Since Mike’s “Roughneck Grace” column is on hiatus this weekend, we thought you might enjoy this previous column (also available in Mike’s latest book). Mike likes it because it quotes Ray Wylie Hubbard, to whom Mike is listening this very instant, which is why Mike must refer to Mike in the third person.
Blues for Amateurs
The other day I was feeding the chickens and thinking about the blues. Chickens never seem to get the blues. They get the flapping cackles, and the goggle-eyed blinkies, and now and then they get the worm, but you can’t really say they get the blues. But you and I, we can get the blues. It should follow, then, that if we are capable of gettin’ the blues, of feelin’ the blues, we ought to be able to sing the blues.
But most of us (I am raising my own hand here) are not. Not only are not, but should not. We’ve all had our moments alone at the stoplight with Ray Charles, where Ray is singing every single sad note of intangible, inexpressible longing we’ve ever felt, and he’s nailing it, every teensy blue note twist and gutbucket moan so dead-on it’s like they were cut from your own heart, and you think, Yes, Ray, yes, that’s it, that’s exactly how I feel, and here, let me help you with that a little bit, lemme take a verse . . . and what follows may feel good but it is the musical equivalent of strangling a chicken.
I heard Ray Wylie Hubbard talking about the late Lightnin’ Hopkins the other day, and how Lightnin’ played the twelve-bar blues . . . and the thirteen-bar blues . . . and the thirteen-and-a- half-bar blues, Ray Wylie’s point being, Lightnin’ went to that next chord when Lightnin’ was good and ready, and right there is why with just one single uh-huh Lightnin’ Hopkins can put me on my knees. It’s why Hound Dog Taylor can make me feel like a hound dog. It’s why he can sing “my baby’s gone” and I know he’s really talkin’ about my baby. It’s why when he runs that slide up and down the fretboard he might as well be running it up and down my spine. It’s why Koko Taylor can make me—a stoic post-Calvinist stiff-upper-lip Scandihoovian paint-by-the-numbers three-chord roots-rock mumbler—squeeze my eyes shut, throw my hands to the sky, do a little altar dance, and say, Yes, Sister Koko! PREACH, Sister Koko!
And right there is the most glorious mystery of the blues: how deeply we can feel them as opposed to how poorly we can express them. Sometimes we don’t even know that stuff is in us until it comes out of someone else’s mouth. You’ve forgot about how wrong you was done until a man like Charlie Parr or W.C. Clark bends just one note and bends it just so and suddenly you are all amen and hallelujah. You’re feeling those blues to your bones. And yet, if you say, Here, W.C., gimme that microphone, lemme back you up on that, well, everybody involved is in for a big disappointment.
It’s a sad truth: for most of us mere mortals, there’s really one blues song we’re qualified to sing, and I’m already working on it. It’s a twelve-bar number, maybe twelve and a half, a little thing I like to call “I Got the I Can’t Sing the Blues Blues.” So far I’ve got half a verse and the chorus. I figured I’d test it out the other morning when I was feeding the chickens. “Listen here, you birds,” I said, “lemme sing you the blues,” and then I laid it on ’em blue as I could blow it. When it was over, half of ’em got the flappin’ cackles and the other half just stood there giving me the ol’ goggle-eyed blinkies. As pretty much any audience would.
Michael Perry, From the Top
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