The blues have been close to my heart since I was about 13 or 14 years old. I didn’t know why I was attracted to the blues but I knew it resonated with something in me as soon as I heard it. The gritty, visceral, deep feel of the blues expressed something for me that I couldn’t express for myself. Some have even referred to the blues as the “education of the heart.”
This blues is about hearing and resonating with the pain, suffering, joy, or sadness in the voice of the singer. The understanding of the blues comes through the direct experience of the music rather than through the intellect. In this respect, understanding the blues is similar to a perspective about images offered by Carl Jung – “Image and meaning are identical . . . the pattern needs no interpretation: it portrays its own meaning.”
It is this universally felt and understood meaning that gives power to the blues for both the performer and the audience. The music of the blues is the only genre specifically created for the evocation of an emotional response. In fact, the phrase “the blues” refers to both the music and a feeling. While all forms of music create a connection on an emotional level – it is only with the blues that this becomes the primary focus. The word “blues” is derived from the term “blue devils” which referred to contrary spirits that hung around and caused sadness.
The early influences of the blues originate in West Africa, transported to America by African slaves. The first generation of African slaves sang African songs and chants. By the second generation those songs were replaced by work songs with the conditions of their American environment as the focus. It is impossible to identify when the unique pattern of musical form, now labeled the blues, first emerged. However, most evidence suggests that it originated in the Delta cotton country of northwest Mississippi during the late 1800’s from the work songs of former slaves, sharecroppers, and chain gang prisoners. The music is typically sung from an individual perspective but about issues and emotional experience common to all – for example – lost love, joy, sexuality, rage, sadness, grief, oppression, relief, addiction, migration, or transcendence.
When a blues musician refers to himself as a “bluesman” he is not only referring to the type of music he plays but also the type of life he has led and the attitude he has about life. It is in this last sense that the blues begins to comment upon or amplify the anima mundi, or world soul. An awareness of the world soul can be detected in many blues songs, such as Elmore James’ – The Sky is Crying where the tears of the singer and the tears of the world run together:
The sky is crying, look at the tears roll down the street
I’m waiting in tears for my baby, and I wonder where can she be?
I saw my baby one morning, and she was walking down the street
Make me feel so good until my poor heart would skip a beat
I got a bad feeling, my baby, my baby don’t love me no more
Now the sky been crying, the tears rolling down my door
The blues philosophy, expressed through the music, includes the idea that the blues is something to be accepted; not something to be gotten rid of or fixed. The blues is experienced, lived through, and survived; not conquered or overcome. One hopes to eventually feel better but the intent is to acknowledge and cope with the deeply visceral experience of the blues as in Going Down Slow by Mance Lipscomb:
Don’t send no doctor, he can’t do me no good.
It’s all my fault, mama, I didn’t do the things I should.
But I think it is in the power to transcend boundaries of individual and group experience that the blues speaks and acts most powerfully. A Jungian psychoanalyst, Erich Neumann, uses the phrase “unitary reality” to describe experiences in which the boundaries and distinction between individuals becomes blurred and there is an experience of a shared reality. At times this blurring occurs between the individual and their environment and such experiences are common in the blues. Blues musician Little Whitt Wells says, “You know, the blues is a trance music. If it can’t take you there, it ain’t worth the effort, and if folks can’t get there, well I guess it’s not meant for them . . . The blues is where it’s at with me. I am the blues, it’s my life.” This blurring can occur between the musician and the music, between performer and instrument, and between audience and performer. Mythologist Joseph Campbell draws our attention to similar patterns between the mystic and the artist:
For the reality in which the artist and the mystic are exposed is, in fact, the same. It is of their own inmost truth brought to consciousness: by the mystic, direct confrontation, and by the artist, through reflection in the masterworks of his art. The fact that the nature of the artist (as a microcosm) and the nature of the universe (as the macrocosm) are two aspects of the same reality.
In our increasingly isolated and technologically engrossed culture there are fewer and fewer opportunities to move into these shared experiences of unitary reality in which the bubble of our individualism is pierced and we are able to move into felt, relational connection to our environment and those around us. The blues allows us to move into a deeper communion with our own emotional life, especially the more difficult emotions that are often shunned in our relentless pursuit of happiness, material acquisition, and activities designed to occupy time rather than expand soul. Often it is only by moving into and through sadness that we can be released into an experience of joy. The blues facilitates this process. In this regard the bluesman, by communicating feelings in song that resonate within the listener, serves as a modern day shaman who heals through the ritual of music. The blues originated in experiences of trauma, oppression, and enslavement but now serves to liberate our emotional lives and facilitate a deeper union with our environment and those around us. Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Howlin Wolf all have something significant to contribute to the care of our soul.