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Violence in the Blues



To the editors:

It's always disturbing when pressure is put on public figures to censor their artistic vision for ideological or moralistic reasons. When it's done in the name of social justice it's even more unfortunate--especially when the protester's agenda is laced with cultural myopia so extreme that it smacks of chauvinism or worse.

Frieda Dean [Hot Type, October 23] is right in observing that a lot of traditional blues lyrics are violent and, by today's standards, sexist. But Steve Cushing's radio show is a proudly historical investigation into the richness of blues tradition. In that context, anomaly (be it in matters of gender, race, politics, or philosophy) seems to me part of the point.

The eloquence of the blues lies in its celebration of the human condition in all its flawed glory. The blues creates art of profound and lasting beauty by portraying the world as it is, not as we might like it to be. The song "Blues Before Sunrise" is a brokenhearted meditation set in the wee morning hours; that's the classic time for all manner of inner demons and ragings to surface. Carr's reading of Flossie Franklin's lyrics fuses wistful melancholy with seething emotional intensity to create an eloquent expression of the ambiguities and torments that swirl around one's head during those hours.

That leads me to my central argument: Dean's assumption of simplistic literalism in blues lyrics is patronizing to the point of borderline racism (as are her references to the "violent roots" of the culture that spawned the blues--that culture was shaped by religious, spiritual, and liberational impulses far more than by any indigenous predisposition toward violence). The blues is an art form of great subtlety and craftsmanship; irony and ambiguity are at the heart of much blues expression. Yet people still stereotype the blues as nothing more than a primal utterance from the dark midnight of the soul, spontaneous and unrefined, with no meaning beyond the naked truth of the words and the primitive emotionalism of the music.

Thus if Leroy Carr or Robert Johnson sang about killing or beating a woman, or if Muddy Waters sang about putting a voodoo curse on a wayward lover, they must have been reflecting their own literal worldview. By the same token, then, audiences in those days must have been likewise unable to contain themselves. They must have listened and nodded their heads with bloodthirsty affirmation and then gone home, rubbed their mojos, and committed dreadful acts of domestic mayhem in that same spirit of primal emotionalism and unchecked superstitious passion.

That's nonsense: blues artists are professional performers, and the music's true audience both recognizes and celebrates this fact. It's well documented that from Charlie Patton through the present day blues musicians have worked long and hard to develop artistic identities, stage presences, and well-rehearsed acts designed to entertain as well as communicate. Alternate takes of Johnson's recordings, for example, show that instrumental patterns, vocal inflections, even spoken asides are often virtually identical from one version to the next. Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon both told interviewers that their use of voodoo themes was an intentional artistic device to create a mood and evoke powerful imagery in listeners' minds. These are artists, Ms. Dean, not some untutored beast-men or holy primitives braying their emotions to the midnight moon.

Certainly any art form will reflect the values of the dominant culture, and the blues are no exception. There are some paeans to violence and domination in the blues canon that no one would dare sing today, despite their value as historical documents. But there are also plenty of examples of such imagery being used in nonliteral, symbolic ways. To cite just one: Johnson, in "Me and the Devil Blues," sings: "Early this mornin' / When you knocked upon my door / And I said, 'Hello, Satan, / I believe it's time to go' . . . Me and the devil was walkin' side by side / I'm gonna beat my woman / Until I get satisfied . . . " He later concludes: "You can bury my body / Down by the highway side / So my old evil spirit / Can catch a Greyhound bus and ride."

Here Johnson portrays a tormented man, driven to acts of destruction and rage by inner demons and urges he can't understand; he's no more "advocating" violence against women in that song than Hitchcock is in Psycho.

Many blues operate on that level: the violence the lyrics portend is a metaphoric violence of the soul, a representation of a shattered and desperate inner self lashing out against a world of oppression and alienation. The object of the singer's paranoia--a lover, an unnamed demon as in Buddy Guy's version of Little Brother Montgomery's "First Time I Met the Blues," the entire civilized world in Julia Moody's "Mad Mama's Blues"--is metaphoric; it stands both for a repressive society that breaks promises and dishonors faith at every opportunity and as a manifestation of an existential sense of tragic reversal, a hard-won knowledge that life's most sacred covenants will probably be broken and redemption may lie only in the individual's ability to shake his or her fist in defiance.

It's also, of course, a hard-nosed, real-world admission that love and desire are unpredictable and dangerous emotions, capable of bringing the most supreme ecstasy and the most wrenching agony alike. I haven't done a statistical survey, but I'm willing to bet that the percentage of blues songs by women that threaten vengeance against a recalcitrant lover is close to the percentage of such songs sung by men (check out the catalogs of Merline Johnson, Mary Johnson, Ida Cox, and Bessie Smith just for starters).

The cold fact is that it hurts like hell to be betrayed, and when we're hurt that badly our thoughts all too often turn to revenge and restitution. Revenge fantasies are hardly new in music or any art; the blues simply draw them in images of exquisite and often frightening starkness. Such images still dominate our cultural landscape in more sanitized forms, and they're hardly the sole province of men: Thelma and Louise are Leroy Carr's tormented protagonist in drag; Gaye Adegbalola of Saffire, the Uppity Blues Women, is only a feminized (and politically correct) version of Stagger Lee as she boasts, "I'm a three time loser, and that judge says I've got to go / I killed my good-lovin' daddy with a sawed-off forty-four!"

Anyone who's spent any time in a blues club south of Madison or west of Western will affirm that irony and ambiguity are alive and well in the blues. In those places the most dolorous musical tales of self-pity and woe bring hearty guffaws of recognition and release from the audience; threats toward either women or men, depending on the gender of the singer, evoke both laughter and playful scorn. When Bobby "Blue" Bland sneers to his lady, "Get your money where you spend your time," the women in the audience throw it right back in his face: "From now on, you can get your time where you spend your money!" When Denise LaSalle offers her withering portrayal of men who think women are grateful just to have "a dick in the house," the reaction--among women and men alike--is tumultuous and affirming.

I'd suggest that Frieda Dean forget her literalism and immerse herself in the richness of analogy, irony, and allegory that informs the blues lyric tradition. The blues emanate from a place of seething passion, a place beyond words and rationality--the same place whence all great art, folk and "high" alike, derives. Whether in the tormented writhings of a vintage Otis Rush guitar solo or in the ominous threats of a Leroy Carr or a Julia Moody, the message is both redeeming and cleansing, even if it requires some painful confrontations with demons along the way. "Hurry down sunshine, see what tomorrow bring," sang Carr; William Blake told us pretty much the same thing--only by passing bravely through the darkness can we hope to apprehend the light.

David Whiteis

Fort Wayne, Indiana

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