Why the Blues Really Hit The Spot

After a tough week at the office, I found myself headed to New Orleans for a short business trip.

As any of you who have visited Bourbon street know, there are plenty of live bands to choose from: Dixieland jazz, R&B, pop/rock cover bands and simple, down home, guitar driven blues.

I had a great time listening to every single band I could find, enjoying a wide variety of music last week.

But whenever I really settle in with a good, live blues band, I wonder what it is that makes the blues so timeless and appealing -- especially late at night with a good local beer!

So for fans of the blues, can anyone explain?

Do the blues more perceptively touch some aspect of human nature? During times of stress or loss, do the blues give you a sense of empathy and understanding? Or is there some counterintuitive explanation that the blues can somehow cheer you up in a mysterious way like Ritalin somehow calms hyperactive kids?

I guess I am asking the musically equivalent question of when and why people seek out movies like Love Story, Platoon or Terms of Endearment?

What are your thoughts and experiences and when do you most enjoy listening to the blues?
Sometimes people enjoy being depressed and commiserating with friends "especially late at night with a good local beer", as you say. That's why they call it the blues.

However, if you're in New Orleans and the blues has got you down, you just stop in at Preservation Hall for some jazz. Hard to be depressed there.
I would highly recommend a book recently published, "The Delta Blues", by Ted Gioia.
I probably enjoy listening to the blues more than any other music. I guess it's the ability of the blues guitarist to really immerse himself into the music. The electric guitar, properly played by the artist, has an uncanny ability to make the listener whine, moan and groan along with the music. Listen to Albert Collins, Buddy Guy,
Stevie Ray Vaughn, BB King, and countless others, tell the gut-wrenching stories of woe through their instruments. May the blues make you feel better off than those poor souls that the blues players play about!!
Da Blues, I enjoy them anytime...no other genre for me conveys such emotion! From SRV to Howlin Wolf, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Muddy, ZZ Hill, Clapton, Cray and maybe most of all for me Canned Heat! it's just....too good.
Don't forget John Mayall. His 70th birthday concert / celebration recorded live in Liverpool is excellent sonics and an evening to be remembered. I sent a copy of the CD and DVD to Peter Q at Audio Note and he loved it.
The blues ain't about being down, but more about getting back up. In everybody's life there comes those moments when it hurts and singing (and listening to) the blues is a way of getting past the hurt. At least that's what my momma done told me!
Well, I don't know about "touching some aspect of human nature" or about those special moments, but if you like it, play it! BTW - Blues are particularly good with Bourbon.
Blues are based on a "simpler" 5-note scale that is not the same as the 12-note scale on which most classical and popular western music is based (of course, much popular music, e.g. rock, is based on the blues scale). But, with the blues, notes are "bent" in between the basic notes, creating an almost infinite variety of tones (and correspondingly, room for a vast range of artistic expression). Prior to tempered tuning, each scale (and key) was believed to have its own unique emotional appeal. It is just something that certain musicians figured out, and that history and culture have conditioned us to appreciate. The same is true for all great music; e.g., Bach or Beethoven can make us feel at least as great a range of emotion (although sadly, not usually served with beer). Blues ain't about feeling up, down, or sideways - it's all covered.
If you listen to most popular American music forms, and trace them back to their roots, just about all of them are rooted in blues and/or gospel. I love listening to blues (especially some of the older, more acoustic based artist) as it really gets passed the BS, and goes straight to emotion. If you think about it, that what the best music does, appeals to your emotions and the part of you that makes you human. Btw, blues ain't necessary feeling sorry for one's self. Blues is the music of a person dealing with life, and everything that comes with it.
From the Steve Goodman song:

My baby came to me this morning
And said I'm kinda confused
She said, "If me and B.B. King was both drownin',
Which one would you choose?"

