Rolling Stones

American Blues: Murder and the Devil

To my Croatian readers (all five of you, now), imagine you live in the US. How would you explain Croatia to your child? She would be living in a world where the real image of Croatia is clearly distorted. The media thinks its a backward land of savage violence and her friends think it’s in Russia. What could you say to convey to her what you feel when you think of home? How would you get her to understand the truth about where you are from?

The answer: MUSIC! (Probably Klapa, because... er... that’s um... the only traditional Croatian music I know about. I’m so Dalmatianly biased. If you have another kind of traditional music, please educate me. In the meantime let me write about some American music).

The music I’m talking about is American Blues, and it doesn’t involve seagulls or rocks. Instead it involves murderers, adultery, breakups, and a young man who SOLD HIS SOUL TO THE GOD DAMNED DEVIL! To me, music is the best way to impart the sights, sounds and feelings about a place (I get that part of Klapa: the sounds of seagulls, the feeling of the rocks, and the view of the sea). But what I’m talking about in American music is the torture and contradictions of what America is and was, made into a moving form of art. I want my daughter to understand the US more than just from the perspective of Croatia. Here, the US is little more than a plastic-wrapped land of McDonalds and Hollywood. I also don’t want to glorify it as some imagined utopia forged only in my own nostalgic memory. I’ve decided that one of the best ways to understand the American experience is through the Blues. The Blues embodies all of the contradictions (good and bad) that make up this crazy complex tapestry that is America.

The Blues originated among African-Americans in the deep south. And while certain Blues artists had a large influence on the eventual development of rock-n-roll, the Blues is steeped in traditional folk songs passed on from the generation to generation. For example the song “In the Pines” is believed to have been written in the 1870s. The original author is anonymous and the song has changed over time. The story is about someone asking a girl (sometimes specifically labeled as a black girl) where she slept the night before. Different versions allude to her having a lover, having committed a murder, or having a murdered husband. In any version, the song is haunting with both the girl’s sad tale and the accusatory tone of her interrogator.

(Here is a link to the best known version by Lead Belly.

If the song wasn’t enough. Lead Belly’s own story is indicative of the Blues and the American experience. Born in 1888, Lead Belly is considered one of the greatest Blues singers EVER! His influence extends from Frank Sinatra to Nirvana. This despite the fact that he was frequently imprisoned, once for even killing a man. Another Blues legend is Robert Johnson, the man, who is rumored to have sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads around midnight. Like other legendary musicians, Johnson died at the age of 27.

Here is a Johnson song about his girl leaving him.

Here’s the Rolling Stones doing the same song in 1972.

While it is often assumed that Americans only care about money, we see that in the case of the Blues, most it its singers were born poor and died poor. They played and made art for art’s sake. What’s more is that all of this music came from an oppressed and disenfranchised population. Yet, it was also through this music that blacks and whites could come together (eventually). While Lead Belly and a few others were popular in the North among white intellectuals it took someone like Elvis to make black music popular among the larger white population. Then the likes of the Rolling Stones, The Who, and Led Zeppelin were influenced by the Blues and brought it back to America from England. Is it a coincidence that demand for Civil Rights increased about the same time that the Blues became more and more popular among the broader American public?

So, I’ve told you that I plan to use sad songs about violence sang by an oppressed population to explain my country to my daughter. Yep, that’s the plan. The Blues is an incredible story. As the art of a subaltern group of people, the Blues has influenced the world. Name a band and if that band is any good, than it is assured that the band’s influence was derived from someone influenced by the Blues. GUARANTEED! The story of the Blues, and its sound, is something that I feel is distinctly American. Tragedy and triumph, painful and beautiful, haunting and fascinating all at the same time. Its like Yate’s line from the pome “Easter 1916:” A terrible beauty is born. To me that’s the Blues and its in the sound of the Blues where one can feel America.

You might be able to hear it, or maybe it, like so much else, is lost in translation.

Here is Nirvana’s incredible cover of Lead Belly’s "the Pines." Watch out! Its so good it could kill you!

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