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by Timothy Martin
Most music you hear today is little more than scatological curses and ear-splitting guitar havoc played by kids who haven’t learned how to pull up their pants or wear their ball caps properly. The blues is different. It's more than music. It’s a medicine that makes you feel better. The healing powers of blues originate from decades of loss and poverty, depression and regret. Nobody gets more misty-eyed on the subject of human suffering than a good blues musician.
What's it take to sing the blues? Some people think it’s a talent you're born with. Others believe you learn it from the school of hard knocks. Either way, an authentic blues singer has to be well-educated on the subject of sadness and despair. I’m not talking living-in-a-ghetto-flat or standing-on-a-windy-street-corner-and cadging-coins hardship here. I mean plain old everyday doom and gloom. And we’ve all experienced some of that from time to time, right?
Musicians Muddy Waters and Marvin Gay can tell you a thing or two about misery. So can Johnny Winter, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Guitar Shorty and John Hooker Jr. Even Elvis experienced his share of hard times. He drove a four decades old pickup with a Hefty rag gas cap and no hubcaps before he hit the big time.
Female musicians probably know more about pain and heartache than anyone. Janis Joplin sang the blues in a voice so raw it could wear a scree-carved groove in your soul. So did Bettye Lavette, Maria Muldaur and Bonnie Raitt.
As you can see singing the blues has nothing to do with sex, skin color or whether you’re old and blind and running low on teeth. It’s all about those troubling experiences that lay deep in our minds like river snags. Good blues music originates from a rusty stop sign peppered with bullet holes, a homicide chalk outline, a lonesome train whistle or a constellation of buzzards circling in the sky. The blues comes from tar blackened lungs, a tricycle with a missing back wheel, the calcified bones of some small luckless animal and a truck that’s gone tits up in the ditch.
Still wondering if you’ve got what it takes to be a blues singer? The first thing you’re going to need an authentic name. A few that you might consider are Gitfiddle Jim, Rattlesnake Slim, Hound Dog Taylor, Mississippi Jones or Blind Lemon Jefferson. Some excellent blues names for women are Sweet Tomato Mama, Chickpea Annie, Jelly Belly Bess, Susie and the Butterbeans and Black Spider Dumplin’.
People with names like Donald Trump, Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, Rush Limbaugh or Snookie should never sing the blues, no matter how many cheatin’ spouses have left them.
Here are a few other tips that might help launch your career as a blues musician:
- It’s okay to sing the blues if you have a life sentence in a Memphis prison or you’re a sow inseminator.
- You shouldn’t sing the blues if you play golf or spend a lot of time at Starbucks.
- If you ask the bartender for whiskey and he serves you water, that’s blues material.
- An attack of the blues can also be brought on by an old flame or flat beer, but not by the listening to the song “Walking on Sunshine.”
- Standing in front of a pay toilet with diarrhea and no dime is more punk than blues.
- If death involves a cheatin’ wife or a jealous husband, that’s a blues death. If it involves a mother-in-law that’s just plain old good luck.
- Being struck in the head with a pool cue is a real bluesy way to die. So is a knife fight, a drug overdose and dying in the back seat of a Greyhound bus.
- You can't have a blues death if you collapse at a fitness center while running on the treadmill or when shopping on Rodeo Drive in Hollywood.
Traveling or “movin’ on” also plays a major part in the blues lifestyle. A blues musician usually rides in a rusted-out sedan or a chicken shack pickup. Other acceptable modes of transportation are hitchhiking and “catchin’ a southbound train.” High performance European sports cars and luxury automobiles are unacceptable, unless a fatal accident is somehow involved in the journey.
How exactly does one actually start singing the blues? For your music to come across as genuine it should transcend commercial success and popular taste. Get yourself a slide guitar or a weepy harmonica and start writing your song. Your lyrics should be strong and go barb deep. That’s important. Your vowels and consonants should drag and halt like truck gears refusing to mesh.
A blues song needs to be rich with friction and personal struggle. For example, an alcoholic husband or a wife who hates you is a great place to start. Your first line might go something like this: Woke up this mornin’ with a gun to my head.
Many blues lyrics create inferred ideas that are metaphors. That particular one is a metaphor for an angry woman.
After you get the first line right, repeat it. Then find something that rhymes, sort of. A good second line might be: I think I’ll be movin’ on southways.
Your song should be the equivalent of sleeping at a Motel 5, a late-night bar fight and wiping snot off the face of a reluctant child. A bottle of Jack Daniels ought to come into the tune somewhere. So should a tired old dog, a slew of empty beer cans and an ashtray overflowing with crushed cigarette butts.
That’s about it. Just follow these instructions and you’ll be on your way to becoming an honest-to-goodness blues musician. Remember though, you’ve got to pay your dues if you want to sing the blues.
And as you know, it don’t come easy.
Tim Martin is
the author of There's Nothing Funny About Running, The Legend of
Boomer Jack, Why Run If No One Is Chasing You? and Wimps Like Me.
He has three novels due out this year: Scout’s Oaf (Cedar Grove
Books), Summer With Dad (Eternal Press) and Third Rate Romance (Whispers
Publishing). Tim has also completed nine screenplays, co-authored a TV
reality show, Homes Left Behind (in development at 100% Terry
Cloth), and is a contributing author to over a dozen Chicken Soup for
the Soul books and literary journals.
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