`Why We Play the Blues'
Times are really tough, there's trouble all around,
the cost of keeping up is steady wearing people down.
Folks need something for their spirit to help them make it through.
Well, this music is a healer, and that's why we play the blues,
why we play the blues.
Hey, now, we played a lot of places from the East out to the West,
we take it to the stage and put this music to the test.
No matter where they come from, people understand the truth:
everybody knows the feeling and that's why we play the blues.
Why we play the blues, y'all, why we play the blues.
by Michael Hill, from the album, Bloodlines
Saturday and Sunday, blues musicians from across the country will put their music to the test on Eureka's Marina Green for Blues by the Bay Volume III. Thousands of music fans will come to hear the wailing guitars, harmonicas and saxophones the songs of joy and the songs of pain.
Most people know the blues when they hear it. They may not be able to define it, but they know the feeling the music inspires.
For Angela Strehli, who helps close the show Saturday night, what's essential in the blues is honesty.
"It's honest music, honest thoughts about life. Whether it's funny or misery it doesn't matter, just as long as it's telling the truth," she says.
"I don't see the blues just in terms of a musical form," said Michael Hill, leader of the Blues Mob. "For me the blues is the foundation of African-American culture. I see it in theater, in novels and poetry, in the stories my father told me about growing up in the South. When I read Walter Mosley and Toni Morrison, the blues is in there. It's a really rich, broad heritage that is at the foundation of so much of our culture."
"It's kind of slippery pinning it down musically," says guitarist Elvin Bishop, who performs with his band on Sunday.
"Most of it's 12 bars in structure, but not all of it. Most of it's based on a pentatonic scale with a flat third and a flat seventh but not all of it. If you're talking about Delta blues, that might be one scale; if it's West Coast blues, it might be another.
"I don't think you can define it; it's more of a feeling," Bishop conceded.
While Bishop was growing up in Oklahoma, something clicked when he heard the blues on the radio.
"The socializing and mixing of the races in Oklahoma in the 1950s was highly discouraged. It was hard-core segregation. The one crack that was left open was the radio. I think quite a few of us southern white people just jumped right through it.
"I was already into rock 'n' roll. That was when it first came out with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino and all that. But when I heard the blues, that kind of took over. What I came to find out was what I liked about rock 'n' roll was the blues part of it.
"When I became familiar with the blues, I just started chasing it down from there, trying to figure out where it was coming from," Bishop said.
When it came time for college he headed to Chicago, since that seemed to be the source of much the music he loved.
"The school I went to, the University of Chicago, is like on an island in the middle of the South Side ghetto. It was there you go right smack dab in the middle of the blues scene."
Among the musicians who took him under their wings were Otis Rush, Junior Wells, Smokey Smothers and Sammy Lawhorn. One day while walking around the city he met Paul Butterfield.
"This was around 1960; he was sitting on some steps with a guitar, drinking a quart of beer. Later he started concentrating on the harp and got real good real fast."
Since they were both interested in the same music, they found some kindred spirits (including Mark Naftalin and Mike Bloomfield), stole drummer Sam Lay and bassist Jerome Arnold from Howling Wolf's rhythm section, and formed the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. They played Chicago-style blues and mixed in a bit of the stretched-out jams of psychedelic rock. They landed a record deal, and before long their music was heard across the country on the radio.
"It was an idea whose time had come," said Bishop. "There was all this great music laying around, unappreciated by the white public for many years and it started creeping in around the edges. Our band came along and was a vehicle for that to happen. We were maybe like the Johnny Lang or Kenny Wayne Shepard of our time, except that we were some of the first white people to form a blues band. From that time and up to the present, the general public found it easier to accept the music in a young white package than in an old black package."
The Butterfield band recorded three albums for Vanguard before parting ways. Bishop ended up in the Bay Area with his own band. The Elvin Bishop Band developed a sound that added a southern country feel to the blues and recorded several successful albums. He even scored a top-40 hit with the song, "Fooled Around and Fell in Love."
"As time went on I just sort of played whatever felt right to me. There were times like the late `70s to the mid-'80s when you couldn't get away with much blues. But now it's back. It seems like it's the most popular it's ever been.
"The blues is never going to be a dominant musical form, but I think it will always be a strong alternative taste. There is a percentage of people who are going to love blues. It just hits them right. It's the type of person who gets a little further into the music.
"For the average person, music is right in there with hair and clothing styles, a passing sort of trend, totally on the surface. Then there are people who connect music and life a little more that's where the blues comes in."
Angela Strehli's experience discovering the blues was much the same as Bishop's, she said in a call from Rancho Nicasio, an old-fashioned roadhouse owned by her husband in Nicasio, "a tiny town dead-center in Marin County."
Strehli grew up in west Texas in Lubbock, home of Buddy Holly and Jimmie Gilmore not exactly a blues stronghold. .
