Pete's Blog

The hat, the glasses

Blues makes folkies uncomfortable. They know they should like it, what with it being the music of oppressed African-Americans and all, but the central message of the blues disquiets them. The central message of the blues is that no matter who you are love will cast you down. Whether you are howling at the moon in frustration or dancing for joy because your baby has such pleasing ways, love will undercut any notion you might have of yourself as a serene, centered, or intelligent person. Yet go to any Folk Festival or other such event or concert and you will see soon enough that the purpose of music in this context is to "empower" the audience, which is to say make them feel good about themselves. And blues is not about feeling good about yourself. How do folkies get around this paradox? The answer is in the hat and the glasses. I'm not going to mention any names, but every folk festival has one or two mediocre "country-blues" performers wearing a hat (usually a fedora) and glasses (usually rimless). In fairness it should be said that Paul Geremia, Chris Smither, Rory Block, and Guy Davis are all great folk-blues performers. One or two may wear the hat, but any one of them is worth a long drive to hear. And I shouldn't single out folkies for abuse although, Heaven knows, it's both easy and deeply satisfying. I've played a number of "blues" places in the Seattle area lately and the "blues" audience is just as given to costume-show fakery as anybody else. In this case it isn't the glasses so much as watchchains, and two-tone shoes. The purpose is the same, however. The best blues deals in catharsis, and not high-toned, educated catharsis or slumming, low-rent-kicks catharsis. It's a funky, untidy, sloppy/sexy catharsis. The greatest performers have always known this, but the greatest performers aren''t what either the folk or the blues audience (both overwhelmingly white, BTW) really want. They prefer their tragedians masked. Of course, surface flash has been trumping the unutterable language of the heart at least since Buddy Guy took the mantle of Last Great Chicago Bluesman from the infinitely more deserving Otis Rush. So let's cut white people a modicum of slack. It's not like they invented shallowness.

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