Reviews | A national blues anthem for America


Recently, my wife Janet and I purchased tickets for a spellbinding concert by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. The music was memorable, but a commentary from bandleader and trumpet virtuoso Wynton Marsalis proved it even more. Marsalis introduced a blues number with the seemingly flippant suggestion that the blues should be the US national anthem.

The audience laughed. But for my part, I took that as a serious and brilliant suggestion. It is worth discussing.

The blues is a uniquely American (at first only African-American) musical form. Unlike minstrel tunes and cakewalks, it was not easily hijacked by mainstream culture to parody and demean African Americans; nor was it, like ragtime, adapted by blacks from popular Euro-American dance forms like marching or two-stepping. Instead, it erupted directly as a raw response to the degrading conditions imposed on resilient, creative people by the deeply racist society that had kidnapped and enslaved their ancestors. Both in form and expression, the blues was surprisingly original. And, in its early iterations, there was almost nothing commercial about it.

The blues began to emerge in the South, probably around the time of the Civil War. However, an exact year or place is impossible to pin down. In 1909 WC Handy copyrighted what is often cited as the first blues composition, “The Memphis Bluesbut it was not written strictly in blues form. Additionally, it was preceded by “Jelly Roll Morton”New Orleans Blues‘, composed in 1902 but not copyrighted until 1925, which was truly iconic blues that still sounds blaring 120 years later.

There is early evidence in recorded commentaries by Morton and his contemporaries that by the turn of the 20th century the blues had already been around for some time, perhaps even a few generations. Since the first blues singers would not have had a musical culture and recording technology was non-existent at the time, there is no documentation of “The Birth of the Blues” (the title of a 1926 non-blues song by Ray Henderson).

We know that the blues began as rural, improvised vocal music that invited simple instrumental accompaniment. It quickly established itself and flourished, persisting alongside spirituals and, later, ragtime. During the 1920s, blues singer-songwriters like Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith and Ma Rainey were so popular that the New York-based commercial tunesmiths of Tin Pan Alley produced dozens of songs with the word “blues” in their titles – songs which, in form and in spirit, had nothing to do with the real blues.

The musical form of the blues is simplicity itself: three chords spread over 12 bars in 4/4, with a lot of repetition (there are also 8 and 16 bar blues forms, and additional chords can be judiciously added to bring more of musicality). variety). At its core, the blues is so simple that any teenager with a guitar can get in on the action, like three British boys named Clapton, Page and Richards did in the early 1960s, making fortunes that have escaped black Americans. blues artists they emulated.

Despite or because of its formal austerity, the blues is infinitely variable. It provides a universal framework in which instrumentalists and singers who have nothing else in common can have a long musical conversation. Without clever improvisation and microtonal note bending (the latter cannot be performed on the piano, one of the least blues-friendly instruments), the blues sometimes seem monotonous. But in the hands of master musicians, including pianists like Jelly Roll Morton, it is endlessly captivating.

“Americans will have many reasons to sing the blues as this century progresses.”

Why would the blues make a great national anthem?

An easy place to start this argument is to observe that almost anything would be better than our current anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner”, which is difficult to sing and whose lyrics are with which only a historian can relate. Hardly anyone really likes it, although most Americans, when asked, say they would like prefer to stick to it rather than switching to another song.

Many of the alternatives often suggested are characterized by corny triumphalism or smarmy patriotism (“America the Beautiful”, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”, or “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean”). The best of the favorites is undoubtedly the folk of Woody Guthrie”This land is your land.”

The blues, however, has a lot to offer as a longtime contender. The blues is perhaps America’s greatest cultural gift to the world; if not, it’s definitely on the short list. He was the main contributor to the origins of jazz, rock and roll, funk, soul, R&B and hip hop, and he also profoundly influenced country, western and bluegrass music. Without the blues, it’s fair to say there might be little recognizable American music. The blues embodies human resilience in the face of adversity and suffering. It is therefore the perfect musical tonic for a nation founded on slavery and genocide (Native Americans are inspired to play the blues with authentic feeling; discover the “native blues”), and a country of extreme economic inequality whose fossil luck is running out.

Indeed, Americans will have plenty of reason to sing the blues as this century progresses – as their country’s oil and gas production inevitably declines; as climate change worsens droughts, wildfires and megastorms; as decades of unsustainable economic growth turn into decades of contraction; as mountains of government, corporate and consumer debt come due; and as latent resentments (urban/rural, racial and regional) further erode an already frayed set of norms that allow political and legal systems to function. The key to national survival will be a collective willingness to share the pain (instead of blaming scapegoats), celebrate our common humanity, and build a new culture that is both ecological and humane. I can think of no music more appropriate as a soundtrack for this company than the blues.

An argument against the blues as the American national anthem is simply that the blues is more of a musical genre than a specific composition. Should a particular blues song be proposed to Congress?

If so, then first consideration should go to the works of Bessie Smith, who wrote and performed many of the most popular blues ballads of the last century; my personal (admittedly idiosyncratic) choice would be her”Dirty No Gooder’s Blues.” Then there’s BB King’s”Every day I have the blues» and that of Robert Johnson «Hellhound on my trail.” For baby boomers and rockers, a top choice might be Jimi Hendrix”voodoo baby.”

The possibilities are almost endless. But why should we have to choose? Maybe every formal occasion could open with a different blues song.

Of course, the chances of Marsalis’ suggestion being accepted by officials in Washington are virtually nil. But I still dream of a World Series game kicking off with a catchy, throaty chorus from Willie Dixon”Wang Dang Doodle.” In this imagined future, America could actually redeem itself.


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