If the song lyric is true and "you gotta suffah to sing the blues," then there's a lot of suffering going on lately in both the recording industry and in city concert halls.
The blues have been with us since the founding of the country, the idiom first credited to native Africans whose tribal chants evolved into what we now term "blues." The singing of slaves in the fields grew into various forms, but gospel and blues are the two most lasting. Even jazz, considered the only truly American contribution to the arts, is a variation of blues structures. Though many jazz buffs claim that is the other way 'round, there is not denying that the blues is as native American as the flag.
There are two distinct blues traditions and both are getting a revitalized reprieve from the back bins of record stores. One is the southern or Delta blues, a genre that developed directly from the cotton and sugar plantations and is embodied most accurately in the music of Robert Johnson and Elmore James.
Johnson should be no stranger to rock fans since his "Crossroads" has been covered by Cream, Lynyrd Skynyrd and a host of others, and his guitar playing (like James's) is an acknowledged influence on the likes of Johnny Winter and Eric Clapton.
The other, and probably better known style, is the Chicago blues. Here, the music is a bit more urgent and there is usually a mournful mouth harp to accompany the stinging guitar associated with the repeating chord progression. Chicago blues developed from poverty of city black who came north to find fortune and found only disappointment instead.
Like the blues of the Mississippi Delta, Chicago blues grew up alongside jazz, but the urban forces shaped its practitioners, many of whom are now back in full force.
This weekend, the Cellar Door presents two of the finest, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. Guy's guitar and Wells' harmonica and vocal eptomize life in the city and illuminate some of the trials of existence. Yet their music exudes life, as do most blues compositions. There lies the unviersality - the blues speak of pain but implicitly encourage the strength and desire to go on.
Willie Dixon is another Chicago bluesman enjoying a second coming. Many of Dixon's tunes also have been redone by rock bands (Cream performed several) but on "What Happened to My Blues" (Ovation 1705) he proves that the author is generally the best reader.
Dixon truly suffered, most recently losing a leg to diabetes, but his belief in life pervades songs like "Shakin' the Shack" and "Moon Cat." Even the lament of the title cut can't stifle the fire of Dixon's soul.
Guitarist Albert King has two new releases, "King Albert" (Tomato, TOM-6002) and "The Pinch" (Stax STX-4101), both of which crackle with the kind of intensity expected from a pure bluesman.
The Stax effort was recorded in Memphis with some great session men including bassist Duck Dunn and the Memphis Horns, while "King Albert" hails from Detroit and uses a variety of musicians. King's own playing and singing dominate both and the material ranges from the suggestive "Love Mechanic" to the plaintive "You Upset Me Baby."
Also back in action is the legendary Lightnin' Sam Hopkins who recently played a New York blues benefit concert with heavy rockers Foghat and has a two-record set, "Lightnin'" (Tomato, TOM-2-7004), that includes both old and new material. Hopkins takes some getting used to but there is no question that he is the real McCoy; listening to "Mojo Hand" or "Have You Ever Had a Woman" is a lesson in blues phrasing not easily forgotten.
With Hopkins, Guy and Wells, and Muddy Waters all actively touring and the resurgence of jazz and its blues subset, the time is ripe for some broader acceptance of "suffering." Where pop music rapidly adapts to changes shaped by time, circumstance and mass taste, this particular style follows what Albert Kings says in a track on "The Pinch:"
Clever music and clever songs
Today they're here and tomorrow they're gone.
But the blues just keeps hangin' on and on
'Cause the blues don't change.