It was dark, probably about half past 12:00, but sleep was not an option. At times like these, there is only one thing to do: play some music.
I pulled out my phone and scrolled through the thousands of songs on my playlist and then I found it. I sunk back into my pillow and closed my eyes, listening to the pops and crackles of recording technology from a time when my grandpa was a boy living on a farm in Alabama. Electricity buzzed through the atmosphere and I was in a rickety wooden shack in the deep South, maybe on a cotton plantation or maybe in the middle of nowhere. The air was no longer chilly but hot and humid, as a man with so many troubles that he sold his soul to the devil sang about standing alone at a dusty train station, crying for an unrequited love.
Love in Vain — Robert Johnson
There is something incredibly beautiful that happens when a person who’s seen good times and bad times, has felt joy and sorrow, and has gained wisdom from the experience sets all of those emotions into words and sounds so pure that anyone who listens can feel it too.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
The blues are about truth. Its about real people feeling real emotions, experiencing real problems, and as a result, creating real music. The blues happen when a person feels about something so passionately that they have to tell the world — they ramble, they scream, they cry, they croon, they sing, and they play.
I’d Rather Go Blind — Etta James
Emotions can be recreated with sound: setting a slide to steel strings sounds like crying, a harmonica can sound like anything from a sigh to a screech, and, of course, there are the ways a singer’s vocal fluctuations can express joy, ecstasy, pain, and sorrow.
Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues — Skip James
But the most inspirational part of the blues is how it has been used to speak up against injustice and bring about change. Instead of protesting with riots, killing, and violence, people began to use music to speak their minds and spread messages about love, tolerance, and progress. This is what the blues gave to music. It had been done before, but not on such a scale. Utilizing new recording technology, one person’s message was able to reach farther than ever before —and touch more people than ever imagined.
Why the King of Love is Dead— Nina Simone
People living faraway, even in different countries, felt the blues, understood it, learned from it, and put it into their own music. A new generation of musicians, even if they didn’t know it, were influenced by the blues to write about things they saw or experienced, record it, and tell the world all about it. The protest song became a new mode of telling the authorities what the people wanted, a trait common to rock, punk, grunge, and almost any other form of music that followed. Whether directly or indirectly, the blues lives on in those it has influenced.
Key to the Highway — Eric Clapton and Keith Richards
12 String Blues — Jimi Hendrix
It seems that today, however, the blues have been lost on us. Most people that we see singing and dancing on TV or the Internet won’t tell you anything about what’s going on in the world and how they feel about it. And the few who do aren’t endorsed by the big music industry because it just wants easy-to-digest pop tunes that will sell to the masses. The voices of those who have something to say are suppressed and those whose words are empty get to speak the loudest. We’ve traded truth for cash.
“Something about the blues makes you wonder (if you still wonder, if you still dream) what’s taking Earth under”
– Al Young, “Something About the Blues”
But someday people will get tired of emptiness and ask for substance again. And maybe then, people will ask for the blues again, in some reincarnated form, to tell the world how they feel.
It is the deepest messages that live the longest and travel the farthest. When everything else has fallen to the ground and crumbled to dust, it is the stories, messages, and songs that make us feel something in our very core — something that is both primordial and progressive, something that is universally felt by every living soul that has the capacity to feel — that can reach deep into matter and existence and truth, and give us a glimpse of why we are here. Sometimes, without saying a single word. That is music in its most enlightened form.