A few of years ago I was sitting behind my laptop and writing a CD review. I was in the home office of BLUES JUNCTION Productions. Alright, I was at the kitchen table. I had a pair of Bose noise reduction headphones around my neck and was turning off and on the recording I was listening to and writing about. Then I heard in the background an old Jimmy Reed record. I got up and thought maybe I left a CD player on in another room. I wandered around and all the other audio units in the place were turned off. I walked outside onto the front porch and noticed my neighbor across the way was backing his blue Chevy pickup into his driveway. It was from the inside of the pickup that the Jimmy Reed music was emanating.
What struck me at the moment I heard the Jimmy Reed tune was the instinctive thought it absolutely had to be coming from inside my own home. Think about it how many times have you pulled up to a stop light and heard a Jimmy Reed tune coming from the car next to you? How many times have you walked into the office of a colleague and heard Jimmy Reed, Jimmie Rodgers, Jimmy Liggins, Jimmy McCracklin or even Jimmie Vaughan coming from their radio or computer speakers? The answer might just be... never.
I think we have all become very used to the fact that the kind of music we love is not something you hear while you are stuck on hold, waiting at the doctor’s office or being piped into a restaurant. We have all become very accustomed to that Monday morning office discussion in the break room where everyone talks about what they did over the weekend. You know they talk about their kid’s soccer game or match or whatever they call it. Someone went camping and another co-worker cleaned out his garage. Then the question hits. “What did you do this weekend?” “I saw Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown”. They have no idea what that means. You get that weird almost condescending but sweet, “Yea that sounds interesting.” It is at this point you realize that they will never completely understand you. You have become this mysterious figure who enjoys something they do not comprehend. At the same time you realize that any kind of relationship you may have with the people in your work place will never be completely fulfilling, as the passion you have for this music or music in general is not something that these people will ever possess.
At some point in our lives we become identified as that blues guy (or gal). Many times through the years, a thoughtful member of a girlfriend’s family would say, “What should I get Dave for Christmas?” The woman would often say, “Well he likes blues music”. Then when the gift exchange takes place you are sitting behind a half dozen or so packages that are all the identical size and shape. One at time you open them and sure enough it is a blues CD. Almost always it is one purchased at a box store and the title is something like, “The Best of the Blues”. The very thoughtful neo in-law then begins apologizing as you are reading the song selection on the back cover. “I don’t know anything about blues music, so I hope it is a good one. I hope you don’t have this one.” It is always a very awkward moment for everyone. I look back on these moments with a great deal of affection since the people were just trying to be thoughtful and relate to me on some level. As I reflect on these times it occurs to me couldn’t a “blues guy” use a new wallet or a shaving kit. Wouldn’t a “blues guy” like a hooded sweatshirt that says, “I am sleeping with your daughter”?
There are several elements to this I find interesting. Could any of you out there imagine being in a scenario where you were inquiring about someone’s interests with the thought of getting a better handle as to what to get them for Christmas? Let’s say your girlfriend’s brother was interested in fishing and you knew absolutely nothing about the sport or hobby or whatever it is that fishing people do. Would you waltz right over to Wallmart and pick up a variety pack of lures? I wouldn’t know where to begin.
The mystery of blues music, that we understand and that the rest of the world doesn’t, is what draws us together. We are aware that what we love is largely misunderstood by the general public, if the general public thinks about it at all. It is why the blues festival season is so important to many of us. We can be with our own kind. We can be surrounded by people who understand us. We often think of each other as members of the same tribe. We are part of a family if you will. Like many families it is somewhat dysfunctional, but who cares. It is just nice having a family.
We cling to one another because at least on one level we understand each other. The primal need to be a part of something larger than ourselves plays itself out in a variety of ways in this so called, “blues community,” which by the way is not gated. It is why enjoying this music for the sake of the joy this music brings isn’t enough for some people. It is why so many of us are willing to brave the high seas and be trapped on a luxury cruise ship with one another not once, but twice a year. It is why the mostly white, mostly upper middle class, middle aged person gets involved with blues societies and foundations. They do so for the exact same reasons inner city kids join gangs. I get that. The need to be part of a family that accepts us for who we are is a powerful thing.
Over the past few weeks the tribe has gathered in Memphis and in a couple of large blues festivals here in Southern California. It is great catching up with friends from other parts of the country, you might only see once or twice a year.
For the musicians back stage, it is a family reunion as well. If they are playing a club on a particular night then they aren’t going to see members from another band on that particular evening. I can’t tell you how many times through the years I have been sitting backstage, usually at a picnic table, when two musicians from different bands say, “It seems like we keep missing each other.” There are vans out there full of musicians literally following one another around the countryside, 24 hours and several hundred miles apart, landing in the same motels and same nightclubs where blues music is played. The relationship the musicians have with one another is not that dissimilar to the bond the fans have for each other. They are part of an even smaller fraternity.
It has been my observation that fans talk about the music and that musicians talk about luggage. “I got this new soft shelled case for my amp that has a handle that won’t break.” They talk about frequent flyer miles and airports. They talk about a motel that was renovated just down the street from the “Slippery Noodle” in Indianapolis. They talk about the transmission on a 2002 Ford van and how to repair it.
When we gather to worship at the grand cathedrals of the blues, which are the outdoor festival stages, on beautiful Saturday and Sunday afternoons this time of year, we celebrate with joy. It is here we can see our heroes playing in front of the huge crowds we have always thought they deserve. Our blues family appreciates how hard it is for these musicians to do what they do. When we come together to celebrate this great American music, it is special.
A couple weekends ago I was walking down the hall towards my hotel room across the street from the site of the Doheny Blues Festival when I passed by a room and heard an old Jimmy Reed record playing. I smiled and thought to myself, “I’ll sleep peacefully tonight. I’m in a building full of family, our blues family.”
- David Mac