"I was a fan of all kinds of music, but when I heard the blues it really just grabbed me," she recalled. "I heard it on the radio, on one of those late night 100,000-watt stations that went across the borders. It was the real thing people like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Lightnin' Hopkins and it just blew my mind."
She didn't start making music until she had finished college. Her career began with a group called the Fabulous Rockets and was followed by a series of other groups. She says she didn't take herself seriously at first.
"I hadn't lived a lot and if you're singing blues, you're talking about life. My expectations were not that high," she said.
While she was living in Texas, the music she did with her bands wasn't necessarily Texas blues.
"I was just as influenced by the blues that made its way to Chicago. That's my favorite era the country blues that turned into urban blues. When it was in between those two things it was just basic, not too sophisticated. We played a lot of rhythm and blues to break things up, and we still do."
Strehli is part of a special package closing the show Saturday night. She'll sing with her band, then Tracy Nelson and fellow Texan Lou Ann Barton will join her and sing some tunes on their own, backed by Angela's band.
Strehli and Barton worked together before with Marcia Ball, making an album and touring for Antone's Records. Strehli has a special relationship with Antone's. She was supportive when the Austin club got its start in 1975, and she helped start the record label. It was a time when the blues was going through hard times. By offering the younger Texas bands like hers and the Fabulous Thunderbirds alongside some of the greats from the past, Antone's became the center of a new scene.
"Austin became sort of a mecca for blues and blues musicians," Strehli said. "A lot of them moved across the country to live there. And they still do."
Now she has relocated to California, but she's still playing the blues. She plays occasionally at Rancho Nicasio and travels around the world playing her music. She has recently produced her own record, Deja Blue, for the House of Blues label. It demonstrates her range and the range of blues. Most of the songs are written by Strehli, and they show that special trait that she says is essential to the blues telling honest stories about life.
The Laura Love Band plays Saturday as a change-up act. It really can't be classified as a blues band. In fact, the band's mix of funk bass lines, jazzy fiddle and folk guitar does not fit into any known genre. Love casually accepts the term "Afro-Celtic" that some journalist coined, but that doesn't really describe it. Love and company were in Humboldt County earlier this month for Reggae on the River, but they certainly don't play reggae.
"We're playing a bluegrass festival in between Reggae and Blues by the Bay," said Love with a laugh. Will she be playing the blues in Eureka? "We might try to switch it up just a little, but for the most part we just do our show. I suppose I could play the blues. By the time we get to the festival we will have learned some."
Sunday's headliner is Texas blues legend Gatemouth Brown, whose style spans blues, country, Cajun and swing-jazz. On stage he shifts easily between genres on guitar and fiddle. His latest record, American Music Texas Style, is slanted toward big band swing with a healthy dose of blues, but he doesn't call his music the blues either.
"That's what the Americans always do," he said in a phone conversation. "They call it the blues because they don't know the difference between one and the other. Everything's got to be blues or jazz. Sometimes it just don't make sense but what the hell.
"I play American and world music, Texas-style. Who knows what I might do in the future? I might do a big band thing now and do an organ thing next time. I might wind up doin' a country thing or a Cajun thing, or bluegrass, I don't know. I just try to play good music."
In Brown's opinion there are just two kinds of music: good music and bad music.
"Good music is positive. It's music with discipline, music with some dynamics. Say if somebody's soloing on a vocal or something, the rest of the band's not supposed to be playing all over them like they're going crazy. Everybody's got to be heard over one another that shows no discipline. That's what I see in a lot of bands."
Then there is bad music. "Real negative lyrics and real negative music," Brown said. "Your brain controls your music and it can be negative or positive. If you think positively, it'll come out in your music, and if you're negative about life, that will come out in your music, too. So I try to avoid the negative side."
Michael Hill is the leader of an urban blues outfit from New York, Michael Hill's Blues Mob. He says when he was growing up in the Bronx he didn't hear much blues music around the house.
"My father had a great record collection, with things from Jackie Wilson and Johnny Ace to Duke Ellington and Harry Belafonte a whole range, but not really any blues," Hill recalled in a conversation on one of his rare nights off on the road.
"I spoke with him about it not long before he passed away last year. We were talking about the fact that he and his peers, when they came up north, didn't want to hear the blues because it reminded them of things they wanted to forget you know, painful things. That's part of the discontent between a lot of black folks and blues."
He says his route to the blues came through rock music, in particular from listening to the music of Jimi Hendrix.
"All of the stuff he did seemed to be connected to the blues. He managed to gracefully merge blues with R&B and rock 'n' roll. When I heard him it made me want to play the guitar. My friends and I were listening to him and to rock bands like Cream (with Eric Clapton on guitar), and all these guitar heroes would talk about their heroes people like BB King, Albert King, Buddy Guy and we started listening to those folks, too."
