Defining the Blues

I have been reading a fascinating long essay on the Blues this past week. It is part of the book released along with the rest of the paraphernalia by Martin Scorsese for his Blues documentary. It is a beautiful, non academic intimate history of the Blues. One admires one’s emotional connections to one’s music, but writings that sum up the reality and the zeitgeist at a moment in time have their own beauty, and more usefulness too, for those coming later. I shall try to post the whole essay in a subsequent post (here it is, A Century of The Blues by Robert Santelli), and maybe talk about it too, but this post here is about another piece of writing from the same book, Martin Scorsese’s preface to the book. It is a non-assuming two pages of fan boy talk that Scorsese has written as an introduction to the book, and (sort of) to the series. I have read it multiple times during the past year, once long before I started watching the documentaries, and then a couple of times in between this manic period of absorbing the Blues. I had thought of excerpting it in some form on the blog for a long time, but couldn’t frame it with a fitting context.

It certainly felt that I should be presenting it though. It is something to admire, the whole project. It sounds a little presumptuous, at first glance, the showman title of Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues. But once you delve in, one realizes the magnificence of what Scorsese has done here. Not just about the fact that he has put his money into something like this … comprehensive, one imagines that he has earned the right to indulge himself. He has the credentials, for sure. Apart from being Martin Scorsese, this is the guy that actually edited the original Woodstock ’69 film. At one point in this preface, he offhandedly mentions that while shooting The Last Waltz (I had to google it, and I was dumbfounded), he had the privilege to shoot Muddy Waters. Hold it. What? Martin Scorsese has shot Muddy Waters? Live? Woah, What?

Yes. That happened. Respect deepens for this loveable man.


Not to digress, but I was talking about the documentary, the set of 7 films that Scorsese helped produce, and his right to be indulgent about the way he looks at Blues.

No, more precisely, I was talking about the preface Scorsese has written for the book that was part of the series. Yesterday, early morning, I was out, sipping tea, listening to the Blues, thinking, when one of the lines from this preface jumped up in my head, and I got it. I understood what he had done, what he was saying, about the way he had so cooly and nicely, off handedly defined the Blues. In the preface! I had to come back home immediately, read his words again. I soon realized that he had taken the beautiful logic of that sentence to some other conclusion. Pertinent, but different than my nirvana moment. We will come back to it after you have read the whole preface below.

I had my initial frustrations with the series (some quite childish, as I feel now, with hindsight), of what some of the directors had done. Time and again through the series, there was this insistence to document a good definition of the Blues. I can understand why the search for an aesthetic, fitting, and perfect definition for the Blues could be an enticing approach for someone chronicling the story of the Blues. Every one feels it, but it is very difficult to voice it. What is it about the Blues that makes it so hypnotic, so personal? One almost comes to the Blues already loving the Blues – even if you have never heard it before. Is it a feeling? What is that secret?

And there is such a vast ocean of Blues to choose from. When I was young, I used to think the electric guitar going crazy was the Blues. For good reason, the first Blues song I had been obsessed with was Lucille by B.B. King. But then, there is the harmonica, there is the piano, there is the bass, there is the soulful singing, there is the knife being slid along the guitar strings. All of that is the Blues. Black slaves of a century ago in the delta are singing the Blues. But white boys in faraway London are also playing the Blues. The Blues is personal. But Blues is political.  New Orleans is Blues. Chicago is Blues. The Mississippi Delta is Blues. Woodstock is also Blues. Blues is jazzed up, jumped up, swing through, the Blues is Country, the Blues is Soul, the Blues is Rock, the Blues is Metal (A couple of months back, I reshuffled all of my music in my hard disks into two folders, Blues and Everything Else. True Story)

So what I am saying is I can understand the fascination of trying to document what Blues mean to the giants who made the Blues what it is. Through the documentaries, I heard Son House solemnly proclaim that “Blues is what is between a man and a woman. There ain’t no other kind of Blues.” There was Howlin’ Wolf pointing to his heart when saying “All Blues come from here. If it isn’t coming from here, it ain’t the Blues”. Hear Muddy Waters make his electric guitar cry out on the bassed up I AM THE BLUES, and you will swear it is him (It is a Willie Dixon song though, and for good reason. I am the Blues is the name of his autobiography as well).

Albert King takes a live masterclass in the song Blues Power with his audience defining the Blues as you go (toddler can’t get his milk bottle, girl can’t meet her squeeze, they got the blues. Some people call it the reds and the pinks, I call it the old fashioned Blues).

There was this line from that essay I was earlier talking about that stuck in my head. It was talking about the crippling effect of the 1930s depression on the record business,

There was never any question whether or not the blues would survive. The music, after all, had always dealt with themes of despair and deprivation. It was the most Depression-proof music America had. What was in question was whether the business of the blues would make it through the earliest, most damaging years of the 1930s.

