A Time For The Blues


Christone “Kingfish” Ingram

(Photo: Rory Doyle)

If ever there were a time for the blues, it was 2020. In the United States, more than 300,000 people died, and many times more were sickened, by COVID-19, a disease that disproportionately affects people of color.

In its wake, the economy collapsed. Millions lost work, businesses failed, entire industries were shuttered. Although billionaires managed to get richer, the poor and middle class struggled to put food on the table, with long lines at food banks from coast to coast.

The nation endured a deeply divisive election—a fight that continued long after the votes had been counted.

In 2020, the slayings of Ahmad Aubrey (Feb. 23), Breonna Taylor (March 13) and George Floyd (May 25)—and the investigation of police procedures in each incident—led to global outrage. The Black Lives Matter movement pushed civil rights back into the spotlight, sparking protests around the world and making the issue of racial injustice more pressing than it had been since the 1960s.

Any of these events would be enough to inspire several dozen blues songs, and no doubt they have. But because the pandemic’s collateral damage has included the cancellation of festivals and the closing of clubs and concert halls, there’s nowhere for anyone to play or hear those songs.

It’s enough to give the blues the blues.

“Aw, man,” said guitarist and singer Christone “Kingfish” Ingram. “All of this plays to what the blues is: hard times, people getting murdered, life and hardships and whatnot.”

Kingfish, as everyone calls him, was sitting at home in Friar’s Point, Mississippi, a small town on the Mississippi River just north of the Clarksdale, where blues pioneer Robert Johnson once lived. Kingfish was born in Clarksdale, and apart from being on tour, he has spent all of his 21 years in the region.

He had planned for 2020 to be a busy one. Alligator Records released his debut album, Kingfish, in May 2019 to near universal acclaim. Powered by searing guitar work and his preternaturally mature vocals, it topped the Billboard Blues chart, was nominated for a Grammy and was named Album of the Year by the Blues Foundation, one of five Blues Music Awards he took home. Extensive touring was on tap for 2020, including a second jaunt with the rock band Vampire Weekend, but the pandemic put a halt to all that.

“At first, the break was cool,” he said over Zoom, wearing a black jersey emblazoned with “KNGFSH,” lettered in the style of the classic Run-DMC logo. “But I’m kind of getting like everybody else: I want to be back on the road.” Thanks to the occasional streamed performance, he’s doing better than a lot of musicians in Coahoma County. “Clarksdale looks kind of like a ghost town,” Kingfish said. “They’re slowly trying to build up by doing shows here and there, but it’s just not the same.

“You need that crowd to connect,” he added. “You need that crowd to be there so you can tell their story to them.”

It’s a line that resonates: You can tell their story to them. Unlike rock, where the emphasis is most often on self-revelation or a singer’s singular persona, the blues puts the emphasis on shared experience, allowing both artist and audience to transcend pain. “The blues is about life, and it’s a universal thing,” Kingfish said, matter-of-factly. “Somewhere, somebody has the blues.” He chuckled. “It’s always going to be relatable.”

“It is community. It’s a family,” said singer Ruthie Foster, over the phone from her home in San Marcos, Texas. “You run into people who actually cook for you,” she explained. “Somewhere in California, I think, this couple brought in this casserole, and they brought in cornbread. They didn’t have to do that. We had food in the greenroom, but no, we were family to them, and that was another level. We’re all in this together.”

From its earliest days, the blues has been communal music, a way of bonding through song in order to transcend the difficulties of life. When the genre originated, there were work songs and field hollers, but also church services, where music was central to the experience of being lifted up beyond this earthly plane. And though this music was intended for the Black community that was making it, it often attracted other listeners along the way. While researching his concert presentation Piedmont Blues, jazz pianist Gerald Clayton discovered that, in the 1920s and ’30s, a lot of the music scene in the Piedmont region—particularly in North Carolina—was centered around the tobacco industry.

“I learned about the process of de-stemming tobacco leaves,” Clayton said, over the phone from his home in Los Angeles. “There would be mostly African-American women, who would sing hymns while they worked—something like three or four hundred women singing at the same time in a factory. Crowds would gather outside of these factories and just listen to that music.”

