Jazz Appreciation Month is in full swing. On Saturday, the joints were jumping in Center City Philadelphia.
While I love jazz, I live for the blues. I don’t remember a time in my life when the blues didn’t touch me to my core.
Growing up in Brooklyn, Jimmy McGriff’s Hammond B-3 organ fueled my imagination. So it was awesome to discover McGriff perfected his craft in organ joints in West Philly.
The blues is the prism through which I view the world. The musical genre shaped my self-image and my expectations about male-female relationships. It captured my joy. When that joy turned to pain, “I cried like a baby.” But guess what? “Everything is really all right.”
The blues is more than a feeling. It’s a state of mind. Since we were “brought over on a ship,” blues has been our sanctuary.
From slaves working in the field to the civil rights movement, blues has been at the center of African Americans’ struggle for equal rights and social justice. In the 1960s, Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road, Jack” and “Lonely Avenue” were repurposed as freedom songs , “Get Your Rights, Jack” and “Fighting for My Rights.”
For me, it’s about more than 12-bar blues. Instead, it’s about raising the bar and empowering ordinary people to make a difference. Indeed, the blues has powered my lifelong activism.
In February 2012, President Barack Obama hosted PBS’s In Performance at the White House: Red, White and Blues. In his remarks, Obama noted:
This is music with humble beginnings, roots in slavery and segregation, a society that rarely treated black Americans with the dignity and respect that they deserved. The blues bore witness to these hard times. And like so many of the men and women who sang them, the blues refused to be limited by the circumstances of their birth.
The music migrated north—from Mississippi Delta to Memphis to my hometown in Chicago. It helped lay the foundation for rock and roll and R&B and hip-hop. It inspired artists and audiences around the world. And as tonight’s performers will demonstrate, the blues continue to draw a crowd. Because this music speaks to something universal. No one goes through life without both joy and pain, triumph and sorrow. The blues gets all of that, sometimes with just one lyric or one note.
In an interview with Bill Moyers, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s former pastor, similarly observed:
Blacks learned how to sing the blues rather than just giving up on life. A guy’s wife walks out on him with his best friend. And he’s crushed. So what does he say? Instead of going out and taking a gun and killing he sings a song “I’m going down to the railroad to lay my poor head on the track. I’m going down to the railroad to lay my poor head on the track. And when the locomotive comes I’m gonna pull my fool head back.
I’m not giving up life over this. That life goes on beyond this. Pain is just for a moment. This whole notion about what we’re going through is only a season. And this came to pass, didn’t come to stay. That’s what the blues do. And that’s what the music tradition does.
When black folks were connected to the blues, we had a plan and we worked that plan. The plan took us from the slave master’s house to claiming victory at the White House, where President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The blues is how we got over. This is turn begs the question: What’s not to love?