From The Pen Of Sam Lowell
Once somebody, I think it was the singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt who also hailed from Texas, asked the legendary bluesman Lightning Hopkins what the blues were. What they meant to him, what they meant in the great scheme of things. He answered quickly like he knew what was coming, what Townes was going to ask like he had been asked the question many times, or had thought about it a lot and had come up with this stock answer when asked the question-“the blues ain’t nothing but a good woman on your mind.” Now the old reprobate, and he was from all the tales about his doings indicate, probably had other answers or thoughts about the blues like a woman getting you down, about Captain down on the Jim Crow plantation always on your ass, about some hard luck story of money ill-spent and about the morning after Jimmy Joe’s corn liquor hang-over but that answer brought a number of other phrases from blues songs to my mind. Brought to mind to try to define what the blues is, why it has “spoken” to lots of people over time, including old time blues aficionados like me.
You name it, name your malady, and old time blues guys have coined phrases to fit the bill. Not to neglect the female blues singers who in the 1920s and 1930s actually were more in demand that the old plantation-bound male blues singers, but they might like Bessie Smith tell you that the blues are “good man is hard to find” or that it is “hard to love someone when that someone don’t love you” or maybe that she is looking for her nowhere around daddy to “put a little sugar in her bowl” if she is feeling that way, feeling a little salacious. But the best phrase from a female blues singer was to my mind done by Sippy Wallace -“don’t advertise your man” meaning do not tell your woman friends about your man’s virtues, physical or otherwise, or you will be singing the blues.
All of the previous thoughts were brought to mind recently when I was thinking about how important the blues were in my own life whenever I was feeling downhearted. How they got me through a few rough spots. I had along the way been thinking about my response back in the 1980s when I lived in a studio apartment on Beacon Hill in Boston after my divorce (number two) and the young guy downstairs from me, a good guy named Otty Venise, told me over drinks one night at Charlie’s Den on Charles Street that Bessie Smith actually helped him get over his blues. (He was having women troubles just then since his flame had just ditched him for another man, an old boyfriend). And I had to agree that a heavy dose of Miss Smith would chase some blues away. Chase some woman blues away.
It is funny though that not all my blues memories revolve around woman relationship troubles, hang-overs, no dough (due to the settlements from those two divorces if nothing else), some sweat-filled dead end job, or the troubles in the world just getting the best of me. Once the blues, or my use of a phrase from a blues song got me into political hot water.
Now my politics are pretty far left, and pretty narrow. Mainly around the fight to end the endless wars this country had immersed itself in and the fight for some kind of social justice be it opposition to the death penalty, an increase in the minimum wage or to free political prisoners here and abroad. Stuff like that. Like I say narrowly focused but important. As part of what I do to, especially in the age of the Internet and social media, is make commentary on various issues via things like blogs (and now Twitter). Back in the early part of the presidential campaign of 2008 when Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama were going at each other tooth and nail for the Democratic Party presidential nomination I was making plenty of commentary about each one. Not that I favored either, like I said my politics are to the left of that party even in the best of times. What did have me incensed (along with plenty of others who wound up in the Obama camp, at least for a while) was Hilary’s vote in 2003 for the Iraq War and her basic refusal to recant since she had egg all over here face from supporting what turned out to be a bogus war, which she knew, or should have known was bogus. Somebody, actually more than one person, more than one feminist friend was all over me to support her as the first serious woman presidential candidate (although in a face-off against the first serious black presidential candidate that argument lost some of its steam). Despite my known indifference to party politics. Between that pressure and a book review of a fawning political biography of Hilary I got my dander up and took up a line from the old bluesman Skip James’ Devil Got My Woman-“I’d rather be the devil that be that woman’s man.” Jesus did I take heat over that one not only from my feminist friends who I expected it from in a sense but from the “don’t like” comments on the book review despite the fact that I had given beside the glossing over of the Iraq vote plenty of other reasons to not like the book, and not like the candidate including a big dose of Clinton fatigue. As now in 2015 we will be subject to plenty of both Clinton and Bush fatigue.
But leave it to the blues, to a blues woman, to bail me out of my troubles. Once I was on the ropes and had to figure out some way to cut across the sting on Hilary I had to check out some other blues lyrics to “get right.” And I didn’t have to look far. One Rory Block, she of the younger generation of blues aficionados who have taken to covering the old blues standards, actually did her own female-etched version of the Skip James song except she sang-“I’d rather be the devil than be that man’s woman.” Thanks Rory, thanks a million.
Now ask me just ask me about my opinion, about supporting one Hilary Rodham Clinton in 2016. You know the answer already. Sanctified too. As to the more generic question-What is the blues? The blues is…