"A genuine bluesman (or woman) also has a sense of humor that goes deep – they don’t take themselves or much of anything except their music too seriously."
Mick Kolassa: The Heart of Blues
Mick "Michissippi Mick" Kolassa is a lifelong musician and hardcore blues fan who also happens to be on the Board of Directors of the Blues Foundation and an active participant in the Memphis Blues scene. Born in Michigan, Mick has lived in Mississippi for over 20 years. His debut album of 2014 "Michissippi Mick", was a labor of love; 100% of the gross proceeds will go to the Blues Foundation, split between two very important programs: the HART Fund and Generation Blues. Mick recorded a blend of original songs and added in a few surprise covers. With songs ranging from the rock-solid electric blues of “Blowtorch Love” to the jug-band style reworking of WC Handy’s classic “Beale Street Blues,” this album gives the listener a taste of many styles of the blues. The album incorporates several blues styles and forms, taking full advantage of Mick’ tastes and experience as well as the talents of the amazing musicians who helped him put this together.
This album was a celebration of the blues, with support by some of the genre’s fastest rising stars. Produced by Jeff Jensen, who also was on lead guitar, Jeff and Mick assembled a dream team with Bill Ruffino on bass, Doug McMinn on drums, and Chris Stephenson on organ. Also contributing their amazing vocal talents are Reba Russell and Redd Velvet. Mick's next album "Ghosts Of The Riverside Hotel" (2015), backed by a solid band consisting of Jeff Jensen on lead guitar, Bill Ruffino on bass, Robinson Bridgeforth on drums and Chris Stephenson on organ, he blows through a dozen tunes, eight of which are his own originals. Like previous blues albums, Jeff Jensen produced Mick’s CD ‘Taylor Made Blues’ (2016) and sweat blood while coordinating the work. "Double Standards" (2017) is a celebration of the greatest blues songs, performed as duets with some of his musical friends. Mick’s love of many blues styles is well known, and this album brings the listener a wide range of blues, from down home to classic Chicago to jazzy to blues rock, Mick and his friends bring you the many faces of the blues. After releasing two critically acclaimed albums of other people’s music, Mick is back to what he loves the most: recording and releasing what he calls his own “Free Range Blues.” This new album, 149 Delta Avenue (2018), covers a multitude of blues styles and sub-genres. Mick has assembled a collection of fine new original songs and three of his favorites written by others. To bring this body of work to life he has brought together a stellar group of musicians that include the Taylor Made Blues Band, and some great guests. For this album Mick teamed with Grammy® Award and BMA winning producer Michael Freeman. Taking full advantage of his tastes and experience and the talents of the amazing musicians who helped him put this together, Mick has once again delivered a real treat for his listeners. As with his previous albums, the proceeds from Double Standards will go to the Blues Foundation’s HART Fund and Generation Blues programs.
What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?
The blues means so many things to me that it is difficult to answer the question. The blues is a musical style that underlies all of American popular music, so it is a critical part of our culture. But it is also an important historic force, the music helped to liberate the spirit of black Americans at a time they weren’t allowed to enjoy much of what this nation had to offer – there is a rich historical message within the blues that reveals that spirit. Finally, the blues community is like a big family – all over the world – so the blues means friends and fun, just great times!
My sound is hard to characterize simply because my musical philosophy is that there is so much good music around we should enjoy it all. So on my album "Michissippi Mick", I had acoustic jug band blues, hard driving electric blues, jazzy blues and classic Memphis blues, as well as Jimmie Rodgers yodeling blues, I just love it all so try to play it all!
149 Delta Avenue (2018), covers a multitude of blues styles and sub-genres. Taken as a whole, this album represents Mick’s love of all styles of blues, as well as his continuing drive to improve as an artist and a songwriter.
From 2014's "Michissippi Mick" to "149 Delta Blues" - How do you think you have changed most as an individual and muician? Where does your creative drive come from?
In that time, I’ve changed most as a musician through just getting a better understanding of what it takes to put music together, understanding that the music of a song is its soundtrack – I’ve learned to use the music to help tell the story of the song. As an individual it has really helped me to understand how much I still need to learn!
As for my creative drive, I don’t know where it comes from – a gift from the gods! I have it and use it. It may be because I’m inquisitive and am interested in almost everything, and creativity is a way to explore new things.
What were the reasons that you started the Roots/Blues/Folk researches and experiments?
