“My ears are in ecstasy,” whispered Brock as he turned towards me.
He sure wasn’t talking about the dulcet tones of my exceptional singing voice. It may work to help my 8th graders remember the quadratic formula, but it sure wouldn’t lead to any claims of ecstasy.
The sounds that elicited this response were instead coming from the guitar of the young blues master, Jonny Lang.
We were fortunate to be able to secure tickets to see Jonny Lang and Buddy Guy perform at a nearby venue. We were treated to 3 1/2 hours of incredible blues.
The blues were born from suffering, their name taken from the indigo dye used to color mourning garments in Africa. Their simplistic backbone, consisting of a basic chord progression and a liberal use of repetition, allows the emotion behind the music to take center stage. Gifted musicians speak not only of playing the blues, but of feeling the blues. Without the feeling, the music falls flat.
The uniting structure makes the blues predictable yet the freedom to improvise makes the next not impossible to forecast. It is familiar yet volatile.
The simplicity extends to the stage. From the grittiest dive bar to the fanciest hoity-toity venue, most performers dress plainly and shun any fancy stage decorations. Jonny Lang and Buddy Guy were no exception – their entire set-up could fit in a small U-Haul, with the guitars taking up most of the room.
The blues don’t whisper. They don’t speak in nuance and hide behind closed doors. The deep, melancholy tones are played loud, with no shame. There is a repeated pattern of building tension and then release. It is as visceral and cathartic as good cry.
The players stand alone on the stage. They are together yet each is in his own world, bound by the edges of the spotlight. As they engage in call and response, they each speak through the music of their suffering and their own loss, creating a common bond.
The blues don’t rush; there is no hurry to complete one song to move on to another. A tune is played until all of the emotion has been wrung out. As Buddy said, “Don’t be afraid of getting a little funky”.
Blues musicians know that tears and laughter are not mutually exclusive. Many are not afraid of injecting humor into their doleful tunes, the resulting laughter purifying the soul.
The blues started out as way of dealing with suffering, the tunes shared only with friends and family. It evolved into a performance art, the pain transformed into something that could bring happiness to others through a common language of sadness and loss. By embracing the blues, they have created beauty from the sorrow. How can you do the same?