Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Why no blues wars?

I recently came across an interesting Jim Fusilli piece on the state of 21st century blues, and specifically on the dearth of new blues styles. A sample:

In early May, I traveled to Memphis to attend the Blues Foundation's 31st annual two-day gala, which included its Hall of Fame induction ceremony and awards banquet. Buddy Guy received a Lifetime Achievement Award. Pinetop Perkins, now 96 years old, turned up, as did 80-year-old Bobby "Blue" Bland and 78-year-old Hubert Sumlin. I heard folk blues, country blues, jump blues, Chicago blues, Delta blues, Texas blues, fast blues, slow blues, good blues and bad blues. What I didn't hear was new blues, and I flew back home no less relieved of my own blues over the genre's troubling future.

Today's blues music isn't only steeped in the past; it's anchored to it. During the performances before and during the banquet, I could trace to almost every song, instrumental solo or vocal style I heard its originator or its most celebrated proponent—and I'm far from an expert on the history of the blues. These tales of heartache, oppression and fleeting joy sounded all too familar.

According to Jay Sieleman, the Blues Foundation's executive director, most blues fans aren't looking for something new. "We all don't want the blues to be the same ol', same ol'," he said, "but it'd better be close."


In 2004, Skip McDonald, who works under the name Little Axe, released "Champagne and Grits," which mixed traditional blues with spoken word, drum loops, Indian percussion and a dab of reggae. It was the kind of album that could bring young listeners to the blues: Give it to a Citizen Cope or a Massive Attack fan and they'd feel at home. It wasn't well received by the blues community.

"I upset a lot of people," Mr. McDonald told me. "People are so traditional in their approach. It was a hybrid amalgamation, but the blues was my first stop."

The blues establishment seems to have little interest in reaching out to other musical communities. No rock, hip-hop or jazz artists with a musical debt to the blues were part of the activities in Memphis. Perhaps in turn, blues musicians aren't invited to participate in most major rock festivals: There were no traditional blues artists at this year's Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, nor will there be any at the Glastonbury Festival in Britain later this month. At this weekend's Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn., only Trombone Shorty and Big Sam's Funky Nation, both from New Orleans, and the string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, adhere to blues traditions.

Sound familiar? It probably does if you're a jazz fan, as we in the so-called "jazz community" seem to have this same debate every few months (here's the latest outburst). Some folks argue that the music should stay close to its "roots." Some argue that it should embrace newness of various sorts. Heated debate ensues. We call it the "jazz wars."

Jazz did not introduce this sort of internecine aesthetic conflict. Often couched in terms of the frustratingly arbitrary notion of "authenticity," similar debates have been flirted with by proponents of most genres. But jazz critics, fans, and musicians have raised such debates to the level of an art form (not to mention a brilliant form of marketing). And therein lies the reason for this post.

You see, I'm confused. Why does the notion of an all-out "blues war" lack the sort of staying-power that seems to drive the recurring "jazz war" meme? Why, for instance, did Fusilli's piece not prompt the firestorm of outrage that greeted a similar (now-infamous) piece by Terry Teachout last summer?

I'm tempted to say it has something to do with the blues' time-honored fatalism, the sense conveyed (by most exemplars of the genre) that nothing lasts forever, and that death is, in fact, an important part of life.

But that can't be the only reason.

[photo credit: kevindooley]

1 comment:

nate said...

That's an interesting comparison. At the risk of making HUGE generalizations, I'd have to say that in jazz we tend to lionize the musicians who redefined the genre (Miles, Coltrane) or at least were very idiosyncratic (Monk). I can't think of any similar comparisons in the blues, but I don't know as much about the blues as I do about jazz. I know of blues musicians who are lionized for how well they perform, but I can't think of anyone who is lionized for "changing the face of the blues as we know it."

Maybe the reason we have these jazz wars is that, brain-bendingly, reinventing the genre has become an idiom of the genre? Most of the jazz wars I can remember (or had the time to pay attention to) were about:
A) was so-and-so REALLY a groundbreaker and
B) whether so-and-so broke the *right* ground or the *wrong* ground

What do you think?