I love blues and roots music and love to learn new things so this gives me an opportunity to combine these two loves. By digging in and learning about the people and their lives I can understand and appreciate the music even more. The more I learn about the music the more I want to stretch out and incorporate these things into my own work. SO "Michissippi Mick" has elements of several blues styles as well as country and jazz and even reggae - they are all roots music coming from the same roots!
"The blues is real and their blues is real – they aren’t teenagers talking about puppy love or rock superstar bad boy wannabes who wouldn’t dream of really doing the things they sing about like kicking down doors or carrying a knife - these guys came up through tough times and sing about it without complaining about it." (Mick Kolassa / Photo by Key to Life Photography)
What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas for songs most frequently?
My song ideas usually come from hearing a clever line or playing with a familiar phrase to make it different. Sometimes it may be inspired by a personal experience – like growing older, which is the subject of my song “Time Ain’t on My Side” – but sometimes it’s just an idea and a story I want to tell. I really think that if a song doesn’t tell a story, a complete story, then it’s just a bunch of words and you may as well just play an instrumental. A lot of blues songs I hear today are just a bunch of disjointed rhymes or a collection of clichés, as opposed to stories. Listen to the great blues songs by the masters – Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters told stories in all their songs, so did Wolf, and Son House, and Blind Blake and WC Handy – they all had something to say. That’s what drives my songs – I want to tell a story.
How do you describe your previous album "Double Standards" songbook and sound?
Double Standards is an album of classic blues songs done as duets. I started out by putting together a list of the old blues songs that I thought would work as duets. I knew before starting that some of the duets would be with specific people, such as “600 Pounds of Heavenly Joy” with Sugaray Rayford, we had talked about doing that for years, and Tas Cru and I discussed a good song for us to do together and we picked out “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” And Tullie Brae and I have sung “Rock Me Baby” together for years, so that was a natural choice. I also knew that I would include some very good friends, like Victor Wainwright and Annika Chambers, others joined in just because the timing was great – they were in Memphis and had time to get into the studio. We cut all the basic tracks in December of 2016, with scratch vocals, then as duet partners were available we cut the tracks with them. I made sure that they sang in their own styles then I tried, as best I could, to fit into the way they sang the songs – it was a lot of fun and very rewarding. The sound is classic blues, but not of a specific date, we made sure that the music fit the song and the mood. Jeff Jensen and I are both very picky about that – the music needs to be the soundtrack of the song – it needs to help tell the story. We picked the arrangement and the instruments in the songs to help tell the story.
New album "Double Standards" (2017) is a celebration of the greatest blues songs, performed as duets with some of his musical friends. Mick’s love of many blues styles is well known, and this album brings the listener a wide range of blues, from down home to classic Chicago to jazzy to blues rock, Mick and his friends bring you the many faces of the blues. (Photo by Donna Criswell)
Are there any memories from 'Double Standards' studio sessions which you’d like to share?
Several great memories stand out, like recording Rock Me Baby with Tullie, it was great. We were facing each other in different isolation booths almost teasing each other as we did the song – that really made it come together, and I think you can tell when you hear it. Another was when we did the track for Fever, which I sang with Annika Chambers. When we cut the basic track, the music, what you hear on the album is the first take done live – when we heard that we knew we couldn’t do any better. And I have to say that cutting the vocals for “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” it was amazing to hear the verses people had written to make fun of themselves, great stuff.
Are there any memories from ‘Taylor Made Blues’ studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
Oh, yes! There were several great moments during the sessions that are very memorable. When we were recording the keyboard track for the song “Lungs” Chris Stephenson was playing the B3 organ and he said “I want to play piano on this.” He sat down at the piano and started playing the most amazing jazz/blues piece I have ever heard – it was dreamlike. Jeff Jensen and I just stared at each other smiling, because we knew that Chris had just elevated that song well above what we thought we had – that changed the rest of what we did with it because it opened up the opportunity for Colin John to add his various stringed instruments – like the lap steel guitar and electric baby sitar – to really finish it. Another great memory was recording the song “Keep a Goin”, because it was so much fun. We (me, Deb Landolt, and Reba Russell) sang it over and along with each other laughing the whole time. You can hear them on the record giggling at the end of the song.
"The music sets the mood for the song and MUST be consistent with the story. My philosophy is that the music is not just the sound of the song; it is the soundtrack of the song." (Photo by Donna Criswell)
Is it easier to write and play the blues as you get older? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?