As a lyricist, Hill lists influences like Bob Marley, Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder. "They were folks who were writing about things other than just romance. In rock 'n' roll you had people like Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe and the Fish who were involved in protests against the war. I was also drawn to music that spoke about life in broader terms than just romantic pop. All these things add seasoning in my own music when I write.
"The blues has a deep and long history of social commentary. It was originally the voice of people who didn't have a voice in society. It was the news of the day, and it told stories, and it was about life the good times, love and relationships between men and women. It was about sex, but it was also about pain, and it spoke of lynchings and people's homes being burned. It was a healing force, a way to deal with the pain of life. When it came to social commentary, it was really just telling stories about things that matter. It's about life.
"I consider our music to be in the tradition of the blues. Not to equate myself with artists I see as heroes, but people like Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf when they brought electricity to the blues in Chicago, they were in a tradition but they were putting something fresh into it and putting their own stamp on it. I think one of the ways that traditions are reinvigorated is by whatever little thing you can do to honor the tradition and at the same time bring their own experience to it."
Linda Tillery began her music career 30 years ago singing for the Loading Zone, a Berkeley blues-rock band. Since then her path has taken her into women's music, back to soul music, then to a cappella, singing in Bobby McFerrin's Voicestra. In 1992 she heard a concert of spirituals at Carnegie Hall and it sent her in another direction, one that led to putting together the Cultural Heritage Choir, the group performing Sunday afternoon at Blues by the Bay.
"What I did after 27 years in the music business was to go marching back in time and listening to and then performing African American slave music," Tillery said in a phone interview.
The spirituals, slave songs and the Gullah music of the Georgia Sea Islands are sung a cappella. Some tunes will seem familiar, some will not, yet it all seems to be part of the foundation of American music.
"The music the Cultural Heritage Choir sings and performs is representative of some of the earliest Black vernacular music forms," said Tillery, "so it certainly could be called the cultural roots of the blues and jazz and R&B and hip hop, etc. I think it's important that U.S. audiences in particular have the opportunity to experience African-derived music from a historical perspective.
"You seem to immediately have a visceral reaction to this music. I think it's because it was an expression of a people who were going through a period of tremendous grief, suffering and sorrow, and that's communicated in song. We perform these work songs that were written by guys who were breaking rock day after day in the hot sun. Most of my generation will never have an experience at all similar to that.
"When we sing these songs I feel myself traveling, I really do. Sometimes it's painful stuff, but I think it's liberating. I marvel at the fact that through the slavery period in the United States, which was a very horrible period in our history, a byproduct was this body of music. All of these melodies, say a minor blues like, `Sometimes I Fell Like a Motherless Child' or `Wade in the Water' became songs like `I Heard It Through the Grapevine' or `Moanin',' the jazz tune.
"It's music that came from cotton fields and rice fields, from plantations, from the end of a bull whip. It came from bulrushes, from the people escaping in the middle of the night and fearing for their lives. It came from people who needed to escape tedium and boredom. That's real stuff.
"One of the reasons I do this music is because we have to be able to look back to see where we are, and why we think the way we think," Tillery said.
"We all need to have a sense of our own history in order to have a future."
Saturday's show begins at 11:15 a.m. with Brenda Boykin and Home Cookin' on the Heritage Stage. Chris Cain plays the main stage at 11:50; Laura Love at 1:30 p.m. Terry Hanck and the Soul Rockers are on the Heritage stage at 2:35, Joe Louis Walker and the Boss Talkers on the Main at 3:10, Tracy Nelson, Lou Ann Barton, Angela Strehli close the show at 5 p.m. backed by Strehli's band.
Sunday starts with the Joyce Hough Band on the Heritage stage at 11:15 a.m. Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir play the Main stage at 11:50; Elvin Bishop at 1:30 p.m. Michael Hill's Blues Mob plays Heritage at 2:35; Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets with Sam Myers are on the Main stage at 3:10; Gatemouth Brown and Gate's Express 5 p.m., with the show closing at 6:30.
Note: All bands on the Heritage stage will play two short sets separated by another artist's set on the Main stage. Kim Wilson will not be performing. He's off with the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
Interested in hearing more blues? Tune in to Good Rockin' Derral on the KXGO Blues Review every Sunday from 7-11 p.m. He's been playing blues on local stations since 1986. His picks for this year's festival: Brenda Boykin and her guitarist, Anthony Paul (heard with Boz Scaggs' band at the Muni).
Jo Mama has two blues shows: It's a Blues Thing is on KHUM Wednesdays from 8-10 p.m.; Jo Mama's Blues is on KMUD Sundays from 9-11 p.m. She says to watch out for Chris Cain. Both deejays are excited about the Saturday closing set with Strehli, Tracy Nelson and Lou Ann Barton, who has not played in these parts for years.
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