Monday, January 21, 2013

The Blues

Junior Kimbrough
oil on wood, 2007
Eisenberg collection
Some people say the blues is age old. Some people say the blues came from Africa. Some people say that there wouldn’t have been any pop music without the blues. Some people say that Robert Johnson learned to play guitar after signing a pact with the devil. There’s probably a grain of truth in every myth. The blues came into being around 1890, originating in the hill country of northern Mississippi, in the Mississippi Delta, southern Texas, and possibly in other southern US locations as well. The blues were an oral tradition. The first published blues was WC Handy’s Memphis Blues of 1912. It was first recorded in 1914 but it was really a jazz tune. The first blues recorded (albeit with a jazz orchestra) was Mamie Smith’s Crazy Blues in 1920. Both these examples of blues songs are far removed from the origins, the solo voice with guitar performances, that could be heard in the towns of the South and that to a certain extent still exist in the rural hill country of Mississippi, to this day. How the blues in its purest form initially must have sounded can be heard through various field recordings starting from the 1920s. A field recording that was made around 1910 is regrettably lost.

Some people find the structure of the blues too rigid but it’s that aspect that intrigues me the most. It is a characteristic the blues has in common with other traditional music as well as with other forms of oral poetry. The structure itself is like a language, when growing up with it, its use comes naturally. The vocabulary is available to all native speakers. It is in such traditions nearly impossible to establish the exact authorship of a certain phrase, verse, or a certain song. That is not to say that the performers within such traditions are not creators. On the contrary the constructions of the traditional frameworks allow the performers to freely express or communicate. When the form is established on the onset of a work, the performer doesn’t have to formalize, and can go directly to the heart of the matter. With every performance the blues musicians re-create their songs. Composition is improvisation.
Even though blues musicians are only a small percentage of all the musicians I have painted over the years, I feel a great affinity with the blues in my art processes. By separating the conceptual structure from the actual activity of painting I find myself able to move freely within the canvases, unburdened by the considerations of concept and validity. The structure is the Top 100, a concept that I put to use while still a teenager exploring music in the early 1980s.

But it’s not just with the issue of moving within a pre-circumscribed framework that I feel the affinity with the blues performers, what’s more important yet is the attitude—to paint with a blues feeling—the circumstances of the blues. I adopted the mindset of the traditional blues performers perhaps unconsciously. Or perhaps according to some universal law. The blues feeling has to do with fate: “in the long run there’s no change, so that there’s nothin’ else to do but what you’re doin’...and sing the blues.” I like music over art. There is more harm in harmony than there is pain in painting. My paintings are like blues songs that are contradictory and inconsistent, that “reflect both the struggles and the difficulties”, are regressive and conservative, from a vantage point of an outsider that could never become an insider. It’s a prerequisite of traditionalism that things don’t change. “It’s only when people think that things can or are getting better that the blues begin to lose their appeal.” Some people think that the blues is out of date, that it’s become stale.

What has become out of date is perhaps the reliance of the blues (and oral traditions in general) on subjective experience in a time where human existence is conditioned by objective empirical reality. Experience becomes more and more irreconcilable with knowledge. What we experience is at odds with what we know. In our experience the sun sets while everybody knows all too well that it’s not the movement of the sun but the rotation of the earth causing the sunset. People will think you’re a lunatic if you proclaim the world is flat, yet most everybody will experience it that way. Knowledge is omnipresent and it comes at the cost of losing touch with experience. The quickly disappearing cultural traditions of the world could well be symptomatic for the decline in subjective expression in general.
What will be left after every myth is busted?

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