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Blues As Zen Article, Eli Marcus, Blues For Peace, Israel

The Blues As Zen

By Eli Marcus
What is the essence of Blues? I see the Blues as a kind of Zen. Like Zen the Blues at face value looks simple, easy. Actually the Blues is simple in its essence, however, as with Zen, a deep understanding of the Blues requires the student/disciple to travel along a path of gradual enlightenment. Brownie McGhee said: "Blues is life", i.e. the Blues is a way of life. It can also be understood that the Blues, like life, has complexity on the one hand, with levels and layers, changing and evolving in time, but at the core its essence is constant.

Willie Dixon said: "I am the Blues", expressing a level of Zen awareness about his life as a Bluesman. The origins of the Blues are quite diverse: not necessarily just musical, they are to a great extent a social/cultural expression of the enslaved and oppressed Black populations of America. Musically we find African melodies and particularly rhythms, intermixed with European musical forms, both folk and classical.

One of the inborn paradoxes of the Blues is that pain and frustration are expressed side by side with joy and spiritual elation, sometimes in the same song, this is a sort of Zen duality. The Afro Americans ("Blacks") arrived in America a few hundred years ago as slaves who were kidnapped out of Africa, with them came the famous "Talking Drums". This was both a form of percussion and a form of actual communication (like the telegraph).

White plantation owners soon understood that the drum-communication was a direct threat to their subjugating authority and a widespread ban of drums and drumming was enforced by the 1830’s. The result was apparently a strengthening of the singing rhythms as well as an emphasis on guitar(European origin) and banjo (African origin) as rhythmical instruments,a trend that has remained in the Blues to this day.

In the same token that rhythm was internalized or went "underground’, so did the Black slave's spirituality. The Black man brought with him from Africa a myriad of religious practices and beliefs which were quite foreign and strange to the Christian/European sensibilities of the White man. This included kinds of tribal witchcraft and Voodoo (sometimes called Hoodoo).

The clash with Christianity, followed by a ban of Voodoo and other ritual practices, caused the Blacks to hide these beliefs deep down inside themselves(much like the Maronites in Portugal - Jews who were forced to conceal their religious practices from public view and "officially" converted to Christianity). Again a duality arose with the Black man publicly embracing Christianity (producing Gospel music by the early 1900’s).

Many Blacks continued in secret the practices of Voodoo and other pagan traditions, some of which are even witnessed in the Blues today. Muddy Waters was well known for the song "Hoochie Coochie Man" (written by Willie Dixon) and also for "Got My Mojo Working", with lines such as: "I got a black cat bone, ‘got a Mojo too, I got a John the Conqueror root, I’m gonna mess with you...." and "I’m goin down in Louisiana gonna get me a Mojo Hand, gonna have all you ladies right here under my command".

These ancient religious forms in the Blues may be the reason that "righteous" Blacks who were loyal to the church called the Blues "the Devil’s Music"and either frowned on it or banned it outright in their homes and the community. Gospel music, though really another musical form of the Blues, was strictly Christian and "White" in textual content, while the Blues have all the rest of the social/cultural content of the Black experience.

Much in the same way that Zen and Blues can be a process of enlightenment, the Black man has undergone a process of socialization and evolution in America. In the music itself we see lots of clowning and "hokum" in theBlues of the 1920’s and 30’s. The Black man in Vaudeville and early movies has no dignity, no self respect. His only expression of being a real person is his sexuality- the one thing the White man didn’t manage to repress. The White man was afraid of the Black man’s overt sexuality, leading to all those nasty stereotypes that exist about Black’s and their sexuality.

The expressions of sexuality that seemed natural and healthy in Black society, were too blatant for the uptight and even puritan White society in America of the 40’s and 50’s, and this was a major factor in keeping R & B and Blues from breaking the color barrier in the 50’s. The "softened" versions of the Black music that were hits for Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and other White performers were often simply "covers" of the Black originals that couldn’t break through, and were often stolen outright from the Black artists.

The late 50’s and early 60’s saw a tion of the Black music scene, Chuck Berry became a star that appealed to Whites as well, but just as the White audiences began discovering the wonderful Black heritage, the Black community began to turn away from the Blues as being archaic, and something they wanted to put behind. For a while there was even a kind of shame involved in the old black culture and music, and only in the mid 1980’s did young Black artists find a renewed pride in the traditional Blues (witness Corey Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Keb ‘Mo, Guy Davis,and Eric Bibb).

The great attention Blues has received in recent years in the media, is a "ship finally coming in" for artists such as John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, and the recently departed Luther Allison- artists who have patiently practiced their Blues craft for 20-30 years before achieving real fame and fortune. A pop-rock artist may rise to fame in 5 years and then vanish overnight, but the Blues, like Zen, is a patient and enduring art.

Living with the Blues and learning as we go, brings us full circle, like Zen, to the starting point of simplicity, an expression of everyday life- "THE BLUES IS LIFE" Brownie McGhee

© 1998 Eli Marcus
About The Author
Eli Marcus is a resident Tel Aviv Bluesman originating in Toronto, Canada about 40 years ago. He specializes in Country and Ragtime Blues styles,fingerpicking and slide guitar. His mission in life is to study, document collect, and preserve the history of Jazz and Blues. He is a regular contributor to the Camelot Club magazine, the IFS Folk Notes, and occasional radio shows." Contact Eli Marcus.

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