Shades of Blue
Mike Donovan | Wednesday, January 31, 2018
My eyes glisten a brighter shade than the usual blueish-gray — a vibrant, misty bluebird over fresh-tracked snow — at the sight of her. But the lens tunnels my vision, collapsing life to another shade of blue, which, come morning, will turn to a dark navy. She felt it too, at the time, and probably still does now. As I sink deeper into the waters of burgeoning guilt, I consider how I might return my eyes and hers to the same blueish-gray at which they started. But nothing happens. Tyler, the Creator’s verse courses through my ears and lulls me into inaction — “Boy, my bedroom floor is a cereal burial, I’m serious / I ate ‘em all, dry boxes, bodies, yeah I caught ‘em / If we’re talking ‘bout real meals ask my stomach / I’ve been in this f—— room so long / My eyeballs are turning to dry wall.”
My blues — a feeling both familiar and excruciating for the bulk of us — soaks into Tyler’s welcoming vernacular, and he offers me peace of mind in exchange. The discourse perfectly renders Ralph Ellison’s pinpoint description: “The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near tragic, near comic lyricism.” Blues run deeper than the wailing tones of an electric guitar and have no obligation to 12 lonely bars.
While the earliest Delta-bluesmen — Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson and the like — could imbue slipshod recordings of the 12 traditional bars with thousand-year-old tears, excessive reproductions without innovation have turned the ragged impulses of the forefathers into dishwater mimicry (see: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club). Ellison’s “impulse” cannot execute its cathartic energies over changing times if the vehicles by which artists lyricize it remain static.
The blues wanders, “swaying to fro on his rickety stool,” as Langston Hughes said, from the Delta (where cracked guitars and scratched voices marked its tones), to the streets (where jazz swung its freely mingling melodic lines) and elsewhere. It possesses expressive motions with such fluidity that Duke Ellington had to respond, “It don’t mean a thing / If it ain’t got that swing,” for the “impulse” thrives in the swing. As the decades beat on, John Coltrane and Parker pushed the swing to its boundaries. Meanwhile, others find the impulse down simpler avenues.
The British (Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin and others) searched in the Delta, while the Detroiters (of Motown fame) embedded their “aching consciousness” into warm, jazz-inflected, pop-oriented tonal majesty. Americans readily swam in the “tracks” of Smokey Robinson’s “tears” and “begged” ever so sweetly for their lost loves to return. Those on the fringes discovered transcendence in the Velvet Underground’s unrefined expositions: “If you close the door, the night could last forever / Leave the wingless night out and drink a toast to never.”
Capital “B” Blues (electric guitars, etc.) exploded, but its blue name clashed with its increasingly gray color. Patti Smith speaks of a man who “started to slip. / Then put his head in the crux of his arm / and he started to drift,” just as the blues did.
When it reemerged, it did so by way of emphatic verse. Public Enemy, with a furious spirit, silenced the stationary souls who believed blues to be dead — “Back, caught you looking for the same thing / It’s a new thing, check out this I bring / Uh oh, the roll below the level because I’m living low / next to the bass” — thus returning blues to the very beginnings, before the delta, in the rhythms of spoken language itself.
The rise of blues via hip hop on the backs of jazz and soul prompted a few gifted individuals (particularly the virtuosic Lauryn Hill) to glue the disparate parts into a single collection. “The world it moves so fast today, the past it seems so far away / And life squeezes so tight that I can’t breath / And every time I try to be, what someone else has thought of me,” Hill discovers.
An artist can never unify the many shades of blue because, fundamentally, they seek to capture the nature of what W.E.B. Du Bois calls “the double consciousness” — an irreducible search for self-identity through the eyes of another. Thus, the shades will change and vary likes those of a flower spawning new and ever more brilliant offspring.