From the wiki page,

The blues takes many forms… It is variously a feeling, a mood, a nameless threat, a person, a lover, a boss man, a mob, and, of course, the Devil himself. It is often experienced as both cause and effect, action and reaction, and it can be used as both hex and counterhex, poison and antidote, pain and relief. Most importantly, the blues is both the cause of song, and song itself…

But here, come listen to what Martin Scorsese has to say in that preface to the book,


I’ll never forget the first time heard Lead Belly singing “See See Rider.” I was entranced. Like most people of my generation, I grew up listening to rock & roll. All of a sudden, in an instant, I could hear where it had all come from. And I could feel that the spirit behind the music, behind that voice and that guitar, came from somewhere much, much farther back in time.

Many people I know had the same shock of recognition. Rock & roll seemed to just come to us, on the radio and in the record stores. It became our music, a very important way of defining ourselves and separating from our parents. But then we uncovered another, deeper level, the history behind rock and R&B, the music behind our music. All roads led to the source, which was the blues.

We all like to imagine that art can come from out of nowhere and shock us like nothing we’ve ever seen or read or heard before. The greater truth is that everything—every painting, every movie, every play, every song—comes out of something that precedes it. It’s a chain of human responses. The beauty of art and the power of art is that it can never be standardized or mechanized. It has to be a human exchange, passed down hand to hand, or else it’s not art. It’s endlessly old and endlessly new at the same time, because there are always young artists hearing and seeing work that’s come before them, getting inspired and making something of their own out of what they’ve absorbed.

When you listen to Skip James singing “Devil Got My Woman” or Son House singing “Death Letter Blues” or John Lee Hooker laying down one of his snaking guitar figures, when you really listen—and believe me, it’s not hard, because this is music that grabs your full attention from the first note—you’re hearing something very precious being passed down. A precious secret. It’s there in all those echoes and borrowings, all those shared phrasings and guitar figures, all those songs that have passed down from singer to singer, player to player, sometimes changing along the way and becoming whole new songs in the process.

What is that secret? Recently, I was shooting a scene for the film I contributed to this series. I was in a studio with Corey Harris and Keb’ Mo’, two extraordinary young musicians, and we were talking about Robert Johnson. Corey made a very important point: Throughout the history of African-American music, right up through the present, there’s a distinction between the emotions of the singer and the words he or she is singing. The words of “Hellhound on My Trail” may be about a jealous woman sprinkling hot foot powder around her lover’s door, but Robert Johnson is singing something else, something mysterious, powerful, undefinable. The words don’t contain the emotion, they’re a vehicle for it. Corey called this a “language of exclusion,” which can be found in the poetry of Langston Hughes just as easily as it can be found in the music of Howlin’ Wolf or Lightnin’ Hopkins. It was and still is a way of maintaining dignity and identity, both individual and collective, through art; and as we all know (or should know), it originated as a response to the very worst forms of oppression: slavery, sharecropping, and the racism that’s never left American society. The precious secret is simply that part of the human soul which can never be trampled on or taken away. It’s brought more to our culture than any of us ever could have imagined. It’s tragic that racism continues to thrive in the western world, but it’s also utterly ridiculous, because there’s no one who hasn’t profited from the spirit that animates this music. Without it, this culture of ours, so rich and varied, would be nothing.

A few years ago, we initiated this project—these films and this book of essays to accompany them—as a celebration of a great American art form. It became many other things along the way a series of inquiries, tracing the different emotional and geographical paths the music took; a memorial to many great artists who have sadly passed away; a reflection on time and on the many ways the past can both haunt and enrich the present; and for all of us, for Wim Wenders, Charles Burnett, Richard Pearce, Marc Levin, Mike Figgis, Clint Eastwood, and myself, something deeply personal. For my own part, it became a reflection on an essential part of my creative process.

Music has played a key role in my life and my work. When I’m preparing a movie, it’s only when I hear the music in my head that the movie comes together for me, when I really start to see it. I could picture Gangs of New York’s opening scene only after I first heard Otha Turner’s hypnotic music. Even when the music doesn’t make it into the finished product, it’s there behind everything I do. When I look at the wonderful films made by the other directors who took part in this series, I know that it’s the same for them. And the blues has always held a special place for me. It’s the most physical music I know, with an emotional undertow that’s unlike absolutely anything else. When you listen to the otherworldly voice of Robert Johnson hitting those words “blues fallin’ down like hail,” or Howlin’ Wolf riding the rhythm of “Spoonful” with such amazing ease and more than living up to his name at the same time, or Skip James lamenting love, the worst of all human afflictions, in “Devil Got My Woman,” or Son House hugging the memory of his dead lover for dear life in the tightly coiled “Death Letter Blues,” you’re hearing something from way, way back, something eternal, elemental, something that defies rational thought, just like all the greatest art. You have to let it grab hold of you. You have no choice. When I made The Last Waltz, I had the privilege of filming Muddy Waters, and I still get an electric thrill just thinking about his amazing rendition of “Mannish Boy,” the pleasure he took in every word, every phrase, the authority he commanded. How many times had he sung that song before that night? And there he was, singing it again, like it was the first time, or the last. I realized that the blues could do that for you, and for us. It gets at the essential.

