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A Change Is Gonna Come – The Blues Impulse

February 11, 2012

As I mentioned earlier, Craig Werner’s A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America is serving as something of a source text for “Morning Song” posts this month. Interspersed with the (largely chronological) chapters, are short thematic entries in which Werner defines three foundational “impulses” of black music: gospel, blues and jazz. Because music is what it is (and because radios pick up signals from almost anywhere), since World War II these “impulses” have shaped and defined much of American, and global, popular music.

As with the “gospel impulse“, Werner’s “Blues Impulse Top 40” starts within the traditional definition of blues music (e.g., Bessie Smith’s “Downhearted Blues”, Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound On My Trail”, B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone”), but stretches far beyond the boundaries of musical genres to include artists such as The Four Tops, Bob Marley, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Wu-Tang Clan, Elvis Costello, Tupac Shakur and others.

Rather than attempt to improve on Werner’s writing, I’ll just quote liberally from it.  He in turn starts by quoting Ralph Ellison:  “The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.”

Werner continues:  …where gospel holds out the hope that things will change, that there’s a better world coming, the blues settle for making it through the night….All you can do is reach down inside the pain, finger the jagged grain, tell your story and hope you can find the strength to go on.  You never really get away, transcend.  If you’re lucky, though, if the song’s call gets some sort of response, some echo in the parts of your head that believe it may be worthwhile, a smile from that woman at the dark end of the street, that’s all you can hope for.  Reaffirmation, the strength to say yeah, I’ll be.  Chicago blues master Willie Dixon stated the blues answer to Hamlet’s question with irreducible clarity:  “I’m here, everybody knows I’m here.”…

Singing the blues doesn’t reaffirm the brutal experience, it reaffirms the value of life….  The blues tell you that as long as you can hear your voice, as long as you can find even a little bit of the laughter in the tears, you can most likely find the strength to wake up in the morning and deal with the fact that you messed it up again, that the devil’s back at the door and you’re putting on your shoes, humming his song.

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