It wasn’t just the sound that attracted them, but also the music’s emotional current. For many, the great paradox of the blues is that it’s so upbeat. “Somebody said to me when I came to Chicago, ‘Oh, you listen to the blues to get rid of the blues,’” said Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer, in a Zoom call from his company’s offices in Chicago. “I’ve even seen this work when people speak foreign languages, and don’t even understand all the lyrics. They can still feel that release.”

At its best, the blues doesn’t simply get rid of sadness, worries and woe; it provides a sense of catharsis, in which those emotions are not just lifted but transformed, providing the listener with joy and hope. And that stems from a different kind of skill than mere music making.

Saxophonist Bobby Watson draws heavily on the blues when he plays jazz, and has on occasion shared bills with blues bands, most notably in 2008, when he toured with blues star Joe Louis Walker under the aegis of the Thelonious Monk Institute. “Part of what makes me creative is playing different repertoire, different selections during a performance, and each one having its own challenge, compositionally, musically, aesthetically,” he said, over the phone from his home in Lenexa, Kansas.

“But blues, it challenges you in other ways. Instead of trying to be creative, and not repeat yourself, the challenge is coming right back to the same song form—maybe at a different tempo, maybe in a different key. But it really makes you dig deep, to find out what you have to do to express yourself, to keep yourself interested, and to keep the listener interested as well.”

Watson believes there’s a different kind of depth to the blues. “Once you start understanding the blues, you can feel a larger arc of life,” he said. “The blues can give you wisdom. Part of what it takes for somebody to be able to play the blues is that they have to gain a certain level of wisdom. And if they start younger, they’re going to get it sooner.

“Growing up in the church, you have certain songs that you grew up with. But you don’t really
start to understand the meaning of them until you’ve had the trials and tribulations—challenges, obstacles, some twists and turns to navigate—that make you get creative to figure out the solution. It’s something that causes you to have patience, or faith. These things have to become something that carries weight in your life.

“Blues is like that: Even if you grow up with it, you still have to grow into it to really blossom.”

That was certainly true for Foster, whose latest release, Live At The Paramount, is nominated for a Grammy in the category Best Contemporary Blues Album. “I got into blues so young, as a teenager,” she said. “I got into playing Lightnin’ Hopkins, more acoustic-style blues. And then in college, that’s when I got into Bobby Bland, and fronting a band.” At that point, it wasn’t that she identified with Bland’s sense of heartbreak and romantic grief. “It was just about the music. Music was cool. And the hang.”

As for the feel, like Watson said, it was something she grew into. “I remember coming out of my second serious relationship, and just having such a tough time,” she recalled. “Dealing with splitting up, and having a kid between us. I remember putting on a blues [radio station], and T-Bone Walker came on. I don’t even remember the song, but it just went right through me, and that was it. It was like another level of realizing this is why I love this music.

“I mean, I was in the worst place ever—feeling guilt, not feeling good about who I was and where I ended up, and what am I to do about my kid? And then this music just pulled me up. It got me off the floor, and I was able to just take one step, and then another step. You just keep playing the music until you go from crawling to running. That’s what blues has been for me.”

Long a vehicle for expressing personal anguish, the blues also has been a vehicle for topical songs—a tradition that continued in 2020.

“I saw the video of George Floyd being killed,” said guitarist Dave Specter, referring to the horrific incident in Minneapolis. “It was one of the most disturbing videos of police brutality I’d ever seen. ... I just was overcome.”

A Chicago native and a fixture on the city’s blues scene since the early ’90s, Specter decided to express his feelings in music, and began to compose “The Ballad Of George Floyd.” The haunting lyrics include these lines: “Under a knee of hatred, George Floyd met his terrible end/ Four-hundred years of the same hate and bigotry yet again/ Blind men in power pouring gasoline on a burning fire. ... We can’t let this happen again/ It’s time to bring about a change.”

“I wrote most of the song just a few days after I saw the video,” Specter said via Zoom, from his home on the city’s North Side. “And then I wrote the bridge probably a couple of weeks later.”