I hope you enjoy watching these films as much as we all enjoyed making them. And when you read these beautiful essays by all these terrific artists, historians, and writers, you’ll feel the passion that this music can arouse. We turned to some of the best writers we could think of—Elmore Leonard, Studs Terkel, David Halberstam, the great biographer and critic Chris Farley, and the wonderful historian Peter Guralnick, among them—and they all came through out of sheer love for the music.

Most of all, we want you to listen to the music. If you already know the blues, then maybe this will give you a reason to go back to it. And if you’ve never heard the blues, and you’re coming across it for the first time, I can promise you this: Your life is about to change for the better.


Beautiful, isn’t it? Parts of it, especially that last paragraph have been used in the advertising for this series.

The lines that jumped out to me yesterday were the ones I underlined above.

there’s a distinction between the emotions of the singer and the words he or she is singing

I had felt it instinctively when I was actively listening to this music (I doubt there is another way to listen to the Blues. It grabs your attention like no other music does).

That there are three parts to a Blues number (Rather common sensical, and yet).

  1. The song itself.
  2. Who is singing it.
  3. Which year/Where/What Album.

I have felt it personally. That knowing feeling all three increases the pleasure of the actual song. I have felt it in my vicarious pleasure in covers of Blues numbers over the years.


What Scorsese has quoted is what Hemingway has said in other words, while describing his Iceberg Theory,

If a writer of a prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.

In other words, a story can communicate by sub text far more powerfully.

What they are saying is that Blues is Gonzo.

Gonzo Blues

Gonzo Blues

Take a moment.

The words don’t contain the emotion, they’re a vehicle for it

Why Gonzo?

Gonzo journalism is a style of reporting based on William Faulkner’s idea that the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism – and the best journalists have always known this. Which is not to say that fiction is necessarily ‘more true’ than journalism – or vice versa – but that both ‘fiction’ and ‘journalism’ are artificial categories; and that both forms, at their best, are only two different means to the same end.
~ Hunter S. Thompson

Let me illustrate with an example.

I have long been entranced by the way a Blues number sounds remarkably different and yet retains it’s soul through it’s numerous cover incarnations, to use the cliche. A Blues cover strips the original, changes it in a very human way.

Now these are criminal and generous generalisations, but for a cultural ignoramus like me, they provide helpful  signs along the road.

Appreciating the Blues

Appreciating the Blues

Take for example, the song I Put a Spell on You. Most people have heard it as the soulful Nina Simone version. Here, refresh your ears.

But the song was initially written and sung and performed by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. And it has a beautiful story.

Hawkins had originally intended to record “I Put a Spell on You” as a refined love song, a blues ballad. He reported, however, that the producer “brought in ribs and chicken and got everybody drunk, and we came out with this weird version. I don’t even remember making the record. Before, I was just a normal blues singer. I was just Jay Hawkins. It all sort of just fell in place. I found out I could do more destroying a song and screaming it to death.”

This is what came out.

Up to this time, Hawkins had been a blues performer; emotional, but not wild. Freed suggested a gimmick to capitalize on the “demented” sound of “I Put a Spell on You”: Hawkins wore a long cape, and appeared onstage by rising out of a coffin in the midst of smoke and fog.

Here’s a video of that performance.

The act was a sensation, later bolstered by tusks worn in Hawkins’ nose, on-stage snakes and fireworks, and a cigarette-smoking skull named “Henry”.

Here’s a later day video of the act.

The theatrical act was one of the first shock rock performances, and a basis for much that came later in rock and roll, including Dr. JohnAlice CooperEric BurdonScreaming Lord SutchWarren ZevonArthur BrownBlack SabbathTed NugentGeorge ClintonThe Butthole SurfersThe Cramps, and Marilyn Manson.

Look at those names! And they are influenced by the stage performance of the song.

At the same time, there are some 47 known cover versions of the song (According to the wiki page). But “Most of the covers treat the song seriously; few attempt to duplicate Hawkins’s bravura performance.”

( P.S. Someone has taken the trouble to assemble all the available versions and made a torrent of them all. I Put A Spell On You – Covers Collection.)

In that spirit, listen to this version by Creedence Clearwater Revival from the first self named 1968 album.

Don’t you feel it?



The Martin Scorsese documentary has an excellent website with sections introducing the films, a short biography of all the artists included in the show, a healthy bibliography section (including print, web, film and film societies) and most importantly, a section called Blues Classroom where there is a wealth of material to teach the Blues in a classroom course. There are downloadable lesson plans, and a teacher’s guide which can be downloaded here (as pdf). It is a beautiful document. Do indulge.

Everyone say Thank You to Marty Uncle

Everyone say Thank You to Marty Uncle

One thought on “Defining the Blues

  1. Pingback: ‘A Century Of The Blues’ by Robert Santelli | Gonzo

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