CATHERINE SAUNDERS strolled into The Pigfoot, a narrow slice of nightlife just off Rhode Island Avenue, NE, leaving behind the Northwest Washington discos and their smoky, jangled discord. She walked down the narrow aisle past the small wooden tables, and it was as if she had stepped back a few hundred years.
She had come to seek out her friends, as she does regularly, drink a beer or two and listen to the bluesman.
The bluesman, a sparse, angular man, strolled from the area of the kitchen shouting, "Blues ain't nothing! Blues ain't nothing! Blues ain't nothing! Bla-use ain't nothin, but a po' man's heart disease."
The bluesman was Bill Harris, and as he strolled, his sounds echoed and spun around the room. Then he eased his hands from his pockets and climbed onto a small stage where his guitar waited. He picked it up and his fingers flew and flew over the strings.
"I love the blues," said Saunders, 32, a poet. "Blues is part of my background. I grew up in Lexington, Mississippi, and blues is just as much a part of our lives there as eating.It's a way of expressing our innermost feelings of love, desire, happiness, hopes of the heart. Blues is a way of life; it expresses a people's way of thinking."
Will there be a return to the blues with the rise in violence like the Atlanta killings and the Alabama lynching, the economic hard times that are coming with the drastic cuts in social programs from the Reagan administration, the rising joblessness, the housing crunch, the concern for future security?
"It soothes the spirit," says Catherine Saunders. "It's like after I get this out of my system I feel better; I can go on to something else."
There may be no accurate measure, but I think the times are ripe for a revival of this music. And high time.
"I think we are in an era now that blues is going to be more predominant than in the past decade when the popularity of blues (which has never been a popular medium) decreased," said Harris, who in 1977 started playing the blues over radio station WPFW in a tradition that continues to this day. Harris, incidentally, is the consummate musician -- he was musical director of "The Clovers," a rhythm and blues group, in the '50; he played early unaccompanied, unamplified jazz guitar in the same period and now continues as a solo jazz guitarist as well as a blues vocalist.
"The blues is in my bones," says Harris.
The music, the emotion. Both are inextricably linked in this music that flows from the heart of the black experience in America but probably attracts more whites as record buyers and concert audiences for the greats such as B. B. King. "Right now we're going through a very tense period," said Bill Harris. "The situation in Atlanta is affecting the whole world."
The night that Catherine Saunders sat listening, the audience also included Eleanor Traylor, a professor at Montgomery College, who has taught a course in The Blues Mode at Cornell University. While blues is most often discussed as music, she sees blues as literature and she reaches back to the life of Frederick Douglass, Zora Neale Hurston, back to the plays of James Baldwin and the poetry of Langston Hughes to show the common elements -- rhythm, image and word.
The blues make clear that while it is tough to be black in America, there is much that is good about it. The blues make clear that only a people who have shared a history of anguish and exultation can offer a great metaphor for living. The blues is a statement in grand style, a vocabulary of eternal possibilities of re-creation.
Ralph Ellison, author of "Invisible Man," once called the blues "an art of ambiguity, an assertion of the irrepressibly human over all circumstance whether created by others or by one's own human failings. They are the only consistent art in the United States which constantly remind us of our limitations while encouraging us to see how far we can actually go."
On this spring night, Harris vacates the stage for another bluesman, Dickie Smith, who says simply, "This is for the children in Atlanta," then strums and sings, "I Am a Poor Pilgrim of Sorrow." Midway through, Eleanor Traylor, the student of the blues, couldn't suppress a cry of feeling, and she calls for a repeat. The bluesman answered: "Yeah."
Finally, the bluesman ambles back toward the kitchen like a country boy trudging the back roads of Tennessee, as he sings: "You don't know my mind . . . when you see me laughing, laughing just to keep from crying."