Sunday, February 13, 2011

The blues

I've been thinking about how the blues shows up in different cultures. We use the term to mean a specific kind of black American lament, but the same idea pops up all over the world.

Spain has the cante jondo, the "deep song." It's from the Roma (Gypsy) tradition - a people who have some major reasons to feel down. From what I can understand of the lyrics, they're mostly about lost love. But a lot of it doesn't even have words - it's just boiled-down sorrow expressed by a man and a guitar.

Tú a mí me lastimas
cómo aguja de muerte.
Mi sangre grita.
(You hurt me
like a death-needle.
My blood screams.)

A missing lover is also the main theme of American blues, as in Muddy Waters' "Garbage Man":

My baby, she run away with the garbage man.
Yeah, you know, my baby, she run away with the garbage man.
Please come back to me, so you can empty my garbage can.

I don't know where this little girl been, and I don't know where she going.
I don't know where this woman been, and I don't know where she going.
Please come back to me, woman - my garbage can is overflowing.

The American bluesman, like his Spanish equivalent, laments the lack of sex. But in Ireland, the equivalent of blues is a female genre. Sex is the problem in these songs. In Blackwaterside, the speaker realizes her lover is not sticking around:

That's not the promise that you made to me
When first you lay on my breast,
You could make me believe with your lying tongue
That the sun rose in the west.

There's not one girl in this whole wide world
So easily led as I
When the fish do fly and the seas run dry
It's then you'll marry I.

Although the lyrics have different themes (essentially boiling down to who gets pregnant), I'm not sure the literal content is the important thing. In all three cases, the songs of sorrow come from vulnerable people - people coming from grinding poverty and physical danger from those in power. Fats Waller was more straightforward about it than most in his "Black and Blue":

I'm white inside, but that don't help my case
Cause I can't hide what is in my face
How will it end? Ain't got a friend
My only sin is in my skin
What did I do to be so black and blue?

Pain comes out, and everybody knows it when they hear it.

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