Saturday, September 12, 2009

I got them old anal constitution blues

There’s an interesting thesis to be written on why so many men of a certain age have a deep attachment to blues music.

They’re mostly in their 50s, 60s and 70s. They wear leather jackets and jeans. Most have beards.

Their thinning grey hair is often pulled back into a ponytail. A disproportionate number, oddly enough, are British.

Blues music draws its support from the same demographic group that rides expensive motorbikes – a last gesture of rebellion before the retirement home beckons. You see them out riding en masse on fine weekends.

Some of them manage to kill themselves, probably because modern motorbikes go a whole lot faster than the British bikes they owned 40 years ago, which spent most of their lives dismantled or leaking oil in the driveway.

It’s definitely a male thing, the blues. You’ll see a few long-suffering female partners at blues nights, but mostly they seem to be there to humour their men.

An earlier generation of men of the same age had a similar passion for Dixieland jazz. The common factor is a vicarious identification with the oppressed blacks of America.

Again, it was a British thing: Kenny Ball, Acker Bilk, Chris Barber. The chances of hearing a trad jazz band were far greater in an English pub than in America, where the music originated.

I’m not averse to blues music myself, but a little goes a long way. It consists mainly of miserable men feeling sorry for themselves. You can hardly blame their women for walking out on them, which seems to be the theme of most blues songs.

Of course people are entitled to listen to whatever music they fancy, but another common characteristic of blues lovers is that they tend to be contemptuous of any other musical genre. Not for them the American music writer Tom Moon's admirable maxim that "the more you love music, the more music you love".

Forty years ago, when the blues boom was taking off in New Zealand, thanks to British musicians such as Eric Clapton, John Mayall and the original Fleetwood Mac, who repackaged American blues and sent it back home, I wrote in a column in The Dominion that “the blues breeds bumptiousness”. Even then, self-consciously cool blues fans would sneer at anything that was remotely commercial. Not much has changed.

Here’s another interesting thing. Blues lovers generally like to think of themselves as non-conformists. Almost by definition, blues music is seen as the music of outsiders and outcasts. Yet I know of a blues club which has a written constitution that runs to eight pages and specifies in excruciating detail how the club’s affairs are to be run. It could only be the work of an anally retentive control freak. What would Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson or John Lee Hooker have made of it, I wonder?


Vaughan said...

Just a while ago I heard a joke along the lines of:

q. what is the opposite of the blues

a. when a man gets his wife back, his house back and his dog back.

martin said...

Very amusing Karl, but c'mon now, blues is about shake your booty and have a good time, not misery. Bluesmen ain't poets - they sing to get outside their problems, not inside them. This is a fundamental aspect of blues that many white folks don't get.

As Townes Van Zandt said: "There are only two kinds of music:
Blues...and Zippity-do-dah"