“My whole life has been happiness. Through all the misfortunes…I did not plan anything. Life was there for me and I accepted it.” Louis Armstrong.
The word “blues” or feeling blue is, for many people, inseparable from feeling sad and depressed. Certainly, looking at the word historically, one can trace it to Elizabethan times when it was a synonym for feeling melancholy.
But when it is applied to music, specifically, jazz, blues takes on a far richer, more nuanced meaning. In fact, surprisingly often the lyrics are about being resilient, about having the capacity to survive and move on.
When blues records were first commercially released in 1920 the collective memory of train travel was a very powerful one. Some thirty thousand miles of train track were laid after the American Civil War, north to south, and east to west. The image of the train taking one to a better place became irresistible, representing a certain independence of movement. Thus we find titles like “Goin’ Away Blues,” “Up the Way Bound,” Frisco Whistle Blues, ” and many more.
For example, in perhaps the most famous and most widely recorded blues of all time, W.C. Handy’s 1914 “St. Louis Blues,” we have the following lyrics in the opening choruses :
I hate to see de evenin’ sun go down (twice)
It makes me think I’m on my last go-round
Feeling tomorrrow like I feel today (twice)
I’ll pack my crib and make my getaway.
Sometimes, as in “Empty Bed Blues,” we have a song filled with puns about the sexual prowess of a lover, as when Bessie Smith sings:
He’s a deep sea diver with a stroke that can’t go wrong (twice)
He can touch the bottom and his breath holds out so long.
Or what about W.C. Handy’s “Memphis Blues” ?
Folks I’ve just been down, down to Memphis Town
That’s where the people smile, smile on you all the while,
Hospitality, they were good to me
I couldn’t spend a dime, and had the grandest time
I went out to dancing with a Tennessee dear
They had a fellow named Handy with a band you should hear
and while the folks generally sway, all the boys begin to play
I never will forget the tune they call Handy’s “Memphis Blues.
Lynne says, When you listen to blues closely, you may be surprised at how often the messages are about resilience and the pursuit of happiness.
What are your favorite blues? What do you hear in them?