I've never been big fan of blues music. I grew up in New York City, so blues has always been a bit simplistic, one-dimensional and repetitive to my ear. I much prefer how jazz artists like Count Basie, Art Tatum, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and others have interpreted the back-country idiom. But over the past few weeks, I've become much more open-minded after reading Ted Gioia's breathtaking new book, Delta Blues (W.W. Norton). [Photo of Ted Gioia by Kent Barker]
Ted is founder of Jazz.com, which launched in December 2007 and has rapidly become a prominent web destination for jazz intellects and fans. When Ted isn't writing and editing, he's a jazz composer and pianist who has recorded several CDs. So he can walk the walk. He's also author of several essential books on jazz, including The History of Jazz, West Coast Jazz, The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture, Work Songs and Healing Songs. In the parlance of scribes, Ted can crank it out.
More important than all of this to the average reader is that Ted is a superb storyteller, and Delta Blues is a fabulous read. Here's how the book opens:
"The Delta region of Mississippi is an expansive alluvial plain, shaped like the leaf of a pecan tree hanging lazily over the rest of the state. Stretching some 220 miles from Vicksburg to Memphis, it is bounded on the west by the Mississippi River, and extends eastward for an average of 65 miles, terminating in hill country, with its poorer soil and different ways of life, and the Yazoo River, which eventually joins the Mississippi at Vicksburg. For blues fans, this is the Delta..."
Ted knows how to draw you in and hold you. I wasn't particularly interested in the blues, let alone hill country before I picked up Delta Blues. Yet I found myself returning to Ted's book night after night, learning a lot along the way. Now I'm ready to start listening.
In Part 1 of my two-part interview with Ted (conducted by email), I asked the author about the Delta blues, its origins and how it has managed to survive and remain so vital and important today:
JazzWax: Is the blues as simple an expression as the songs make it seem, or is there more to it?
Ted Gioia: These old blues songs seem simple enough to understand based on their lyrics, at least at first. They linger over everyday events, often very banal ones. I can’t even begin to count how many blues songs start out with the phrase, “Woke up this morning.” But the more you dig into this music, the more you see how deep and complex these songs actually are.
JW: How so?
TG: These songs may talk about everyday events, but there is always something larger lingering below the surface. Sometimes it's a bigger personal or social tragedy. Heaven knows there was plenty of that to go around in the Mississippi Delta. But psychological and even spiritual conflicts also figure in this music.
JW: What are the broad themes?
TG: Redemption and damnation, which recur over and over again in blues songs, sometimes in very surprising and peculiar ways. The end result is a body of music that no longer is quite so simple. As you dig deeper into it, the music responds by getting deeper too. This discovery on my part was one of the reasons why I wanted to probe the history and meaning of these songs.
JW: But this music in its most basic form is pretty simple stuff, no?
TG: The story behind the music is the same as the story behind the words. Yes, the music seems pretty basic. Just three chords, and sometimes you don’t even get three. When I was 20 years old, I would have dismissed a lot of early blues just by looking at the chord symbols on the lead sheet.
JW: What changed your mind?
TG: I now realize how much I misunderstood the music when I was younger. The early blues has very little to do with chord changes. It reflects the influence of even earlier African and African-American traditions, in which musicians conceptualized their songs in terms of sound and sound colors instead of discrete chords and notes.
JW: What do you mean by "sound colors?"
TG: Let me give an analogy from the jazz world. If you listen to King Oliver’s solo on Dippermouth Blues from 1923 with a jaded modern perspective, you will be tempted to dismiss it as simple stuff. Oliver’s solo is just built on a few notes, really little more than a single phrase that he plays over and over again. When you compare Oliver to his protégé Louis Armstrong, Oliver seems to be out-classed. After all, Armstrong knows lots of notes, lots of phrases. He’s all over the horn in ways Oliver could never match.
JW: What's the lesson here?
TG: Clearly, this is not the right way to listen to King Oliver. Oliver is a master of textures and colors, and he can play the same phrase 20 times over and make it sound different each time. In other words, Oliver’s greatness was in mastering music as an infinite universe of sounds, not as a way of manipulating the notes in a scale. Even today, jazz musicians could learn a lot by studying this aspect of King Oliver’s work.
JW: What’s a good blues comparison?
TG: In the blues, the evolution from Son House [pictured] to Robert Johnson is the same as the shift from King Oliver to Louis Armstrong. Son House is almost like an African griot. It is impossible to reduce what he does to notes on a page. When he plays a note, it is more than a note.
JW: How did Robert Johnson extend Son House's blues?
TG: With Johnson [pictured], things start to change in the Delta idiom. Johnson, in this regard, is like Louis Armstrong. Johnson brilliantly conceptualized the blues as a system of licks and chords and notes. Because of this, Robert Johnson created a vision of blues music that could be assimilated by Western music, with its preference for things that are neat and codified. But in the background of all this Delta music there is a powerful Africanized current, a vision of songs as torrents of sound. This part of the blues is anything but simple, and has proven much more difficult to assimilate and appropriate. The blues can be a simple formula. You can teach it to a guitarist in a single lesson. But the Delta greats transcended the formula.
JW: How so?
TG: For example, listen closely to the music of John Lee Hooker [pictured] and you will hear how he struggled to play a 12-bar blues. He might end up leaving out a bar, and getting an 11-bar blues. Or he might add extra beats to get a 12-and-a-half bar blues. Every time Hooker played a song, it sounded different. But his resistance to the traditional blues formula was part of the reason why this music sounds so good. What Hooker achieved you can’t teach in a single lesson. You can’t teach it in a thousand lessons.
JW: What made Hooker more special than blues artists of the same period?
TG: His music, especially his early recordings, always captured a groove and a flow and an exciting sense of spontaneity. His ability to enter into the pulse of the blues and not try to contain it in neat metrical structures of Western music is breathtaking to hear. I offer Hooker as an example here, but there are many other early blues musicians who did the same thing.
JW: Such as?
TG: There is an interesting recording by Blind Lemon Jefferson called Rising High Water Blues from 1927 that finds him collaborating with a piano player. Jefferson sticks to a strict 12-bar blues form because he doesn’t want to confuse his accompanist. But, in fact, this is one of Jefferson’s least interesting records. He shows that he knows how to handle a formulaic blues when he must, but his music is much more exciting when he plays solo and ignores the bar lines.
JW: What’s different about the birth of the blues and the birth of jazz?
TG: There are still many mysteries about the birth of both. They both tantalize us. We try to pinpoint how a folk-oriented music became commercial music. The fascinating thing about early blues is that you can hear this process first hand. Musicians would go straight from the raw life of plantations and prisons into the studios to make commercial recordings. This is a remarkable thing to hear. I wish we had such unfiltered insights into the birth of jazz.
JW: Yet for the blues to have meaning, it must remain true to its coarse folk roots as it surfaces commercially, yes?
TG: One of the aspects of the Delta blues that I find most compelling is the large number of artists over time who never have seemed to settle comfortably into the role of commercial musician. They existed at the periphery of the music industry. From one perspective, this was a tragedy. They would have made a lot more money if they had been more commercial. At the same time, this distance from the music industry allowed them to hold onto the traditional pre-commercial roots of their music in a way that was far less common in the jazz world.
Tomorrow, Ted talks about the relationship between jazz and the blues, why the blues became so easy to steal by other musicians, jazz's influence on the blues, how the blues continues to evolve, and five essential blues recordings.