OK this is a bit of a rant. And I don’t expect many of you to agree with me, but here goes.
Like many of us Baby Boomers I’ve been listening to the blues for a long time. It started in the 60’s listening to Cream, and the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin, who had a lot of blues in their songs.
Now of course, the heart of what we listened to was rock and roll. And these songs these rock artists were playing fit right into the rock we were listening to. Like Muddy Waters said… “The blues had a baby and they called it rock and roll.”
But I was listening to videos from The American Folk Blues Festival the other day. These videos were from the early 60’s and were shows from a European tour that many American blues artists did back then. This was where many of the British rockers first got turned onto the blues.
And watching these videos, I couldn’t help but think… “Boy this is the way blues should be played!”
Now these were videos with many of the originators of the blues… T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Son House, a young Buddy Guy, Memphis Slim, Hubert Sumlin, Otis Rush, Koko Taylor and many more. These guys and gals played so simply, with so much emotion, and at low volumes…
I couldn’t help but wonder what happened. What happened to the blues? How did it get turned into just another type of rock and roll?
Today the blues, as played by Joe Bonamassa, or Eric Clapton, or Walter Trout, or even some pretty classy guys like Tab Benoit or Sonny Landreth, just is so rockin and loud, it doesn’t have the subtlety or dynamic range of those early masters.
Now this could be because they are playing large halls that require a loud “show.” But I think it has more to do with the audience. In a poll I’ve been doing, the most popular type of blues is “rockin blues.” So these loud and over-the-top cats have plenty of encouragement. That’s what the mostly white audiences want to hear.
Now of course I know how this happened. I helped make it happen. I bought all those Eric Clapton, Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin records. And that became what we all thought the blues was like… just another style of rock and roll.
And then, like many blues lovers, I dug into the roots of the blues and started to listen to the originators like Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, and Sonny Boy Willimason. Sure, it didn’t sound anything like Led Zeppelin or even Eric Clapton, but I didn’t really appreciate how much better it was. I didn’t realize that the new guys were just pale imitators of something that was pretty special.
Now most of those originators are gone. We’re left with the Joe Bonamassas and the Kenny Wayne Shepherds, and even all the Stevie Ray Vaughan imitators. That subtle, tasty blues with piano, and acoustic harmonicas and standup bass is pretty much gone. Sure, I know you will say there are still a few bands who honor that old school style around, like a Rod Piazza, or a Sugar Ray Norcia and the Blue Tones, or The Cash Box Kings. But the popular bands that are making money are all blues rock bands.
So who’s fault is it?
OK this is when it gets tricky. The fact that most of the blues audience is white, and they are the ones that vote with their pocketbooks... well they must take some of the blame. They encourage the rock blues acts to keep doing what they are doing when they buy the albums and they show up at the blues fests that feature them. And they discourage the classic blues acts by making it hard for them to make a living.
I’ve been paying close attention for at least the last 20 years and there is no question that the blues fests feature more and more bands that are outside of any sort of “traditional blues” genre and more and more of the rock bands that sometimes barely touch on the blues.
But I guess that’s no one’s fault. Tastes change, and the truth is blues has not been as popular as it once was.
Although it might all be changing. I do see some attention being paid to some of the old masters. And maybe… just maybe… blues lovers will dig back into the past and realize, as I did, that the originators do it best. And they probably always will.
So be it!