A Bad Case of the (Modern) Blues - Blue Week


By Zach Schepis

“The Blues Man” by Vanrogue.

I’ll be honest with you right out of the gate–I’m the kind of guy who carries along a harmonica when he goes out for a walk. A guy who will seek out the smoky tumble of a dive bar to hunker down and listen to the sounds of a slide guitar stretch the hours thin. Someone who finds beauty in lost and damaged things. A person somehow uplifted by the farewell whistle of a train riding off under the moonlight.

Well, alright now.

It would be easy to chug away with the many colors of this musical inspiration, because for those that really care, the blues isn’t just about being blue; and it certainly isn’t only a form of music.

It’s a way of life.

Nobody invented it, yet it’s become both father and mother to almost every musical shape that has taken form since. Rock and roll, R&B, hip-hop, pop, funk, folk–hell, even genres like metal and electronic dance music–none of them would be possible without the blues.

Blues is, first and foremost, an expression of suffering. The middle of the 1800s saw the Deep South ablaze with many pioneers of the genre. At this point it was a new take on old African spirituals, often sung by young black sharecroppers who carried the songs with them to their graves.

Not every early bluesman died an unsung hero. Incredible recordings preserved from the 1920s and ‘30s from Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, among other Southern states, miraculously made their way into circulation. Son House, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly, and the nefarious Robert Johnson are but a few of these roots that have been immortalized.

Listening back to their music feels like stepping into another dimension. The listener can almost imagine an old wandering ghost frequenting the rubble of plantation camps, juke joints, and rambling shacks, dragging along a beat-up guitar and bottle of whiskey as fuel for the ride.

Just like any real haunt, wherever the blues landed it soon began to take on characteristics of its surrounding region. There’s the loose and swaggering jazz of Louisiana blues, the country twang of Memphis blues, the romp-and-ride attitude of Texas blues. Let’s not forget Chicago blues–where the first traces of the electric tasted air, thanks to the likes of Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker.

There’s country blues, jump blues, boogie-woogie, swing blues, cool blues, West Coast blues…

The list goes on and on. Yet at the end of the day, most casual music fans won’t be able to tell you the difference. They most likely won’t have any idea who Reverend Gary Davis was, or that the blind boy picked up the guitar after his father was shot dead by a sheriff. They probably wouldn’t prefer to throw on a bootleg recording of Son House, in which you can practically hear the dust move like an old tumbleweed.

They might not know that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to play the blues, and was later poisoned to death by his lover.

Most listeners don’t, and probably won’t, discover any of this because it ends up becoming dismissed as irrelevant. It’s as archaic, crude, honest, bold, and raw as they come. Quite understandably, the abrasiveness of blues turns a lot of people off before they can even scratch the surface.

If it makes us uncomfortable, that’s because it’s meant to. Blues is hardship and heartache and hard times all rolled up into very personal and very passionate confessionals set to music. But there is a certain buoyancy to it all, a certain triumph and ye-saying guffaw in the face of adversity that turns these woeful outpourings into something much more. There is a resilience and bittersweet laughter that gives strength to the singer and imbibes them with magic. Blues is the magic that allows us to understand the suffering and heartbreak of someone playing to us from another country, from another time, even if we’ve never been there or don’t speak the language.

The blues transcends every boundary, and reveals suffering as the link that inevitably binds every single one of us together. And suffering is beauty.

We might not have as much to complain about in an age of digital convenience where almost everything is provided for us. But the blues is timeless. It’s just evolved, that’s all.

Everyone has their own taste of the modern blues. Gettin’ sapped by the computer screen blues, my starter-won’t-start-this-morning blues, the fried-brain real TV blues, and you can’t forget those damned student loan blues. There is a sense of retribution, of real catharsis in singing and hearing someone sing a 12-bar blues song about their lover leaving them. No matter how many times you’ve heard it, or how fleeting the feeling, it strikes a chord because it’s honest and it hits the nerve directly. Sure, we’ve all heard the story but that doesn’t stop it from happening again and again. The blues dances hand in hand with the trapping cycle of love to show us we’re really free. It’s sincere and it isn’t afraid.

Below I’ve included a list of what I believe to be the top ten most influential blues artists of the past decade. Some you might not have heard of, others you might be surprised to consider as blues. Either way, if you’re looking to kick back and enjoy a few potent shots of humanity, look no further.

