The Blues Needs a Pick-Me-Up

Is the blues dying? That’s the question the Chicago Tribune’s Howard Reich put to Lincoln T. Beauchamp Jr., a.k.a. Chicago Beau, a blues musician; radio DJ Steve Cushing; and the author David Whiteis. All of them admitted that this venerable American musical invention, now in its second century, was ailing. But they also insisted that reports of its death had been greatly exaggerated. Yes, they said, the titans of the field—Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf—were long gone. Clubs that specialized in hosting blues artists were having a rough time. The blues didn’t get much airplay anymore. Despite all their enthusiasm, it all sounded quite dire.

“People have said to me over the years, ‘My grandmother listened to that stuff,’ ” said Beauchamp. “I’ve always held that if some of the real prominent African-Americans would speak up and say this is a big part of our culture, better than basketball, that would get the attention. I think that it’s silently, quietly being listened to in African-American communities, but in pockets. But it’s not being done to the degree where it gets the attention, because we’re not the ones that put the money behind it. We put the money behind hip-hop and so forth.”

Cushing questioned the authority of upcoming bluesman wannabes and criticized their lack of training and resulting lack of respect for the tradition they work in. “What you’ve got today are people who are coming to blues and playing blues who were never students of blues or listening to blues,” he said. “They came from soul and rock ’n’ roll and rap, so what they play sounds not like the blues we’ve known in years gone by. I think the music is the worse for it.“

But the more I reread this story, the more I wondered if their despair and even their spirited defensiveness wasn’t somehow misplaced. Or rather, if they weren’t all looking in the wrong places for signs of health.

OK, if the blues can’t thrive in Chicago, the home of electrified blues, then where? I would suggest starting with something such as YouTube—and not the videos of musicians such as Eric Clapton but with kids you’ve never heard of, or middle-aged men and women who are not professional but who are all playing, some with astonishing skill, that music we call the blues. These are all unknown musicians, but there must be hundreds, if not thousands, of videos, filmed in living rooms and dens across the world, showcasing people playing the blues.

Before radio became ubiquitous, success in music was measured in sheet-music sales. Money was being made, of course, but more important, everyday people were making music—in the living room, on the front porch, at church socials and dances. These people were not professionals. They played for their own pleasure and the pleasure of their friends and neighbors, and they sometimes made a little money. Where do you think the first couple of generations of blues musicians—and country-music performers—came from? Radio and then records, tapes, and CDs put a dent in the performing skills of the masses but, in the long term, never completely extinguished the urge of people to make their own music. YouTube and MySpace are all the proof you need of that.

The true beauty of the blues is that it can be played by a maestro or a child. The results will be different, but the form—12 bars, three chords—is so wonderfully simple and accessible that it continues to attract people to this day. The odds that any of these acolytes will get rich aren’t good, but in some way that just proves how healthy the scene is. People aren’t playing the blues because they think it’s a ticket to the big time. They’re doing it because they love it. OK, yes, if you post a video of yourself playing “Rolling and Tumbling,” there’s a certain look-at-me thing going on. You’re asking for attention. But if you hadn’t spent hours learning and rehearsing that song—if you didn’t love the music well enough to put in the time—you wouldn’t have made the video in the first place. This isn’t air guitar or Guitar Hero. These are everyday people woodshedding with music they love. What could be a surer sign of a music’s health?