Welcome to Blues Talk! In this pioneering series of video lectures, one for each bar of a 12-bar blues (and all of which are hyperlinked at the bottom of this page), I'm going to introduce you to the blues--but with a difference.
Instead of offering you glib generalities couched in blithe (or irritable) absolutisms, I'm going to do my best to undercut every myth that has attached itself to the music over the years. Instead of a dry, documentarian, "history of the blues" approach, I'm going to take you deep inside the minds, hearts, and souls of the music's creators, recreating the sociohistorical and aesthetic horizons that confronted them as they sought to leave their mark on the world. Whenever possible, I'm going to ground my claims in what the musicians themselves have had to say.
The blues tradition isn't just about the music. It's about powerful and often conflicted feelings that circulate within the music, sourcing it decisively (many have argued) in the historical struggles of African Americans to achieve full personhood on American soil. It's about the blues ethos, a philosophical orientation towards life that shows up at many points in the music and culture. It's about a whole range of ideas--including mistaken ideas--that have swirled around the music, and about a world of poems, plays, novels, and autobiographies that have emerged along with the music.
As a blues harmonica player with three decades of performing experience and an associate professor of English and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi, I've been teaching undergraduate and graduate classes in the blues tradition--music, culture, and literature--for almost 15 years. I've written three award-winning books on the blues. Many of my insights are drawn from my 25-year partnership with Sterling "Mr. Satan" Magee, a Mississippi-born bluesman with whom I busked the sidewalks of Harlem back in the late 1980s and worked the club and festival circuit for almost a decade after that. The talk I talk comes from the walk I've walked.
I make no apologies for my stance as a public intellectual, speaking about the music I love and play in a way that pays attention, among other things, to the ideologies that condition our sometimes conflicting claims about the music. But not everybody wants to talk about the blues that way.
BLUES PASTORAL VS. BLUES CRITIQUE
Some people, including many self-styled aficionados, would prefer to keep ideas--all ideas--away from the blues. They think of blues music as a gritty, earthy pastoral retreat: a blues cruise of sorts, filled with booze, BBQ, and butt-rockin' grooves where good fellowship prevails, guitars and harps (and amps and mics) rule the day, and the complexities of postmodern life fall away. Since the music's African American originators were clearly not graced with Ph.D.'s, such fans look skeptically at those who would make claims on the music from any other discursive perspective. Above all, they'd prefer that all talk of race, of black and white in the blues, be stifled preemptively, unless it be cliches such as "No black, no white, just the blues" or "Shut up and boogie."
That's one way of using the blues, and it isn't illegitimate. It deserves its own space in the conversation. (In fact, I probe the meaning of that "just the blues" saying in my first Blues Talk.) But if comforting bromides and gear-talk is all you're after, I urge you leave this page immediately. Blues Talk is not for you.
Blues Talk is for people who care passionately about understanding the music and unpacking its source code, not just taking a fan's pleasure from it.
Blues Talk is oriented, without apology, towards serious students of the music and the culture out of which the music emerged. Blues Talk is for people who want to use their minds as well as their ears to deepen their appreciation of an art form that is arguably one of America's greatest gifts to the world.
Blues Talk neither condescends nor obfuscates. Instead, it seeks to excite you, entrance you, and liberate your mind by guiding you through the process of thinking critically about the blues.
A great deal of scholarship on the blues has accumulated in the past 50 years, even as the blues has been transformed from a Deep South folk music into a worldwide phenomenon, and yet most of this scholarship remains unknown outside the academy, even to serious fans of the music. Blues Talk seeks to remedy this lack by walking the academic conversation back in the direction of everyday language.
Blues Talk will introduce you to blues theorists such as Kalamu ya Salaam, Elijah Wald, James Cone, Angela Y. Davis, Steven C. Tracy, Larry Neal, and Jon Michael Spencer, along with foundational figures of the blues literary tradition such W. C. Handy, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston. If those last three names aren't as familiar to you as B. B. King, Muddy Waters, and Bessie Smith, they should be. Blues Talk will make sure you never forget them.
Blues Talk is modeled loosely on the MOOC (massive open online course) movement within contemporary higher education.
Blues Talk is free. Blues Talk has no registration charge. Blues Talk has no prerequisites except an open mind.
Blues Talk has no syllabus or assigned readings. There are no quizzes, tests, or term papers.
Blues Talk does, however, have a structure of sorts. I urge you to watch the twelve one-hour lectures in order. (They're hyperlinked just below.)
Blues Talk will offer a scattering of additional materials, most of which are drawn from my own research and teaching. I will offer you links so that you can download these materials for free. I'll also post links to Amazon for many of the books I refer to, including my own.
Blues Talk also has a forum. You can dialogue with your fellow viewers to your heart's content there.
You won't earn any sort of certificate or course credit after you've watched the twelve lectures, but I can offer you a 100%, double-your-money-back guarantee: When you complete this course, you will have deepened and broadened your understandings of the blues in ways that you can't begin to imagine. You will find it impossible to think about the music in familiar and comforting cliches. You may actually hear it for the first time.
That's my hope, in any case. That's why I've created Blues Talk. I wanted to blend my musician's passion and my scholar's expertise into an edgy, idea-charged lecture format that just might break you through into something like enlightenment.
Of course, you might find yourself disagreeing vigorously with some or most of what I say. And that, too, would be an education. Call and response. Bring it on!
A FEW WORDS ABOUT VENUE:
You may be curious about why I deliver all twelve of my Blues Talks from the front seat of a car. The answer is simple: because I feel comfortable there. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, as a blues harmonica player in Manhattan, I was one of the few guys on the scene crazy enough to keep a car in the city. (I had two cars stolen outright, along with three or four wheels and tires, a battery, and an amp.) I spent a lot of time hanging out on the street in front of an East Village blues bar called Dan Lynch--leaning against the car, blowing harp with my buddies, trading licks, talking trash, but also doing those things while slouched in the front seat.
Sterling Magee and I socialized the same way up in Harlem, hanging out with his "wino buddies" (as he called them) on 125th Street or around the corner on Lenox Avenue. And when we hit the road to Boston or Virginia Beach, trading the driver's seat every 100 miles, the cigarettes and stories flowed freely. He'd talk about his days playing guitar in the King Curtis Band, backing up Big Maybelle, working the Apollo Theater behind James Brown. A lot of my own blues education took place in and around the front seat of whatever old car I happened to own at the time.
A photo of Dan Lynch is the icon for Blues Talk. My current ride, a 1992 Honda Accord with 375,000 road miles on the odometer, is the lecture hall. There's no cover charge and no minimum. Grab a seat and hang out for a while.