The Meaning of the Blues

The “blues” is bespoke, even though you never ask for it. It always fits you exactly, like a well-tailored suit. The blues comes in degrees and gradients. Sometimes, it’s the bittersweet melancholy of pining for a love now far removed. At other times, a mild setback that one combats with drink and humor. But, at its worst, it is a soul-consuming, unrelenting depression. Everyone has the blues in his/her own way. Now, the “Blues” is also a genre of music that conveys personal misery in sound, articulating pain and angst in flatted fifths, stretched notes, and mournful cries. It was born in cotton fields as a protest over an unfair existence with no end in sight—a sense of permanent existential hopelessness. 

Both kinds of blues are flexible. They gladly adapt to your circumstances—lost job, overwhelming debt, lingering sickness, backstabbing friend, lost dignity—pick as many as you wish. If you are old enough to buy bourbon without being asked for ID, you are almost certainly acquainted with the blues.

The blues, whether music or emotion, like bourbon straight, is for grown-ups. Both forms of the blues require a degree of hopelessness born from experience, a certainty that some things simply cannot be made better. Kids are too optimistic to have the blues; they haven’t had enough disappointments.  

Love introduces most people to the blues, and eventually, they find the music. There’s a song with the line: 

You don't know what love is, 
until you learn the meaning of the blues, 
until you've lost a love you had to lose.  

Cassandra Wilson wistfully moans my favorite version of the song. Lost love—the pain lessens over time but never completely packs its bag and leaves, unlike the lover. The music is the steel-string acoustic guitar picked in Mississippi and the amped-up electric in Chicago. It is wishing you were someone else or somewhere else, and the furthest you can get is the next drink because the car won’t start, and you don’t have the money to fix it.

My favorite form of Blues music was born in Chicago, an expression of those who left Mississippi and places adjacent for the hope held out in Chicago. For some, that hope was realized, but for many, it was just colder weather. My mother listened to blues when I was little, so growing up, I always thought of blues music as old fashioned, old people music. I never appreciated the blues until I was close to forty. It took that long for my optimistic side to accept that some things never change. Solomon had the blues when he wrote Ecclesiastes.   

Between sets

Blues music, while perhaps not soothing, allows anguish to take a form that one can deal with. It allows what churns inside to rise to the surface and be expelled as song and shaken off—but just a little. Head bowed, slowly moving from side to side, saying “no” to whatever insult. 

Foot tapping, keeping rhythm with BB King and Muddy Waters
Singing along with Ma Rainy or Billie Holiday
A bourbon toast to an Eric Clapton riff
Humming mixed with a few softly uttered words

Everyone has a story. Eventually, everyone learns the meaning of the Blues.

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