After recently being turned down for a show and being told the venue only books ‘real and traditional blues, and jazz’, I had to stop and reflect on this a bit. I also have bitten my lip many times when I hear this kind of sentiment coming from ‘purists’. (Keep in mind as you read this I do get that some venues want more old style blues versus the modern styles. I am equally adept at playing both, as is the band.)
Over the past 26 years I have always viewed myself a blues guitarist in what I consider the most purest of terms, even when playing styles not usually considered to be ‘blues’. I play completely from my heart, soul, and gut…period. As far as writing, all my songs are from my ‘real’ experiences using either literal of figurative/poetic words. I cut my teeth with an OG bluesman by the name of Tomcat Courtney (whom I still play with today whenever I can), learning the styles and nuances of Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jimmy Reed, and T-Bone Walker. More importantly I have learned how to create my own style and express my true self.
In my experience and opinion, real blues is an individual’s expression of their own experiences and emotions put into a song. Hopefully by sharing the song, others can identify. This can be a celebration of the good times, a healing for the bad times, a call to action or protest against any kind of oppression, or even to tell a good story.
I think the words ‘real’ and ‘traditional’ are many times used to mean the same thing. This can be correct, but they can be completely different as well. Even within this idea I think the word ‘traditional’ has two meanings, and is often misused. The blues as a musical style traditionally is played in a 12 bar format (sometimes 8 bars), mostly consisting of the I, IV, and V chords of any key. It is traditionally identified by its rhythm, ie: shuffle, slow blues, etc. These are just technical identifiers.
What about the traditions of where the music originated? It comes from the communities, hearts, souls, and guts of the people creating it. This is where my definitions of ‘real’ and ‘traditional’ differ from many. I believe the blues is MOST real and traditional when used to express oneself in one’s own individual way (pretty bluesy to use the words oneself and one’s, huh? ). Since all modern styles of music have their roots in the blues, I believe anyone who is honestly expressing themselves and their emotions (musically related to the blues form) is being ‘real’ and ‘traditional’ in the purest sense of the words.
I also do believe in REVERENCE and RESPECT for traditions. This is strictly my opinion and is regarding playing other people’s songs. There’s nothing wrong with playing someone else’s music. We are all influenced by those we like and those whom we really understand…those who speak to us. I believe when playing someone else’s song it is of utmost importance, reverence, and respect to play it in the style and attitude of the original, but equally as important to still express it individually.
BUT… is it being ‘REAL’ to try and be someone you are not? To copy their vocal style? To copy their guitar solos note for note? To take their music and write your own words to it? To dress like them? Early on B.B. King was trying to be T-Bone Walker. Buddy Guy was trying to be B.B. King, who was trying to be T-Bone Walker. Jimi Hendrix was trying to be Buddy Guy, who was trying to be B.B. King, trying to be T-Bone Walker. Stevie Ray Vaughan was trying to be Jimi Hendrix, who was trying to be Buddy Guy, trying to be B.B. King, trying to be T-Bone Walker. The point is this…they ALL ended up finding their own unique, individual, and true selves and bringing the music known as blues to whole new generations.
Another aspect of all this comes into the recording realm. I’ve heard so many times from ‘purists’ how it’s only real if it is captured in one take, band in the same room, no overdubs, warts and all, and made to sound ‘lo-fi’. I will agree it is valid to say from an artistic view point, the way it was played was the way it was played, and ‘real’. But there’s a reason why the old records considered ‘real’ and ‘traditional’ sound the way they do. That was the technology available in their day. There wasn’t multi-track overdubbing. To fix an obvious mistake required the whole band to play the song through it’s entirey again until the best take was recorded. Were the songs as we know them recorded ever played the same way on subsequent takes, or live? Did they really sound like this live? Ask Buddy Guy about that…I did.
I love those records and approach too, but think about this next time any of you go to play and record ‘real’ or ‘traditional’ blues:
- Are you putting it out on 78, 45, and 33, or are you having CD’s made?
- Isn’t making your recording to sound ‘lo-fi’ in reality using an effect?
- Isn’t trying to embody someone else affect?
- Isn’t putting the blues in a little box and labeling it as ‘real’ or ‘traditional’, keeping it to yourself and a small clique of like-minded people, really just being snobbish and elitist?
- Isn’t making the blues akin to something that belongs in a museum really contributing to it’s extinction as a living, breathing, form of human expression and spirit?
- Are you going to be a part of bringing the blues to a new generation, keeping it alive and evolving?
- Are you an artist, or someone with a pencil and a piece of tracing paper possibly trying to pass off someone else’s drawing as your own?
- Are you really about the traditions of the blues?