I said, "Oh, baby,"
I said, "Oh, baby,"
I said, "Oh, baby,
Baby, I ain't never heard you play no blues!"
The Blues are like a comfortable old coat, easy to slide into and keeps you warm with a familiarity only time can provide. Unpretentious soothing and honest.
The blues simply says, "Life stinks but we're gonna be alright". Onhwy61 nails it when he says Blues aren't about being down. I heartily agree. They are more about being up in spite of life's storms. It is a universal message that ALL people can relate to. It is a timeless message
Blues is not definable in terms of its content, any more than a symphony, folk song or opera can be. It is a collection of musical forms using a particular scale.
Why you ask are people drawn to sad or music that is blue or the blues? The answer is because misery likes company.
A purpose of music is to help soothe the soul, and a good blues tune simply and effectively addresses some common problematic scenario that many may face and hence relate to strongly.

PLus, any particular master of the blues puts their unique spin on an otherwise common theme that provides insight into what distinctly makes that particular musician tick. That's what makes the blues particularly interesting to me. It's a musical common denominator that enables one to distinguish what makes various artists tick by the way in which they play it.
its as varied and broad as any other music catagory, and spills into jazz, bluegrass, pop, folk, rock....you name it. i find it comforting as stubby states above. each year i spend a week or more in NOLA and get a little of my soul back....The highway 61 'roadtrip' is a hoot as well.
First, get the box set of CDs, Martin Scorsese Presents THE BLUES. This is from the PBS special...the re-mixing is some of the very best and will sound fantastic on a high-end system.

I play lots of the Blues, but not too often with company.

Anyone ever hear the old tried and proven...?

If it is getting late and you need to wind down the party, put on some Blues...all (but one, or two...) of the Whit Women will be out the door in no time.
You will not like what I have to say on this, I think. But I think blues is absolutely dead as an idiom. The period of country blues between the advent of the first recordings around 1924 and the mass migration to northern urban areas in the 30's produced raw, authentic, genuine expressions of the human soul that were the culmination of African and European influences mixed together with the poignancy of aspiration amid suffering. This led directly into its urban counterpart in cities such as Chicago, where the electric technology transfered that same spirit into a new context with new instrumentation. Just as authentic and powerful, the urban blues produced between the post war 40's and early 60's is some of the greatest American music ever made.

After the blues became the official basis for white rock music (particularly in England) it stopped evolving and growing. It became something to mimmic, to copy, and to asshimilate. As an artform, after the mid 60's is became nothing but a a caricature of itself, which is what it is today. The old LP's prove this when compared to the crap played in New Orleans clubs which offer the musical equivalent of a civil war re-enactment. The innovation and human creativity that made the form great is long long gone. It can be copied, even mastered (as a copy) but it no longer grows. Just listen to Charley Patton, Robert Wilkins, Robert Johnson, Sonyboy Williamson, or Howlin Wolf and compare THAT to anything after the British blues explosion.
Its true perhaps that there was never much money to be made in just singing the blues and money talks (and sings).

But, a lot of acts did just that by taking elements of the blues and applying them to new forms of music that broadened the appeal of the blues. Led Zeppelin comes to mind as perhaps one of the best examples of this.

Also...on the bright side the influence of the blues is felt perhaps in more diverse areas of music today than ever before, so its overall impact is greater than ever I would say, even if true that there are also many other fish in the sea out there as well in terms of other forms of music.
Chasmal makes a good point. Robert Cray, Keb Mo and other contemporaries are just rehashing stuff the originals did forty, fifty, sixty plus years ago. Jazz has the same problem. After you've listened to Miles Davis, Bird and Trane everyone else is just copying in some way or another until you wind up with a largly nostalgia music form.

This isn't to say there aren't people playing good music today - there are, but its true creative spirit is long gone. Fortunately there are lots of great old recordings.

At at glance, Keb Mo seems only slighter closer to the "blues" than Kenny G is to "jazz".

Has anyone listened to Jimi Hendrix "Blues" - it's great and also a surprisingly decent recording.

Chasmal, I am not perturbed by any of these comments, but glad to see my post has encouraged discussion.

