A quintessence of American urban culture: Chicago Blues Fest 2009

There’s so much in the Chicago blues that I love! Let me count some of the ways:

1) the way blues celebrate the down side of life, which balances things aright; 2) the way blues are so dirt-simple to play, sing, and create; 3) the way blues give sacrifice a song; 4) the way blues appeal to audiences across the globe and the social spectrum; 5) the way blues laugh at tragedy and cry at comedy; 6) the way blues bring together African-Americans, European-Americans, hispanics, asians, women, men, young and old, gay and straight, etc.

http://picasaweb.google.com/s/c/bin/slideshow.swfI tell my non-American friends who question the the American experiment’s success that if they want to see proof of our society’s validity, they should play an album of jazz music, or jazz‘s older brother, the blues. In this musical negation of negativity you hear an American sound, a harmonious synthesis of disparate cultural strains: Gaelic ballads, African worksongs, Native American drum patterns, protestant religious hymns, imperial march music, and a rebellious attitude that dwells on–alternately making fun of and delaiming–the tough ironies of our lives.

At the 26th annual Chicago Blues fest on Friday I had some turkey pizza, a pickle, a Budweiser, some coffee, and corn on the cob. I sat next to well-heeled suburbanites with money, a crack whore who pulled her stash from her underpants, middle-class blacks from the south suburbs, adventuresome Japanese women, grandparents and grandchildren, dancing teenagers, and a boy and girl on their first date. And all of the people, it seemed to me, were smiling. That’s also the blues. It’s uplifting 1-4-5 progression really lifts the human spirit.

Yes, of course. America may be hypocritical, insensitive, wasteful, and bellicose, but in the collaborative creation of jazz and blues music, the world may note how well these outcasts work together, how euphonious we can sound, how perfectly individualistic and yet group-oriented we can behave.

In the slideshow above, look for the image of how, in the midst of his performance, bluesman Fernando Jones calls on a white gentleman to join him at the guitar. The white guy, gutless, shakes his head, “no,” he would not take center stage with his enthusiasm.

But then something happens that perfectly illustrates the democratic, inherently social music that is the blues. Fernando notices a middle-aged blond woman who’s grooving with him and the band. He calls her up to where he’s standing center stage, and you can see her right hand stroking his guitar strings while he solos with his left hand. The two of them–his fingerings, her rhythmic strikings–rock everyone present–and for many bars. The crowd’s joy overflowed.

Spontaneous, collaborative, harmonious and fine: the blues are an undeniable flower of American civilization.

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