Monday, May 14, 2007

Are Blues Songs Sad?

A lot of people think the blues are sad. Are they? In a word, No. Or, at least, not necessarily.

Query: “Isn’t the blues just a feeling?”
Martin Williams: “Only in the sense that sonata is just a feeling.”
The blues describes a musical form, as we have seen. We don't know the origin of the term blues as used to describe a form of music, but it doubtless has some relation to our use of the term - dating at least to the 18th century "blue devils"- to describe a sad feeling or depressed state of mind. And some blues are about sad stuff, and many are delivered in a tone of general unhappiness or weary regret. Other blues are angry, moody, scary, frightened, and some are bouncy, joyous, exuberant, happy. Clearly, the blues is unusually rich in emotional expression.

So, no, the blues is not sad music, and they do not tend to make us sad. Rather, if anything, they send sad feelings scurrying off someplace else. The blues is a primary mode of expressing identity. Although, as I have said, it seems that the various emotions evoked in jazz and blues are enacted by the performers - we do not get their true feelings, as authentic as the music might be, but rather the truth of their feelings as an actor might express it.

Albert Murray is an important voice in defining this type of music:

[T]he fundamental function of the blues musician (also known as the jazz musician), the most obvious as well as the most pragmatic mission of whose performance is not only to drive the blues away and hold them at bay at least for the time being, but also to evoke an ambiance of Dionysian revelry in the process.

Which is to say, even as . . . the improbable but undeniable Jelly Roll Morton, the primordially regal Bessie Smith, played their usual engagements as dance-hall, night-club, and vaudeville entertainers, they were at the same time fulfilling a central role in a ceremony that was at once a purification rite and a celebration the festive earthiness of which was tantamount to a fertility ritual (p. 17).
The blues derive from several sources, including both African and European, but the primary context has been the African-American experience in the South. Recordings do not take us back that far, but most agree the blues have been attested back to the 1890s, and some say earlier. Both New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta lay claim to the origins of the blues, early versions of which may be found as far east as Georgia and west to Texas. They were definitely out of the mainstream, and although they are not typically in a minor key, the use of blue notes and the so-called blues scale does give them a different feeling. That, and their association with southern Blacks - largely rural and poor - might easily make us think of them as sad songs. We, at least, who listen to this music at our clubs or in our living rooms, would be sad if we had to live like them. A moment's thought, though, would find us agreeing that if we were sharecroppers in the American south, or had to face some similar drudgery every day, we would find any way to escape, including music. And we would not gravitate towards songs that made us sad, but rather to the opposite. Murray's observations make a lot of sense.

Besides, we have it on the authority of none less than Billie Holiday, who says, in her opening to the TV show The Sound of Jazz, where she sings Fine and Mellow, "There's two kinds of blues. There's happy blues and there's sad blues."