I believe it is easier to write the blues when you get older because your experiences are deeper and your thoughts are better formed. I know for me and many of my “mature” friends we can dig into our own experiences and responses to experiences when writing, where a younger writer usually hasn’t had the range of experiences and feelings to call on or fall back on. I know that I could not have written any of the songs on this new album even ten years ago, because I didn’t see the world the same way as I do today. As for easier to play – that’s a different issue. On one hand the experiences and thinking of an older player help to bring a maturity to the performance, but I have to admit that arthritis certainly does get in the way of playing a guitar!
Some music stars can be fads but the bluesmen are always with us. What means to be Bluesman?
I think that Joe Louis Walker really said it best last year when he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. Joe said that “You get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by selling a lot of records but you get into the Blues Hall of Fame by being credible.” I agree 100% - what gives blues masters staying power is their credibility – you know that Muddy Waters had a hard early life and an amazing later life, and that comes through his songs – the same with BB King. You can feel the pain of a Son House in his music – the lyrics and in the way he attacks his guitar. The blues is about real life and true blues masters – including current ones, not just the superstars like Buddy Guy but also the people like Mem Shannon and Larry Garner out of Louisiana, people in my area like Bill Perry and Terry Bean, there is genuineness to their music that you can’t buy or copy. The blues is real and their blues is real – they aren’t teenagers talking about puppy love or rock superstar bad boy wannabes who wouldn’t dream of really doing the things they sing about like kicking down doors or carrying a knife - these guys came up through tough times and sing about it without complaining about it. A genuine bluesman (or woman) also has a sense of humor that goes deep – they don’t take themselves or much of anything except their music too seriously. Contrast that with the rock stars and pop stars who see themselves as so damned important – the best way to lose a blues audience is to become high and mighty. Credibility doesn’t go out of style and it’s not like makeup that you can paint on. Blues is about credibility.
"The Blues Foundation was formed to help keep the blues alive; to honor and celebrate the music and the people who make it, to promote live music and performances, and to protect the history of the blues." (Photo: Mick Kolassa at Robert Johnson's grave, Money Road, Greenwood, MS)
Why did you think that the Jazz and Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?
I have to go back to the credibility of the blues and the people who create it – blues fans appreciate it, real blues fans know the history (or a lot of it) and know the masters, they know when somebody is stepping up or when they are just copying somebody. When Gary Clark Jr. plays a Jimmy Reed song almost everybody in the audience knows the song and that Jimmy wrote it and sang it, and that Gary is channeling that and carrying the music forward. Justin Bieber doesn’t go out and sing songs by Dion or the Beatles (thankfully) because his audience doesn’t know those songs and wouldn’t appreciate them. Blues fans love the old and the new, especially when they can see (or feel) the connection.
What are some of the most memorable gigs and jams you've had? Which memory makes you smile?
Probably the most memorable jam was when I was still a teenager, jamming one afternoon at a club in Chicago. I was playing bass (not very well) and a skinny English guy with a guitar started to play – and man did he play. I found somebody to take over on bass because I knew I couldn’t keep up. That night I saw him take the stage with his band – Ten Years After, it was Alvin Lee. A close second would be at last year’s Beale Street Mess Around, which is a benefit show the night after the BMAs in Memphis. I was not scheduled to perform, just do some announcing and talk about the Blues Foundation. In the middle of one of my announcements Brandon Santini started to play the harp part to “Leavin Trunk” and before I knew it I was part of the show. Totally unexpected but absolutely enjoyable.
Are there any memories from “Ghosts Of The Riverside Hotel” sessions which you’d like to share with us?
One of my favorite memories was early, when we were first rehearsing the song “One Meatball” Victor Wainwright heard what we were working on as said “I don’t care what happens but I am going to play on that song.” Who could say no to that? Another great memory was the session when we recorded Whiskey Woman, and had Logan and Cole Layman, Tracey Mastelar, Annika Chambers, and a few invited guests all show up at Ardent Studios – it was a madhouse but we made some great things happen and ended up with a very good song.
Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? Are there any memories which you’d like to share with us?
Frankly, meeting Mud Morganfield and Howlin Wolf’s daughters on the same day was probably the most memorable meeting, simply because in my book they are royalty.
I’ve had a chance to meet so many great artists and blues people, but I think the ones I am cherishing the most are the times I get to see young kids who are really playing the blues, keeping it going. That charges me up. Seeing kids like Kingfish Ingram, Logan Laymen, and Carson Diersing playing with passion and feeling just makes me smile and know everything is gonna be fine! (Mick Kolassa / Photo by Key to Life)
What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?
