty nights 
Since my baby left this town 
Sunshinin' all day long 
But the rain keep comin' down 
She's my life I need her so 
Why she left I just don't know 
Forty days and forty nights 
Since I set right down and cried 
Keep rainin' all the time 
But the river is runnin' dry 
Lord help me it just ain't right 
I love that girl with all-a my might 
Forty days and forty nights 
Since my baby broke my heart 
Searchin' for her in a while 
Like a blind man in the dark 
Love can make a poor man rich 
Or break his heart I don't know which 
Forty days and forty nights 
Like a ship out on the sea 
Prayin' for her each night 
That she would come back-a home to me 
Life is love and love is right 
I hope she come back home tonight”

 These days, the emphasis is more on the guitar playing than the vocals or the writing.  This has caused blues music to become highly generic – it is tough to tell one blues band from another.  All the great blues guitarists (who were the featured artist), starting in the early 20th century and all the way through the 60’s, were also amazing singers.  It was the confluence of technical excellence, vocal brilliance and creative lyric construction that gives blues its power. If you just have one of these things, it can still be enjoyable, but it won’t attract millions of people.

Any field, artistic or scientific, requires some genius to advance.  This is not to the say the rest of us are hacks.  Clapton and SRV are/were not hacks and they have done a tremendous amount to advance blues.  But, as I said, there would be no Clapton or SRV without the true geniuses, and my guess is that both Clapton and SRV would agree with this.  I read a quote where Jack White (of the White Stripes) said that these days’ blues players are just note pushers playing in sports bars.  When I first read this, I got pissed off  - after all – White’s entire style is due to blues.  But, the more I thought about what he said, the more I calmed down.  White too, went back to the original type of rural blues music for his inspiration. It would be great for the blues if more kids discovered the power of this music.

 I think it is safe to say that there are no Willie Dixon’s, no Muddy Waters, no Howlin Wolf’s, no Otis Rush’s (except for the real one who is still with us), etc., who are either well known or in a  state of creative development.  The result is that there are hundreds of competent blues artists, some of whom have worked extremely hard to develop devoted followings, but there are no blues artists to inspire future generations, other than the long dead ones.  This has to have a devastating effect on sales for two reasons: (1) people will buy great music and (2) it is the great artists who inspire other great and successful artists.

Most of the greats started when they were young – in their teens or early twenties.  Today’s young blacks don’t listen to blues and it is very unlikely they will, given what is pushed and the economic realities.  Hence, there may not be much we can do to attract potential blues giants.  But, given that sales are so poor, just maybe we would like to think about this, before we eschew real blues.  The indie blues labels will have you believe that there is no market for traditional blues so they need to release a lot of hybrid type of stuff, with the faintest of hopes it will play on more mainstream radio.  From where I am sitting, it ain’t working well.  Many of these hybrid acts don’t fit in any particular category and are just plain old boring.  The indie labels don’t make the money that the larger labels do and so it is hard for them to take a risk.  Nonetheless, someone has to take a chance if we want to boost blues sales and attract younger fans.  My friends and I were drawn to blues because we saw BB, Albert and Muddy live.  I know lots of kids listen to crap, but enough of them care about good music to notice something that is special. 

Many of the blues greats went into blues because they could make a living doing it.  Commerce is important.  Not many people aspire to be starving artists (unless they are comfortably middle class already).  If a few younger blacks were able to make a living and gain popularity in blues, it would attract others and new talent would eventually emerge.  I may be dreaming, but there really isn’t any other way.  We can’t just keep pining away for the past, and, at the same time support people who are basically rockers who emphasize technique over art.  This will just further erode the sale of blues.

Those who care should look carefully for new talent and get behind it.  I was at a local club the other night at open mic night and a young black woman got up and belted out some blues standards.  She had everyone dancing and applauding.  I asked her how she became interested in authentic blues and she said, “blues is part of my heritage, I’ve always wanted to sing the blues.”  I will put her in my band and try to get some exposure for her locally.  The point is that there are talented young people who want to sing and play blues.  But they need encouragement and support from the bigger blues labels. The better-known blues labels have the ability to break an artist quickly in the blues world.  Instead of waiting 20 years to sign an artist (they wait until the artist is already a well-established road warrior) they should sign talented newcomers, who are playing real blues, as soon as they are discovered.  Then the label should work with booking agencies to get them opening for more established bands.   This will create an environment where just maybe the next Muddy or Koko will materialize. I believe this approach, in the long run, will end up creating more commerce for everyone in the blues, from the larger indie blues labels down to the sports bar legends.

* The Muddy photo is a gift from his estate.  See for other excellent photos of Muddy Waters.

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