Everyone “loves” the blues. At least that’s what everyone I’ve ever talked to about it says. But I’m starting to think there’s more (or less) to this unanimity than meets the eye.
To be up front on my own biases, I think of the blues as the pillar of perhaps the greatest American cultural achievement – jazz. It also contributed a substantial amount to the evolution of folk, country, rock and popular music. Beyond that, a huge proportion of what is described as “traditional” blues music is repetitive, simplistic, derivative and boring.
Just as a couple of (probably incendiary) examples: Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker. The former is a mythic demi-god who’s been described as “the most important blues singer that ever lived” (Eric Clapton). I have another, simpler description – boring and un-listenable. That probably explains why all anybody ever does is talk about him; nobody (except Clapton, maybe) ever listens to his recordings.
John Lee Hooker (The Boogie King) knows about three chords and every tune is in the same loping groove. Alright, it’s a pretty nice groove, but the guy’s been doing nothing but for about 70 years.
Why do people tiptoe around just how dull this stuff is? Well, I think part of it is a kind of cultural affirmative action. The blues came from the oppression of a race. How can you criticize the quality of (the primitive side of) this music? Not many have the nerve to.
The blues is a musical form that not only permits, but encourages and applauds, outright theft of musical ideas, lines and lyrics. Makes it all kind of incestuous. For me, it ends up sounding like a pile of tired rehashes. My distaste for the “simpler” side of the blues arose in countless living room “jam” sessions, almost inevitably in the key of E, goin’ round and round with those same three chords.
My current antidote to the blues is to avoid listening to almost any band styled a “blues band”, jam sessions and folk festivals weighted heavily towards this tired genre.