What Is the Blues?

As a musician, I thought that I knew what the blues is.  But after a visit to Chicago, I don’t know.  I had thought that the blues was a feel, certain notes and often a stylized 12-bar chord pattern.  But after my visit to Chicago, I’m not sure that the blues is a matter of musical notes.

My first experience of Chicago blues was the House of Blues.  The walls of the Chicago House of Blues are covered with folk art.  The folk art was powerful, sometimes “abstract,” striking and soulful.  It affected me,  and set the tone for my experience in the club.  One collection of drawings had someone shot in every picture.  One woman had about 20 bleeding bullet holes in her.  There was a Santa Claus dead and bleeding from a gunshot.  There were other artworks that had smiles, grimaces, faces, figures–all carrying a heartfelt message.  In the upstairs concert hall, above the stage were symbols of many world religions with the words, “All Are One” in the central panel.  The stage of the downstairs club had red curtains with a large heart on fire on them behind the band.  The impression I had in the House of Blues was that I was in a shrine.  I even told my partner that this place was spiritual.  The music was part of this spiritual experience.  Heart.  Community.  Togetherness.

In Buddy Guy’s Legends, guitars were hung on the walls signed by the likes of Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, B. B. King, George Thorogood, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and other legends.  The MC who introduced the band worked the audience.  He asked where we all came from.  There were people from Canada, Switzerland, Turkey, England, Texas, South Side of Chicago, and other places all over the world.  As people in the audience called out their homes, the rest of us cheered.  The MC made jokes, warmed up the audience and brought us all together.  The music was communal, communion.  Heart.  Togetherness.  The music was part of the overall experience.

I live in Canada, and we have a good blues club here that brings in bands from all over North America and even Spain.  The music here is good.  As good as Chicago.  But we don’t have the bond of hearts I experienced in Chicago.  It’s more like an informal concert.  And I have never felt our club is a shrine.  I don’t know what the blues is.  It may be heart–soul.  Not good notes.

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CHICAGO

With Chicago’s manifold options

You can do almost everything

It is not a city—it is a world

And the world is represented in

Its population’s ethnicity

 

But it isn’t a world

Chicago is its own world

And if you lived here all your life

It would make you in the image of Chicago

 

Part of what makes Chicago, though

Is the Ethiopian cab driver

Who took us to the Lake Michigan beach

–the waves were large on the waters—

And the Jordanian cab driver who took us home

Both immigrants bringing their personalities other than Chicago home-grown

And the harmonica player with the French accent

Who grew up here with the mixed whites

And Afro-Americans who live here and

Some gave the world sounds of the blues

So there is always a fresh perspective

On the city and an opening outward

Of those few or many home-grown

But I didn’t see any Indigenous

 

I heard superb jazz in Chicago, though

Better in Westchester, PA, of all places

But the mix wasn’t good, echoes

The blues clubs in Chicago feel like shrines

Heart, community

Good blues, but not extraordinary, surprisingly

Chicago has history and lore

But not the legendary status of storied New York

I would make America’s cities:

New York, L. A., Chicago, and Boston

You could live your life in Chicago

Because it is as a world

In its manifold superb and variegated options

Don’t Go to See John Wick

Speaking to the unifying power of music, an ancient Chinese proverb says that an emperor and a peasant hear the same sound.  The blues club I frequent has a great band this week.  Total strangers dance together on the floor; couples embrace during slow music; regulars become friends; we all come together and get happy.  I made the mistake of foregoing all this to go to a bad movie tonight.  I thought that John Wick would be like Jack Reacher, with plot turns, a good story, and action adventure.  John Wick was none of these.  It was a mixture of WWF wrestling and the Assassin’s Creed video game.  What I mean is that John Wick was 2 hours and 11 minutes of graphic murder.  There was no story.  It was 2 hours and 11 minutes of killing.

I don’t understand why people want to see so much murder.  I know that video games are like that, with heads blowing up, blood splattering, limbs being severed, bullets flying.  And that doesn’t make me feel any better.  People were literally laughing at some of the grosser kills–as at a WWF wrestling match.  I was ready to walk out after about a half hour of this, when I realized the kind of movie I was watching.  But I don’t know if my partner wanted to stay, and, out of misplaced manners, I didn’t want to talk in the middle of the movie.

What bothered me most about John Wick was that I could have spent the same two hours and 11 minutes enjoying the Dionysian experience of the blues club, with the hot band now in town.  Instead, I was subjected to graphic representations of killing.  I noticed that the theatre was filled largely with young people, who are probably used to seeing this kind of thing in the video games that are becoming a narcotic.  This also explains the kind of of music being produced today.

A RIPOFF OF WALLACE STEVENS

I was enjoying the music

Loud music, sometimes

When everybody in the band landed with the drums

On the same beat

Such a powerful pulse of air was produced

It hurt

The music wasn’t the rhythmic pulses of air

Nor would it be cathode-ray oscilloscopal wave forms

Nor was it resonating vibrating ear cilia

Maybe it was the electric synapse lightning-flowing pathways of sparks

Of the brain,–some people think so

The cascades of my emotions

Grooving like air pulses can’t

Grieving in the blues

Thrilling to the guitar licks

Loving the ensemble harmonious sound and the beat

As no oscilloscope can

Movements of my soul

Undulating to what is now music

Is the music

BEYOND BLUES

It happened again

Then is it passion cancelled?

Avocation termination?

I once was a musician

Can I fight through

The shakes, the uncontrollable shakes

It isn’t just nerves

It started with

My psychotic break

Broken, I’ve lost my confidence

It hurts to perform, not to perform

It used to be such a thrill

They all said it sounded good tonight

My friend said he noticed me shake

Did the audience?

As I started the song I wanted to stop

Run away

But the show had to go on

The song I was in the middle of

So I shook through it

Agony

Do I continue to fight through it every time?

Or is it over?

A man’s complaint in

A universe

Sown in corruption

And what have I to do with thee?

It is my song

Solo

Lyrics carved in my regret

Beyond blues, I sing these words

SLOW DANCING AT THE BLUES BAR

Feeling electric

Current

Generated by you, us, moving

That slow dance to the blues band

Your head resting on

My heart

Beating

Moving

To the music

Feeling

More than hearing

The music

You

Touching me

Slow dancing

Electric current

Turned on

Electric

The music

Moving

On the dance floor

Those moments, moving

Afterward

Days pass

Remembering

We are not the same, now

A Future Blues Song

Broke Again

Broke again, and a week until payday

Broke again and I don’t know where it went

Broke again, and a week until payday

Got nothing to show and my money’s all spent

 

I have a good time till the money’s all gone

I have a good time, I just do as I please

I have a good time till the money’s all gone

And I’m all out of cash and I’m feeling the squeeze

 

I’m struggling till payday, don’t know what I’ll do

I’m struggling till payday, how will I get by?

I’m struggling till payday, don’t know what I’ll do

It all costs too much for a regular guy

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