by C. P. Lee



The Blues Is Bluff! 

The Blues is a feeling – The Blues is a song – And now the Blues is a major TV series fronted by Martin Scorcese. Time for a re-evaluation? 

You may remember the three articles I wrote for Freewheelin’ that attempted to show how academics and other ‘concerned people’ had created ‘Folk Music’. Well now’s the time for me to step forward once again and argue that the revered African-American musical form of the Blues isn’t what it seems to be. This one is going to take us on a journey through time and space and across continents. It will leave us standing at the crossroads asking ‘who was Robert Johnson’? and, amongst other places, on a windy street corner in Chicago watching a bunch of people set up a drum kit and a couple of amplifiers before belting out some ‘Urban’ Blues. 

There’s no doubting the influence that the Blues have had on Bob Dylan. Time Out of Mind is suffused with a kind of shimmering overcoat constructed from different fabrics of the Blues. Legend tells us that when he was recording his first album a ‘negro’ janitor at Columbia overheard one of the sessions taking place and assumed that the young (very young) harp player and singer was an elderly Black man. Until recently his on-stage lead guitar playing was informed by the teaching of an old Blues man he’d met when a youth rather than the Claptonesque inspired meanderings that became so popular in the 1960s. And now, well into his sixties, the on-stage persona of Dylan resembles nothing more than some elderly Blues player occupying the stage. Out of all the contemporary musicians who inhabit Planet Pop, Dylan is one of the few who have a broad enough knowledge of the form to properly understand the context in which it should be viewed and played. 

This month is an introduction to the themes I’ll be examining in more detail over the next couple of articles. These will include – How Robert Johnson was actually quite a nice man who wasn’t haunted in any way. How Leadbelly became the slave of Alan Lomax. Why Big Bill Broonzy wore a bibbed overall when he toured Europe, and why Muddy Waters didn’t play guitar when he was here. 

These are just a few of the topics I’m going to look at. But the most important one is – how the mythology of the Blues was a White creation. What we see as the Blues now, at a festival, in a club or on TV, is a chimera, a simulacra of something that never existed. The Blues may have been a feeling, the Blues may have been a song, but it was never a forty-five minute set with room for two encores. The Blues is actually part of the Heritage Industry – Proud to be here and serving you with its faked solos and micro-waved chitlins. All of which, of course, beggars the question – what was the Blues? A fair and entirely relevant question worthy of an attempt at answering during the course of the Blues Is Bluff

In the meantime – A big welcome to our new Freewheelers. In particular to Trev. His introduction to Masked & Anonymous at the John Green event was an exciting indication of things to come, and let’s hope he can get his book put together and out in the shops without any of the usual hassle one can gets from publishers. 

Talking of which, the new, revised and updated edition of my own Like The Night is supposed to be back on the shelves in July. Breath holding is not recommended. Being as how LTN is about Dylan and the Free Trade Hall if you didn’t already know, the aforementioned building is being reopened as I write, this time as a five star hotel. Pam and I had a vague fantasy of staying there for a night in the Bob Dylan suite (honestly it’s there!), However, we have found out that the suite costs £1400 per night and we decided to put our stay there on the back-burner ... 

Apropos of nothing in particular – Bob Dylan as a judge on American Idol is one of the best things I’ve heard in ages. The extent at which this guy can fuck with the heads of his fans is brilliant. To presume or expect him to stay aloof from what, ordinary culture? popular culture? trash aesthetics? – is ludicrous. To actually be bothered by it - even more ludicrous. Big up to you Bob! It’s a Situationist spectacle on a par with Johnny Rotten being on I’m A Celebrity

Sorry this so short but this is a very busy time of year and all … so adios till the next time!