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Gerald Early


Devil in a Blues Dress

Bourgeois life is about winning; the blues are about losing. Bourgeois life is innocence; the blues are experience.

It is the extraordinary feature of the blues that this formulaic music, as predictable and stylized an art-form as Italian opera or Kabuki, has proven to be so durable and so elastic. The blues serve nearly as the tribal aesthetic language of American popular music, seen, in fact and in fancy, as its motherlode, its baseline, its bedrock, its endowment. As Gerard Herzhaft states in the preface to his Encyclopedia of the Blues,

Jimmy Rogers and Hank Williams—big names of country—weren't they blues musicians? Don't rockabilly and rock-and-roll come from, for the most part, the black blues, as country singer and guitar player Merle Travis recognized in the mid-fifties? And isn't soul also largely inspired by the blues? Aren't rock artists, from the sixties to the present, from the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds to ZZ Top and Dire Straits, strongly influenced by the blues?

Some of what Herzhaft asserts is questionable: soul music, in good measure, was almost certainly a reaction to the blues, a supersession, not merely a derivation of them. This is not to deny the blues roots of soul, or to say that soul and R&B artists did not perform blues-derived material from time to time. But James Brown, as he stated in his autobiography, disliked the blues and saw his music as a variation of jazz, and rightly so. Younger performers like Smokey Robinson and the Motown crowd or the shapers of the Philly Sound saw blues as old-time music, stuff that represented black people's shameful past or—even worse, perhaps—their grandparents' unsophisticated musical taste. Indeed, many saw soul and R&B, especially as these art forms became entwined with youth culture and with black political aspirations of the 1960s, as a distinct break from the blues.

Nonetheless, despite being something of an overstatement, Herzhaft's assertion about the primacy of the blues in black popular dance music is substantially correct. The blues are a major portion of our great secular music ...

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