To me, good blues music really hits the spots like few other genres of music.

My philosophical question was just a curious one - is it true as Schipo suggests that misery likes company and blues only helps us to wallow in our own sadness? Or is there something paradoxial in the ability of blues to lift our spirits?

There is no correct answer, but look forward to this continued conversation.

For those of you who also like late night blues,here is a hot tip in the spirit of Audiogon:


if you are ever in London....

A great spot which totally lacks the bad dinner and/or annoyingly flagrant commercialism of many big city jazz/blues music venues.

Just don't pass the link around too much - we wouldnt want it to get discovered!
Grimace: unfortunately, the same applies to visual art, architecture, and other aspects of high western culture. My wife says I am a pessimist, but I cannot help but conclude that our culture has been degenerating for quite some time.

Possible reasons: the corporate media, corporate control of every aspect of life, multiculturalism, the political structure as a vehicle for yet MORE corporate control of life.
Cwlondon: I could not agree more. The examples you gave really make the point hit home. Comparing Keb Mo to Robert Johnson is like comparing Shakespeare to the Smurfs.
I think there is truth to the "misery loves company" assertion, but that alone does not tell the whole story.

And I agree with Chashmal's observations regarding modern culture and corporate politics.

Just look at the names of our sports stadiums and you can see what this country has come to in recent years. Its a disgrace and an embarassment!
It might even be valid to say that the synthesis of african rhythmic patterns (which became field hollers) with european melodies (evident in early negro spirituals) was in a sense 'anti corporate' . It certainly was a reaction against the status quo of the plantation system and the society that preserved that way of life. Blues was in direct defiance to that system, and allowed soulwrenching human creativity to flourish in the face of that brutal and oppressive degradation.

Today no such oppression exists. The thread from Africa to the plantation, and in the post-war period to northern cities, is broken. The blues was not a luxury; it was a NECESSITY. It preserved the dignity and vibrancy of a people who had no other outlet. No such equivalent exists today. Just as the traditions of Celtic and Italian music died with assimilation, so black culture has been 'mainstreamed' to the point that it is now part of the system it once reacted against. Don't believe me? Ask the president!
We're re-colonizing ourselves with a watered down version of our own cultural history.
That, Grimace, is something we CAN resist and reject! I am not saying that the corporate media is another plantation system (much), but I am saying that we can be vocal and annoying about what we will and will not support. Will it change the world? No. Will it create an underground shift in taste? Maybe. What else can we do?
its my nature to compare new blues artists to my personal favorites, who were considered'students' of the masters in the 1960's. paul butterfield, mike bloomfield, and many others tried like hell to move the music forward...a mixture of new and old, but as with lots of jazz, its become an area where there are countless musicans and composers of average talent making records that do indeed just play by the numbers. as a friend of mine said...'there are just way too many piano trios today'. still dig the blues bars in NOLA though....
"R.I.P. the blues. 1924-1965"

That's a joke right? I had no idea the Blues died three years before I was born. It seems to be alive right now in my living room listening to KWS 10 Days Out and it sure was alive a couple weeks ago when I saw Buddy Guy and Robert Cray.

I find the newer artists I really enjoy to be fewer and fewer as the years go by. I can respect loving old blues as I do also, but disrespecting all the artists since '65 that have continued to try to promote and keep it alive is sad.

Without the "White Boys" like Butterfield, Bloomfield, Page, Clapton, Allman, Green, SRV, Earl, Ford, Lee etc. myself and so many others would have never discovered and truly fell in love with everything about the Blues. It sounds like even though you love the Blues there is still a hole in your soul.
Buddy Guy and Robert Cray, like some others you mentioned, are masters of the form. I would never dispute that. However there is a difference between mastering a form and creating and innovating new developments. Those guys are rehashing the glory of the past. Even though they produce new variations, which involve creativity for sure, it is not real authentic adaptation. In the 20's the idiom was continually changing out of a need to express new things. Same with the electric ensemble stuff of the 50's. The need came first and artists filled that need with work that either did the job or failed to do so. I think Buddy Guy's Chess work is remarkable, but now he coasts off of his mastery to accolades that are often uncritical.

