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Ten feet tall

(This was originally published, in a slightly different form, on December 8, 2013 in the online edition of DNA Mumbai – you can check it out here.)

The blues is simple, really simple. Just three chords, very rarely a fourth and a fifth. The songs are twelve bars long, that’s it. Typically three lines per stanza, of which the first two lines are the same:

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I woke up this morning, my baby was gone

Woke up this morning, my baby was gone
I’ve been so bad, I’m all alone

I ain’t got nobody stayin’ home with me
I ain’t got nobody stayin’ home with me
My baby she’s gone, I’m in misery

B B King – “Woke up This Morning (My Baby’s Gone)

The songs are all about s*** that happens every day – your girl leaving you, you drunk too much, you’re broke, somebody’s done cast a spell on you, and if you’re black in the old USA, you got into jail or sometimes you broke out of jail.

And that’s that. About as stupidly simple as that.

But, as Eric Clapton puts it, “For me there is something primitively soothing about this music, and it went straight to my nervous system, making me feel ten feet tall.” And that’s the curious part – it makes a whole lot of us feel ten feet tall, people from all walks of life, all over the world.

Yes, we know the influence of the blues – it’s a key foundation of jazz, gospel, rock, R&B, and much of modern popular music coming out of the US and the UK. The great British rock invasion of the ‘60s and ‘70s came out of the revival of the blues in London and elsewhere. And, hey, I grew up listening to the Rolling Stones and The Who much before I’d heard Robert Johnson or Bukka White.

So what is it about the blues that makes me feel ten feet tall?

Many years ago, there lived an English historian called Eric Hobsbawm. He led a double life – he wrote about jazz under the pen-name Francis Newton. He had described three characteristics which defined a jazz fan: he is almost always male; he has an unstoppable urge to proselytize, and he is never short of female companions of higher than average pulchritude. That’s me, the jazz fan all over. I am male; if you get me started on jazz, you better bring your headphones along; about the third characteristic, modesty forbids…(I’m married, I’ll have you know!)

In my experience, these three characteristics are also true of the blues fan. So what makes us all feel ten feet tall?

I think it’s the intensity of the music. There is no place to hide. When Koko Taylor sings

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I got a rabbit foot in my pocket,
A toad frog in my shoes,
A crawfish on my shoulder,
Lookin’ dead at you,
I got dust from a rattlesnake,
I got a black spider bone,
If that don’t do it baby,
You’d better leave it all alone.

Koko Taylor – “Voodoo Woman”

She makes me believe that she really is a voodoo woman, and if she does indeed raise her name, yes, the sky will begin to cry.

And that’s the great thing about the blues – its intensity can be tough to take. Here’s Clapton again (on Robert Johnson): “At first the music almost repelled me, it was so intense, and this man made no attempt to sugarcoat what he was trying to say, or play. It was hard-core, more than anything I had ever heard.”

Such intensity can be painful. The guitar can jar; the harp can be quite out of tune; the man or woman need not be much of a singer. But there is that something that jumps out of the speakers and hits you in the stomach.

Most of us can’t take such intensity. Of course, there is some polite blues – Robert Cray springs to mind; he wouldn’t be out of place in Rashtrapati Bhavan doing a teatime concert. But, the real stuff is rough:

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You can squeeze my lemon till
Juice run down my leg.
You can squeeze my lemon till
Juice run down my leg.
(That’s what I’m talking about!)
But I’ll be going back to Friar’s Point, mama,
Rocking to my head.

 – Robert Johnson – Travelin’ Riverside Blues

And that’s the way we like it. You remember the start of Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary”, don’t you?

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You see we never ever do nothing
Nice and easy
We always do it nice and rough
So we’re gonna take the beginning of this song
And do it easy
Then we’re gonna do the finish rough
This is the way we do “Proud Mary”

That’s the truth – dirty, raunchy, rough, no polished edges, real life without Surf Excel, or Fair & Lovely. It’s the dark lines under your fingernails; it’s the sweat mark around your collar. It’s the unpolished shoes on your feet; it’s the socks you’ve used for three days straight, the ones with the holes in them.

Will the blues ever get mass market? Don’t think so – the Bollywood opiate has the masses under too much control with its manufactured stories for the blues to cut through.

Do we blues fans want it to go mass market? God forbid! We revel in the fact that there are so few of us. We are the most exclusive club in the world – the entry is very strictly monitored. We are also the most inclusive club in the world – once you’re in, only apostasy can throw you out.

Enough said. I think it’s time for the blessed bottle of OM to come out, the old LP of Live at the Regal to be taken out of its sleeve, and the stylus of my Ortofon to be placed gently on the LP. And let the joyful noise take over.

Later!

Picture credits:

B B King: http://thecenterfortheperformingarts.org/
Koko Taylor: http://soundcolourvibration.com/2011/02/26/blast-from-the-past-vol-217-koko-taylor-ft-little-walter-wang-dang-doodle-from-1967/
Robert Johnson: http://trueblueser.wordpress.com/2010/04/14/the-truth-about-robert-johnson/
Tina Turner: http://www.billboard.com/artist/429998/tina-turner

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About thecrestedjay

I am passionate about football, jazz, classic rock, classic movies, crime, science fiction and P G Wodehouse. And also about NBA, western and Indian classical music. Since the wife will also read this blog, I cannot reveal my other passions in public. Have one son who plays the guitar, spent some time as an animator and now works for a digital marketing and advertising company. I also have one (1) wife. I spent a lot of my time on my music and books collection. I also have a passion for travelling but not a great deal of time and money to spend on this. Hopefully, in the future, I'll be able to do so.

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