For me the thing I would hate to lose the most is the small venue – juke joints that are dark and small, very personal and intimate. Great blues is made in places like that. Classic places like Red’s in Clarksdale are going fast. We have some clubs in and around Memphis that have a juke feel, and those little places where you can reach out and touch the people sitting at their tables, that’s where blues came from – the old jukes and house parties. When you put blues into a big theater there can be some great music, but it’s so much less personal. I just hope we can make the economics of the small club keep working. When you are in a small club when the band takes a break they can spread out and sit down with the audience, share a beer and a story before going back to playing. That kind of intimacy is something you don’t see in a lot of other musical styles and I would hate to see that go away.
I’m still optimistic about the future of the blues, as I mentioned there are some great young artists coming up. At the same time I am concerned that the blues could become too white – simply because the blues came out of the experiences and sensibilities of black Americans. As a Caucasian I can love the blues, enjoy and cherish the blues, but I don’t think I can ever “own” the blues simply because neither I nor my ancestors had those experiences of denial of privileges and basic rights from which the blues came. To understand the blues – not just like the music but understand it – you need to realize that the music was created by people who were not allowed to say or do many things that so many people take for granted. The blues came out of a culture that, even though the people were beaten down and denied many things they never gave up hope, or their sense of humor, or their dignity.
Frankly, that dignity still comes out in a lot of the music but some of what passes for blues these days – the nine minute guitar solos that make your head spin are a pet peeve of mine – just doesn’t have the dignity of real blues. An instrumental section of a song can really add to the emotions and intensity of a tune, but if you need more than 24 or 36 bars to show all your stuff off you’ve left the song behind. As far as I’m concerned you might just as well be playing In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida as pretending you’re playing blues. There are some amazingly talented guitar slingers out there, but blues isn’t about guitar gods, it’s about one person dealing with what life hands them. The music and musicality should support that but today a lot of it overshadows the song.
"Still, blues is a very integrated musical style and community, with a lot of love and respect flowing in all directions, and in the long run Blues music can and will build more bridges across any racial divides." (Mick Kolassa outside of Riverside Hotel, Clarksdale, MS / Photo by Donna Criswell)
What touched (emotionally) you from the Riverside Hotel legend? Have you ever see the “ghosts” of hotel?
I haven’t seen ghosts at the Riverside but I feel them every time I am there. To stand in the room where Bessie Smith died or to sleep in the room where Muddy Waters lived for a period of time is a spiritual event. To sit there and think about the amazing talent that stayed there, this is where Robert Nighthawk made his home, where John Lee Hooker stayed, where Ike Turner worked out the arrangement for Rocket 88 and gave birth to Rock and Roll. So much happened there and to sit and imagine what it would have been like just to be there and listen as these giants talked about their lives, played music together, and shared their experiences would have been amazing.
If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
I would have more people turn out to live music shows so artists could make a decent living. Everything seems to be stacking up against the blues artist (or any musician) who is trying to perform and survive. Artists could handle the loss of revenue from music streaming (which basically steals their music from them) is more people would come out to shows.
What is the impact of the Blues music and culture to the racial and socio-cultural implications?
That’s a tough question, because it can go so many different ways. As more white people have come to love and play the blues some of it has become “less black” and more rock-based. This can make it less appealing to black audiences and drive the music further from its origins. A basic problem we have had is that many younger blacks tend to see blues music as a reminder of a past they would like to forget; instead of seeing it for the liberating force it was they see it as a reminder of darker days. Still, blues is a very integrated musical style and community, with a lot of love and respect flowing in all directions, and in the long run Blues music can and will build more bridges across any racial divides.
You are also a Board of Directors of the Blues Foundation and an active member of the HART Fund and Generation Blues programs. Would you tell a little bit about that? What is the relation between music and activism? Photo by Donna Criswell
The Blues Foundation was formed to help keep the blues alive; to honor and celebrate the music and the people who make it, to promote live music and performances, and to protect the history of the blues. The Foundation is probably best known for the Blues Music Awards and the International Blues Challenge, and you will soon be hearing a lot more about the Blues Hall of Fame – which we are about to start building in Memphis. But we also have other programs and the two you mentioned: Generation Blues and the HART Fund, are very important. Through Generation Blues we provide scholarships for young musicians, under 21, to attend different blues camps. The program is getting larger every year and we have had some amazing kids receive scholarships. Two that I mentioned – Logan Laymen and Carson Deirsing – are still out their working on their skills, learning from some very accomplished artists. Carson sat in with the band at the recent release party for my previous album and did a great job.