As for the white bluesmen you mentioned, I think their innovation was to take those delta roots and bring them into contexts that were amazingly diverse. They were musically aware of Stockhausen, Schoenberg, Cage the Beatles, LSD, and world literature. Page, for example, was highly educated and literate. You can't compare him with a dirt farmer who could not read or write. It is a totally different music for a totally different context, and it was fantastic. Blues-rock is great for what it is, as is country blues and chicago blues, etc. Everything has its place.

Some things never change. You can always count on the Blues Police to show up at a discussion like this. To say that no good blues have been played since 1965 is just plain wrong.
I never said "no good blues have been played since 1965".

I said artistic growth in the idiom had turned from radically creative and innovative to the perpetuation of a rather static form. Get your facts.
I love the blues, but by its very nature its a pretty limited art form. There's only so much you can do with a couple of verses and choruses. The folks playing today just don't have anything new to add to the conversation. Its not to suggest they aren't good musicians, its just that they're playing someone elses breaks from forty-five years ago. Plus those old recordings have a certain essense of their time and place that you're never going to recapture with newer recordings.
For pre-war the best way is to do a run of the south by region, starting with the delta. The fine work of Samuel Charters can inform this process quite a bit. Here is a partial bibilography:

1959 - The Country Blues. New York: Rinehart. Reprinted by Da Capo Press, with a new introduction by the author, in 1975.
1963 - The Poetry of the Blues. With photos by Ann Charters. New York: Oak Publications.
1963 - Jazz New Orleans (1885-1963): An Index to the Negro Musicians of New Orleans. New York: Oak Publications
1967 - The Bluesmen. New York: Oak Publications
1975 - The Legacy of the Blues: A Glimpse Into the Art and the Lives of Twelve Great Bluesmen: An Informal Study. London: Calder & Boyars.
1977 - Sweet As the Showers of Rain. New York: Oak Publications
1981 - The Roots of the Blues: An African Search. Boston: M. Boyars.
1984 - Jelly Roll Morton's Last Night at the Jungle Inn: An Imaginary Memoir. New York: M. Boyars.
1986 - Louisiana Black: A Novel. New York: M. Boyars.
1991 - The Blues Makers. (Incorporates The Bluesmen and Sweet As the Showers of Rain) Da Capo.
1999 - The Day is So Long and the Wages So Small: Music on a Summer Island. New York: Marion Boyars.
2004 - Walking a Blues Road: A Selection of Blues Writing, 1956-2004. New York: Marion Boyars.
2006 - New Orleans: Playing a Jazz Chorus. Marion Boyars.
Blues evolved. Never defined, only refined. At which point can we say it's not authentic? Before piano, upright bass, electricity? It's still evolving and statements that it's dead is diminishing to current artists like Marcia Ball and Susan Tedeschi.
I'm sorry, but your examples of Marcia Ball and Susan Tedeschi only prove my point. They are gifted craftspeople, they have mastered a form. They are not producing innovation on the level of those who forged the genre. Respectfully, I cannot listen to their stuff without thinking 'why listen to this when I can have Freddie King, T-Bone Walker, Otis Rush, or even Ike Turner'. In those guys the innovation crackles out of every nuance. With the artists you mentioned all I can think is 'heard that before'.
Chashmal, your point is somewhat true, but it's of limited value and you overstate it's importance. Furthermore, you offer no explanation for why the blues has stopped evolving. The way I see it Blues morphed into R&B which later became Rock 'n Roll. While some branches of the Rock tree are decidedly non-blues, the dominate, at least commercially, form of rock for the past 20 years, namely rap, is fundamentally a mutation of blues.