Buddy Guy:

Photo courtesy of Kelly Mooney.

Living Proof is the 26th album from the 77-year-old blues guitar pioneer and tells the story of his life. It’s a testament to Guy’s lasting imprint on the genre. It’s his highest charting album ever, and his solos are still fiery as all hell. This is the guy who influenced greats like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, and it’s easy to hear why.

Jack White:

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Here’s a bluesman who’s not afraid to get his feet wet. He founded the hugely successful blues-rock duo The White Stripes along with other projects including The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather. He’s currently enjoying a considerable solo career with the release of his album Blunderbuss. He’s also ranked number 70 on Rolling Stone’s list of “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.” Everything he touches is steeped in old blues tradition. If you don’t believe me, listen for yourself. Here’s more proof: he was awarded the title “Nashville Music City Ambassador.”

Otis Taylor:

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Recapturing the Banjo: Due to its honky-tonk associations, many people forget that the banjo was first a traditional African instrument. Multi-instrumentalist Otis Taylor takes us back to its roots on his ninth release and manages to give everything a 21st century twist, all while staying true to its original form.

The Black Keys:

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Everyone’s heard the duo’s breakthrough double-LP Brothers, and for damn good reason–it really is that good. But Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney have been making music long before they started selling out shows at Madison Square Garden. Their more recent work does an excellent job of rendering blues rock into an accessible and punchy songwriting force, but their 2006 EP Chulahoma is a tip of the hat to blues roots legend Junior Kimbrough. The Black Keys cut their teeth on his haunting slide work, and the EP pays homage by covering one of his records in its entirety. Stay tuned for their album Turn Blue, which will be released mid-May.

Shemekia Copeland:

Photo courtesy of Erin Nekervis.

It’s surprising that there aren’t more women singing the blues these days, but Copeland makes up for it in spades. She’s a powerhouse who isn’t afraid to really belt it, and she has the pipes to back it up. Born and raised in Harlem, she is the daughter of Texan blues guitarist and songwriter Johnny Copeland. Keep an eye out for this one.

Gary Clark, Jr.:

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

He’s now a Grammy-Award winner, but more importantly, this young man is the new face of Texas blues. His smooth vocals and fuzzed out guitars blend perfectly. He even throws in elements of hip-hop and soul into the mix, blurring the lines between the traditional conventions of the genre.

Amy Winehouse:

Photo courtesy of Ivo Garcev.

I know, I know–some of you are probably shaking your heads saying, “but she’s not really a blues singer.” I beg to differ. Here’s a singer who was unabashedly darker, messier, and more honest than most polished and sweet women in pop music. Winehouse sang about drugs, hound dogs, and backdoor men with a vivacity that dripped with sex and self-remorse. Ultimately, she couldn’t live the lifestyle for long, but despite her short career, she will be remembered for years to come.

John Mayer:

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Putting aside his softer singer-songwriter side, Mayer surprised audiences by showcasing his command of the blues at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival, wringing moans out of his Stratocaster reminiscent of, dare I say, Hendrix. Mayer is a self-professed lover of the sixties guitar icon and even does a rendition of “Little Wing” that will melt your heart. Listen to his trio’s live album Try! I guarantee you won’t regret it.

Dr. John:

Photo courtesy of Michael Wilson.

Nobody does New Orleans voodoo-blues better than this master. He started as a session musician in the ‘50s, and has played with everyone from The Band, Clapton, and Allen Toussaint. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011, and dropped a new record, Locked Down, last year. Did I mention it won the Grammy for Best Blues Album? Check it out; the good Doctor has been known to cast spells with his keys.

The Allman Brothers Band:

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Last but not least, the boys from Jacksonville, Florida round out the list. More has been said about these legends than could ever be condensed into a small blurb, so if you haven’t heard of them start with their ‘70s classic At the Fillmore East and work your way forward from there. Duane Allman may have passed on too soon (an unfortunate tradition among blues musicians, it seems) but his protege Derek Trucks is a master all his own. The guitar player started playing gigs with the Allman Brothers at 17. Now 34, he is a seasoned virtuoso. Gregg Allman, despite years of drugs and rampant escapades, is still alive and kicking too. This year, however, marks the last year that the band will tour, so do yourself a favor and go see them at least once. “The road goes on forever,” Allman once wrote years ago, but the riders don’t.