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Blues & Trouble

Host(s): DJ Jota
Not your average blues show, B&T emphasizes the revolutionary and transformative effect the blues have had on popular music.
Blues & Trouble
Tuesday,
8:00 pm -
9:00 pm

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juan@koop.org

Studio Line: 512-472-KOOP (5667)

Blues & Trouble

KOOP Radio
P.O. Box 301899
Austin, TX 78703-0032

The blues before the Blues

I’ve always found it a challenge to answer when someone asks what kind of music I like.  Are they looking for a list of genres or artists?  Do they mean to ask what it is I like to dance to, or what I like to sit and listen to?  

The best I can do to encapsulate it quickly for someone who really wants to know is tell them that I like music made by people to perform for other people.   Even if I’m listening to music recorded a long time ago in a cold studio around the world while I’m sitting on the floor in front of my speakers, if they can tell me who they are, across continents, across decades across cultures then together we’ve found a way into the transcendent contract between performer and audience.  The bond between those who’ve dared to try to transmit a feeling through music and those curious and respectful enough to sit and listen, or stand up and dance, that’s what makes my pulse quicken.

It’s likewise challenging, then, to be told by others, many whose musical tastes I admire, that they don’t care for the blues.  I suppose It shouldn’t be that surprising.  It’s been noted by others that two people can tell each other that they both like jazz and still have no overlap in musical taste between them.  Listening to Kid Ory, Eric Dolphy, Chet Baker or Carla Bley are completely distinct experiences.  Likewise, when two people imagine what the blues is, there isn’t necessarily a shared conception between them.

The blues existed before the blues.  The use of the word ‘blues’ to describe a feeling can be traced back to the 16th century and by the late 1800’s the phrase ‘to have the blues’ was common slang for someone feeling out of sorts and sad.  The appetite for the blues also existed before the blues.  The late 1800s also gave rise to the phenomenon of the minstrel show and blackface performers.  White Americans seemed to have a desire to connect with black music and culture, even if played out in a perverse, distorted and stereotyped way.

The uncomfortable duality between music as a form of personal expression and music as a saleable product was also there before recorded music. Music halls, Vaudeville revues and medicine shows provided avenues for performers to use their personal expression to try to make some money for themselves, for the show or to sell some mystery tonic.  Performers played from the heart and they played for money.  Sometimes those things coincided, sometimes they did not.

With the advent of recorded music as a product that uneasiness only intensified.  The early years of the recording industry are fascinating for how quickly certain patterns seemed to solidify.   The adage that ‘no one knows anything’ when it comes to what’s a hit was evident early as producers lurched from act to act, genre to genre, audience to audience trying to find a sustainably profitable balance: artists who made something people wanted to hear and people willing to pay to hear it.  The ethereal contract between performer and audience was now solidified onto a piece of shellac, ready to be aerosolized and spread far and wide on radio waves at the drop of a needle.

It was all for money but it was magic.  The enablement of a heretofore unknown human addiction to playing music into a microphone hoping someone somewhere would take the time to listen, to seeking out and finding sounds that told you things you hadn’t known that you needed to know.  

There are infinite permutations of those sounds but they more or less boil down to music that makes you move and music that makes you cry.  Sometimes both at once.  Almost everything else changes but those things were always and will always be there, under it all, everywhere, in everyone. Whatever that means for them.

The bending of primal, animalistic forces to other purposes predates western capitalism, but, oh, how the practice was dissected, refined and crystalized in its wake.  Early record labels and producers  weren’t necessarily trying to find something heartfelt but the fuse was lit when it became evident how a little visceral humanity could make a record so much more popular, so much more necessary for listeners to hear and pay for.  To know and share with others.  It’s much the same still.  It has to make money to make sense.  And it has to make someone feel in order to make money.  And to make someone feel, it has to seem like it’s being made for no reason at all, just because it’s in someone and it has to come out.

So it’s instructive to listen back to the music of the dawn of The Industry.  Music from 100 years ago.  Before Rock and Roll. Before the ongoing attempt at hegemony by Western Culture.  MTV and YouTube, Top 40 and Coca Cola.  Before the dominance of the 4/4 time signature.  How did certain sounds become almost universal, pumped into malls and into cars, put nonstop into radiating waves paid for by advertisers, converted into bits and copied endlessly into the pockets, bedrooms and ears of every teenager looking for someone to listen to.  

What was it about the mix of sounds bubbling in a rapidly growing, eternally conflicted, young country barely 100 years old with tantalizing potential and a frustrating reality that would eventually boil and spill over to cover the planet?  On the time scale of nations the United States was entering its turbulent adolescence after a traumatic and painful childhood.  Was it the happy accident of a hungry new industry, looking for humanity to enshrine on wax, being born just as so much conflict, exhilaration and passion had left so many with so much to sing?

You don’t always hear the first songs that became the hits of the day.  Some feel staid and girdled.  The bloodless, rote performance instantly painfully omnipresent when replayed from a digitized copy of a copy a century later.  It’s hard to understand how American music survived to evolve and become the  alpha predator of the global collective musical unconscious.

Listen further, though, and you’ll hear women and men baring their souls, undeniable even through the hiss and pops, the distortions and generations of copies. you’ll hear the blood pumped into the veins of a country, from the most isolated and marginalized of donors, telling stories of heartbreak and sex, of death and humanity.  Eventually giving the culture the awareness and strength to start shuddering out of centuries of moral stupor, eventually speaking to people across borders and languages, and making the world a little more connected, a little more together.

So when I say the blues, I have in mind that spark and that’s what I’m seeking to share with the listener.

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