I believe what you take as innovation in the past is more accurately described as artists trying to crossover to a larger, mainly white, audience. Freddie King did surf guitar music and played the theme to "Bonanza". T-Bone Walker worked supper clubs as a dancer/singer. Muddy Waters pretended he was a Folk Singer. Ike Turner was trying to sell records. For the most part current blues artist are not stretching the blues form because their audience doesn't want them to. It's a niche market and the audience wants to hear what they consider "authentic" blues. There are exceptions and I would argue that recent recordings by James Ulmer, Otis Taylor or even V.M. Bhatt are quite innovative.
Onhwy61, the blues stopped evolving as a form in itself because the needs it served became depleted. The rural black country culture that was a product of the Jim Crow south used blues almost like an emotional newscast. When those same people and their children (the generation of WW2) migrated to northern cities the needs changed yet again, but the emotional barometer remained the same. The form of both phases innovated highly emotionally charged ways to express a very specific sociocultural set of feelings and ideas. Those periods (1924 through the depression, and the migratory period after 1945 to 1965) became the basis for all blues of any kind that followed.

You cannot call the morphing into other forms an extension. Yes, the needs changed. R&B, jump, rock n' roll, and blues rock all grew from the 2 models I cited. If you want to say that blues extended itself to become those other forms it is you who is being simplistic. I think categorical distinctions are made for a reason, and those later forms did leave the pure blues behind. The only exception might be the British blues explosion, but in my opinion we can write it away as a wholly derivative venture from the outset.
Even more of the great bluesmen and women would have died in poverty and obscurity if the folk music and British blues revivals of the sixties hadn't happened. Even Stevie Ray Vaughan helped put a lot of money into the pockets of aging bluesmen by creating interest in their music.

There is something about the blues that strikes a chord in many people and I think there will be blues booms in the future.

It's OK if blues purists only like prewar (WW II) or first generation electric bluesmen. I have my own cutoff points for the blues that I like. But everyone should listen to the music that moves them and hopefully their curiosity will lead them back to some of the original masters and some will be inspired to make new good blues.

I've read, but I can't say for sure it's true, that Muddy Waters last words in 1983 were, "Don't let the blues die." I'm with Muddy.
Cwlondon you should have planed your trip to the Big Easy for this weekend. Johnny Winter will be preforming at Harrahs Saturday night the 31st. A sweet sounding little venue. I will be there for sure. A big change from this past weekends country rock of the Eagles.

I am big on the the blues, been acquiring lps lately at a large pace. Doing what Jake and Elwood recommended. A sweet playing blues guitar does it for me. Dont know about makeing me blue cause my foot starts moving and i feel good hearing dem blues.
Also Snug harbor is a very nice jazz club in the French Quarter.

I heard a French funk/jazz group there once during the JAzz Heritage Festival weekend...one of the most memorable musical concert experiences I've ever had!
Lightning in a Bottle DVD is worth getting. I'd also recommend Keb 'Mo - excellent quality recordings. Oh and Stones earliest stuff (remastered by Bob Ludwig)
Chasmal, your knowledge is impressive, your points interesting, and I agree with much of what you wrote... but not your conclusion. The blues ain't exactly dead. I was lucky enough to hear SRV play many times in small clubs, in his prime, in the years before he was "discovered." It was the real deal, blindingly original, not just mastery of an old form. Never caught on the records, but bootlegs exist. Part of the problem is that the way they are made now, there is no way the raw emotion of earlier blues will be caught and released on a recording, or that any professional musician, who needs to sell commercial records to survive, will even go for it. When someone asked his brother, Jimmy, if Stevie ever played anyting the same way twice, he replied, "Stevie never played anything the same way ONCE!" Yes, Buddy Guy, BB King, and others may be coasting now - they are way past "retirement age" for anyone leading that life - but John Lee Hooker never lost his primitive vibe, could still rock a joint like no one else on this planet, and continued evolving his blues to the end. It's just that the ones with the talent to move it forward are very rare, and hopefully, the next one hasn't yet come to our attention.