A Bluesician

In a bluesy, spoken-word tune recorded in 1976, “Bicentennial Blues,” Gil Scott-Heron ruminates on the development of the blues.  “The blues has always been totally American,” he intones.  “Why should the blues be so at home here,” he continues. “Well, America provided the atmosphere. . . The blues is grown, but not the home.  The blues is grown but the country is not.  The blues remembers everything the country forgot.”  But the blues was already on its way out as a commercially popular art form when Scott-Heron spoke those words.  In the early 70s, it was the funk of James Brown, Marvin Gaye, and Curtis Mayfield that remembered “everything the country forgot” in an immediate and expressive fashion; in the 80s, politically-minded hip-hop articulated the plight of the country’s second-class citizens.

Scott-Heron’s words are true, but they miss an important aspect of the relationship between the country and the blues which is clearer now than it was in 1976.  The country is certainly still not grown – one imagines that if it were fully grown, music like the blues might no longer be needed.  But it doesn’t look to the blues to identify and sooth its troubles the way it once did.

Why?  Maybe people were turned off by the plethora of long-haired, white, blues-rock bands in the 70s.  Or maybe the generation that followed the baby-boomers wanted to rebel against whatever was in their parents’ record collections.  Perhaps as blues was appropriated by the cultural main stream, it lost its ability to articulate a sense of “outsiderness” in the same way.  The simple blues platform has remained consistent.  It has gotten fuller — what was once the province of one man with an acoustic guitar expanded to big, plugged-in bands that sometimes include horn sections — and it has gotten wilder, in the sense that extravagant soloing and a macho concept of “musicianship” became commonplace.  But the critic Stanley Booth once noted: “. . . the blues lies beyond technique. . . Virtuosity in playing blues licks is like virtuosity in celebrating the Mass, it is empty, it means nothing.  Skill is a necessity, but a true blues player’s virtue lies in his acceptance of his life, a life for which he is only partially responsible.” While Booth completely ignored the possibility that a woman might play the blues, his definition is still useful.  Guitar pyrotechnics played over a walking bass line don’t necessarily, in Scott-Heron’s words, “remember everything that the country forgot.”

The music of Junior Kimbrough, though, seems to meet Booth’s definition.  Kimbrough’s first full-length album, All Night Long, appeared in 1992, when  he was 62 years old, and it features a song entitled “Done Got Old,” where most of the lyrics consist of Kimbrough singing, “Well I done got old/ I can’t do the things I used to do/ I’m an old man.”  He remembers how he used to look and how he used to love, but now, “things have changed.” His voice is matter of fact; he is not fighting what he cannot control.  Although he came late to the album game, Kimbrough had been playing the blues in Mississippi for most of his life, occasionally getting a single recorded somewhere.  He got his break when he was filmed for the Mississippi blues documentary Deep Blues, and the Fat Possum label signed him.

In the light of “Done Got Old,” much of All Night Long seems like an act of acceptance through memory.  The songs take ample time as Kimbrough treads and re-treads, works and re-works the same chords.  It is as if each riff evokes memories of experiences he knows are gone – especially ones related to his love-making prowess — but that he comes to terms with through his music.  This extends even to the guitar solos, where Kimbrough usually picks a note and listens to it hang in the air before the next one.  Kimbrough’s guitar is accompanied by a bass player and a drummer.  Sometimes the rhythm section makes its muscular presence known, like on “Stay All Night” or “Nobody But You,” where the bass and drum pound out the same simple riff unfailingly for five minutes.  At other times, like on the first two songs of the album, the rhythm section backs off, leaving Kimbrough finger-picking and wailing away, maybe with a bit of bass in the background.

Sometimes a certain set of sounds feels frozen in time, and the blues can appear trapped in a sort of mythical, rural past, or in any number of interpolations that emphasize its guitar riffs but forget the other things that make it valuable. But sometimes that same sound can prove to the listener that he or she is not alone, that others have faced similar problems.  Kimbrough’s blues enacts his acceptance, and reminds us that maybe one day people will hear Scott-Heron, and forget to forget.

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