The HART Fund (HART is an acronym for Handy Artists Relief Trust) is a fund through which we help blues artists and their families through tough times by helping with medical or funeral expenses. We been able to help artists and their family members get chemotherapy for cancer treatment, get new dentures or glasses, and over other health costs they couldn’t afford. We’ve also paid for the funeral expenses of many, whose families could not cover the costs of burial. My albums also comes in here because 100% of the gross sales – every penny – from the album will go to the HART Fund and to Generation Blues to help keep those programs going and growing. People can support these programs by donating to the Blues Foundation or by purchasing or downloading my albums.
What is the legacy of the Blues Foundation? What has made you laugh from your experience as Board of Directors?
I am so proud of what we were able to do during my time on the Board, all of our events and programs have grown, and in growing and getting stronger we have been able to be of even more value to blues artists and the rest of the blues community. By building a stairway to blues, from Generation Blue to the IBC and the Blues Music Awards, the Foundation has established a framework that will help the blues grow and thrive, and these programs themselves have become major elements of the Blues Community, which is very special. As for what has made me laugh. The biggest laughs have always come when I encounter people who assume that the Foundation is this huge and powerful organization when, in fact, it’s about 5 full time employees and a whole bunch of volunteers. When people see what the Foundation can to they almost refuse to believe its really as small as it is. Just think what the Foundation could do if t had 20 employees!
Which is the relationship of new generation with the blues? Which was the best moment of your career as Vice Chairman of The Blues Foundation?
I am honored to serve as Vice Chairman of the Board of the Blues Foundation. The best part of it is in being able to help move things forward – to help keep them going. AS for the best moment, that is yet to come. The best part of it is in being able to help move things forward – to help keep them going. AS for the best moment, that is yet to come. In 2014 we broke ground for the new Blues Hall of Fame permanent location, and early this year (2015) opened. The day the Hall of Fame opened, with blues greats there to cut the ribbon and received the honors and attention they deserve – was my best moment as Vice Chair!
Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..? (Photo: Mick Kolassa, 1977)
That one is pretty easy – January 7th, 1954, at Chess studios in Chicago, sitting in the studio as Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Willie Dixon, Otis Spann, Jimmy Rogers and Elgin Evans play and record Hootchie Cootchie Man – the most iconic and nearly perfect blues song in history. That would be heaven to see and hear! I know that a lot of people might see that as too easy, because they see the song as almost a cliché, but to me that song embodies the spirit of the blues. It’s funny and filled with braggadocio, it has an amazing hook that is infectious, it calls back to all the wonderful cultural icons of the Delta and talk about talent! I don’t really want to hear other people play it in a bar but I would love to have been there for that session – I’m drooling just thinking about it!
What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues around the States? Do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?
Just a night (February 27th, 2014) I was in Clarksdale to see a show. On stage were Bill “Howlin Mad” Perry, Terry “Harmonica” Bean, Bill Abel and Jeff Jensen, 4 artists of ages spanning probably 45 years between the youngest and oldest. Four different styles of blues and they played like angels. They swapped licks and played songs for each other and the crowd went crazy. Nothing rehearsed, not even a list of songs, they just played. That’s the way blues has always been played and it always will be. You can bring in a West Coast jazz-oriented guitar player and sit them down with somebody who only plays one chord “hill country” blues and within two minutes they will be making great music together. Because there is a common language – in the way of all the songs and artists who came before them – they can find those spots where they can play together and also find those spots where one should lay back and let the other go for it. Every January several thousand people gather in Memphis for the International Blues Challenge (IBC). Some people have been coming for years, coming back to listen to blues and catch up with friends. It’s a weeklong blues party that shows how strong those connections are – connections across the world and across time, as the music of Blind Lemmon Jefferson is played alongside the music being created today. It just feels like magic!
Which is the moment that you change your life most? What´s been the highlights in your life so far? Happiness is…
As I look back on my life I hav3 gained more from my failures and bad decisions than I have from my successes and good decisions, so I’m not sure that I would change anything. I have learned so much over the years – although sometimes it takes a long time for the lessons to sink in. I’ve been very fortunate to have spent the last 4 decades with a wonderful lady, who has always wanted me to follow my heart.
