BLUES: Philosophy for Everyone – Thinking Deep About Feeling Low.
Jesse R. Steinberg & Abrol Fairweather (eds.) Wiley-Blackwell (2012) UK; 211 pp. ISBN 978-0-470-65680-8 (pbk) £12.99
What we have here is a collection of seventeen academically-oriented essays by mainly academic philosophers regarding blues music, believe it or not. Supposedly. The book’s sub-title probably gives the game away regarding the main points-of-view being waved about which become more apparent with the titles of the four subsections of the tome, plus the essay titles themselves. The former are: “How Blue is Blue? The Metaphysics of the Blues”; “The Sky is Crying: Emotion, Upheaval, and the Blues”; “If It Weren’t for Bad Luck, I Wouldn’t Have No Luck at All: Blues and the Human Condition”; “The Blue Light Was My Baby and the Red Light Was My Mind: Religion and Gender in the Blues”.
The book’s Forward is by Bruce Iglauer and is almost the sanest and most grounded in blues reality bit of writing in the whole book from one with true experiences of decades in the blues trenches. The seventeen essays are as follows, with my brief comments in brackets. Part 1 – “Talkin’ To Myself Again: A Dialogue on the Evolution of the Blues” by Joel Rudinow [a three-way conversation with himself!!! Honest, I couldn’t make that up!!!]; “Reclaiming the Aura: B.B. King in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Ken Ueno [B.B. King vs Walter Benjamin]; “Twelve-Bar Zombies: Wittgensteinian Reflections” by Wade Fox & Richard Greene [including the “authenticity” conundrum]; “The Blues as Cultural Expression” by Phillip Jenkins [“Can blue men sing the whites?…”]. Part 2 – “The Artistic Transformation of Trauma, Loss and Adversity in the Blues” by Alan M. Steinberg, Robert Pynoos, and Robert Abramovitz [the expected blues’ sole focus is trauma and tragedy]; “Sadness As Beauty: Why it Feels So Good to Feel So Blue” by David C. Drake [blues is aesthetic catharsis]; “Anguished Art: Coming Through the Dark to the Light the Hard Way” by Ben Flanagan & Owen Flanagan [blues is cathartic tragedy]; “Blues and Catharsis” by Roopin Majithia [Aristotelian approach and kind of interesting – actually the sole mention of dance as a use for the music!]. Part 3 – Why Can’t We Be Satisfied: Blues is Knownin’ How to Cope” by Brian Domino [blues: Epictetus, and the Stoics]; “Doubt and the Human Condition: Nobody Loves Me But My Momma… and She Might be Jivin’ Too” by Jesse Steinberg [blues”: Descartes, and skepticism]; “Blues and Emotional Trauma: Blues as Musical Therapy” by Robert D. and Benjamin A. Stolorow [blues as therapeutic response to trauma]; “Suffering, Spirituality, and Sensuality: Religion” by Joseph J. Lynch [blues and Marx, Buddha, and Kierkegard]; “Worrying the Line: Blues as Story, Song, and Prayer” by Kimberly R. Connor [Robert Johnson to Brother Will Hairston… very confused piece of writing]. Part 4 – “Lady Sings the Blues: A Woman’s Perspective on Authenticity” by Meghan Winsby [“having the blues” = blues music, and “woman is the nigger of the world” attitude]; “Even White Folks get the Blues” by Douglas Langston & Nathaniel Langston [more “can blue men sing the whites?”]; “Distributive History: Did Whites Rip-Off the Blues?” by Michael Neumann [answer: no – this is a well written and well thought out piece]; “Whose Blues: Class, Race, and Gender in American Vernacular Music” by Ron Bombardi [Plato vs Aristotle again – a decent piece]. There are then a couple of pages listing “Philosophical Blues Songs” [honest!! I couldn’t make this up, either!!!] that is full of mistakes of attribution, plus background notes on the many contributors, but no index of any kind.
I could quit right here and have covered it all adequately, but I’ll comment more on some of the mainstays put forth. In all cases (?), the authors have established an intellectual trope beforehand and stamped it as “given”. They then go into the music and lyrics with their accepted wisdom baggage and prove that such things actually exist. This is bad science/scholarship, a silly kind of circular logic. One ought to immerse one’s self in that which is being examined and then winkle out possible generalizations later. Here the utilized generalizations are concrete “givens” before hand, rather than growing organically from the data/experiences. To cite Howard Zinn, “in the inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in [written] history”, there is always a “limited extent that any one person, however he or she strains, can ‘see’ history from the standpoint of others.”* The collected authors here all have intellectual axes to grind and try to fit what they already think correct with examples that uphold their points-of-view. This is backwards at best, as I have already mentioned: one should try and find generalizations from the data, not fit the data to pre-existing generalizations.
The book’s subtitle hits many of the points of accepted wisdom that abound in the world at large regarding blues as a musical genre: sadness and misery über alles regarding the songs and their “stories”; assumption of solely autobiographical lyrical content in blues; personal and/or universal catharsis as the main function of blues performance/creation; melancholia is the sole feeling expressed with/by the music. This list could be much longer, but what’s the point of continuing. In their acceptance of such pre-existing generalizations, the authors are perpetrating a racial stigmatization of African Americans that comes out of their (the authors) mainly White and mainly male perspectives on another’s cultural expression. How they think they might behave under certain circumstances is not necessarily how others would behave – to believe that is rather presumptuous, not to mention racist.
Academe is a sheltered life, as I well know from personal experience – I suspect that these writers, no matter how much they feel they have been immersed in “the blues” as players or listeners, are lacking certain quelques choses in their direct experiences of the music which is the ne plus ultra of it all. All too often in these pages they refer to blues performances they have experienced as being part of a “blues concert”. That is definitely a White folks kind of performance/venue that has nothing to do with the “real”, the “authentic” (and diminishing) Black consumption of the music by its Black originators. I wonder how many of the writers have spent time in southern juke joints on a Saturday night and been the only White person there; how many have attended African American GOGIC church services under similar circumstances; how many have been to Harlem’s Apollo Theater before it was hip and the audience was 99.999% Black; how many have been an invited guest at African American house parties, urban or rural; how many have been to gospel “quartet” Programs or celebratory fraternal organization dances that were held in a hall in the ghetto? My guess would be somewhere between very few to none.
The question of “authenticity” is a popular one for those in the ivory towers to mull over rather than be meaningfully limned, as I recollect from folklore school. Each person has an authentic life and whatever “works” for them is what is really authentic, not some aesthetic imposed from the outside by non-members of the culture (Neumann’s piece gets the closest to that point of view). To be a part of the total context for blues performances takes more than a concert ticket; it involves the “use” of the music by its organic audience and performers. Nobody here refers to the late Albert Murray’s wonderfully contextualizing book, STOMPING THE BLUES, for example, in their references and bibliographic notes**. What is referred to constantly are bits of the commonly “accepted wisdoms” about blues musical performances that are etic rather than emic, which are neither truly accepted nor possessing great wisdom. The true context of the creation and consumption of the genre is ignored by almost all the contributors, relying on their own personal experience(s) for data. And spending too much time cramming angels onto the head of a pin.
There are also any number of mis-attributions or mis-hearing of lyrics in the texts in addition to the above, plus other clangers – not a book to purchase, methinks. I found a copy in the local library in Sutherland, and that is what I review here. You have been warned.
* Howard Zinn – A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES: 1492 – PRESENT: HarperCollins (2003 edition) NY. p. 10.
** One writer has read Murray’s book THE OMNI-AMERICANS, though; a good beginning, but no more than that.
Peter B. Lowry