When I wanted to give up a very high paying corporate job and move to Mississippi so I could be closer to the blues she agreed, and that decision, which we made 25 years ago, has made a huge difference in my life. It allowed me to get to know where and how the blues emerged, to get to know some of the people who have been important in developing the blues and keeping it going. To have the chance to meet, get to know, and sometimes play with people like T Model Ford, many Burnsides and Kimbroughs, Bill Perry, and so many younger but deep blues artists is really special. To have been able to spend many nights at the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale, where Bessie Smith died, where Muddy and Wolf and John Lee stayed and where Ike Turner worked out “Rocket 88” is almost religious. These experiences have given me a deep appreciation and better understanding of the blues, but also a responsibility to do whatever I can to help others love and appreciate them. That, absolutely, affects the way I write and play.
And the blues is more than the music, the blues is also a family – an amazing family of artists and fans who are all friends, people I know I can count on and people I will always try to help. So all of that combines to let me say that Happiness is the blues – all of it. (Photo by Donna Criswell)
"First and foremost a blues song must tell a story or it just isn’t blues. There is a classic pattern of sorts for blues, in that you spend the first part of the song building up tension and the last part relieving or eliminating the tension. The poetry aspect is interesting because many people treat their songs like poems and work hard to find rhymes – often changing a thought to find a rhyme."
What has been the hardest obstacle for you to overcome as a person and as artist and has this helped you become a better blues musician?
That’s an interesting question, I don’t know if I have faced real obstacles – other than stones I have placed in my own pathway. There are many things that I have learned, or realized, that have really helped me to improve as an artist, performer, and songwriter. One was to just realize that you have to be an entertainer no matter how good you might be as a musician. I did a lot of acting when I was younger and a few years ago realized that every time I sang a song on stage I was acting it out, using my hands and eyes and facial expressions to help tell the story – and audiences really seem to appreciate that. I also realized that you have to do that in the recording studio as well if you want the song to sound right. Instead of trying to make it musically perfect I try to make it emotionally genuine. Along with that I also came to realize that the more you think about what you are doing when you are performing the worse you perform – when I stopped worrying about making mistakes on stage my performances got better – more relaxed and genuine.
What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the blues circuits?
I laugh a lot so that’s a hard question to answer, but I both laughed and was touched emotionally when at my CD "Michissippi Mick" release party I was on stage and Watermelon Slim interrupted me from the floor and led everyone in singing “Happy Birthday” to me – because it was also my birthday. To have that happen then, and to be serenaded by Watermelon Slim – touched me while I laughed a lot!
"The blues is a musical style that underlies all of American popular music, so it is a critical part of our culture. But it is also an important historic force, the music helped to liberate the spirit of black Americans at a time they weren’t allowed to enjoy much of what this nation had to offer – there is a rich historical message within the blues that reveals that spirit." (Photo: Mick Kolassa & James Cotton, 2005)
What is the relationship between: literature (poetry) and Blues lyrics? What are the lines that connect: music & poetry?
First and foremost a blues song must tell a story or it just isn’t blues. There is a classic pattern of sorts for blues, in that you spend the first part of the song building up tension and the last part relieving or eliminating the tension. The poetry aspect is interesting because many people treat their songs like poems and work hard to find rhymes – often changing a thought to find a rhyme. Free verse poetry freed to poet but a lot of songwriters are slave to rhymes. I can usually find a rhyme for a line in a song but when I can’t I take the advice of the late Townes Van Zandt, who said “never sacrifice the idea for the rhyme.” That’s a piece of advice I pass along to other writers all the time, and in blues I believe this is critically important because the story in a blues song is critical, listen to the songs of Willie Dixon, Robert Johnson, Eddie Boyd, and other great blues songwriters, and you find a story in every one. Listening to a lot of newer songs you just hear a lot of rhymes and very familiar phrases. If contemporary blues songwriters would pay more attention to song craft I believe we would all be rewarded for it.
As for connecting the lines and the music, that’s another critical part of blues that I believe is too often overlooked today. The story and the main message of the song must fit with the musical style. I have some good friends who once recorded a version of Son House’s “Death Letter Blues” that was so upbeat and swinging that – even though the music was great, it simply tore the heart out of the song. Once on a live radio showed I showed how silly it was to use the wrong musical style in a song by singing the lines to 32:20 blues to the tune and rhythm of “T-Bone Shuffle;” even though they use the same chords and structure, they just don’t fit together. The music sets the mood for the song and MUST be consistent with the story. My philosophy is that the music is not just the sound of the song; it is the soundtrack of the song.
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