After cutting a demo, it occurred to Specter that vocalist and harmonica wizard Billy Branch would be a perfect duo partner for the song. At 69, Branch is one of the elder statesmen of the Chicago scene, having recorded with the likes of Willie Dixon, Koko Taylor, David “Honeyboy” Edwards and Syl Johnson. “I’ve known Billy since I first broke into the Chicago blues scene 35 years ago,” Specter said. “I met him first as a fan, and then got to know him as a musician.”

Specter undoubtedly grasped the symbolic power of having a white musician and a Black musician perform the song as a duet.

“Dave said, ‘Hey, man, I’ve got this song about George Floyd.’ And he sent it to me,” recalled Branch, joining the videoconference interview from his home on the South Side of Chicago. “He asked me if I’d be interested in collaborating with him on it, and I jumped at the chance. It hit home, really. It captured the essence of the moment.”

Branch found the video of Floyd’s death “very traumatic” to watch. “Here, you’re seeing, not only in broad daylight—but in front of a crowd of people—what seems to be an institutionalized murder. I mean, here’s a man begging, literally begging, ‘Just, could you please ease your knee off my neck?’” It was, he said, “like watching some bizarre horror movie.” But what made it worse, he noted, was that “from an African American male perspective, there was also this underlying feeling that that could have been me.”

Protest songs are hardly unusual in blues. “It’s always had that protest vein to it,” Kingfish stressed. “There were all the Jim Crow blues songs by Josh White [1914–’69]. Howlin’ Wolf did a song called ‘Coon On The Moon.’ All that, for sure.”

“The Ballad Of George Floyd” wasn’t the only 2020 blues release to chronicle contentious current events. Shemekia Copeland’s ninth album, Uncivil War (Alligator), is a collection of politically charged blues songs that addresses everything from gun violence (“Apple Pie And A .45”) to gender identity (“She Don’t Wear Pink”), to America’s divisive politics and history of racism (“Uncivil War”). The program also includes a tune about economic inequality, “Money Makes You Ugly,” featuring brilliant guitar work from guest musician Kingfish.

The album offers a devastating snapshot of 2020’s hot-button issues, and what makes it all the more amazing is that it was recorded the year before. “Call me psychic or psycho, I don’t know, but this record was finished at the end of 2019,” Copeland said, in a Zoom call from her new home in Oceanside, California. “It was supposed to come out early summer, but then with the pandemic, we weren’t sure we’re going to put it out at all. Then we realized that this record needs to be out and it needs to get heard right now.”

Although there’s a clichéd notion that blues songs rarely stray beyond romantic laments, the blues always have taken any kind of trouble as their chief topic. “Culturally, that’s how it all started,” Copeland said. “That’s why they called it the blues, because they were talking about uncomfortable subjects. I mean, we’ve always been through hell, and that has not changed. It’s just more people are getting to see it.”

Perhaps the most powerful track on Uncivil War is John Hahn and Will Kimbrough’s composition “Clotilda’s On Fire,” which addresses slavery’s long-lasting impact on America. Although the transatlantic slave trade officially ended in 1808, the hunger of plantation owners for new bodies continued. In 1860, an Alabama plantation owner named Timothy Meaher sent his schooner Clotilda to the Kingdom of Dahomey (present-day Benin), with the goal of purchasing 125 captives. To thwart possible prosecution, after the enslaved people had been delivered, Meaher had the ship burned, and it sank off the Alabama coast—where it rested undiscovered until 2018. Some of the people brought over from Africa were alive well into the 20th century. In 1927 and in 1931, author Zora Neale Hurston interviewed one of the survivors, Oluale Kossola (aka Cudjo Lewis), and later began work on a manuscript; it was published as the 2018 book Barracoon (Amistad Press).

“That song gets me, and it gives me goose pimples because of the [line], ‘We’re still living with her ghost,’” Copeland said, her voice heavy with emotion. “That’s what bothers me. We shouldn’t be still living with this horrible, horrible thing that happened. But it feels like we’ll never move on from it, because you first have to accept that it happened. Then you must do something about it. And that has not happened in this country, which is why it keeps rearing its ugly head.”

Can the blues be a force for change? Will Black voices be heard?

“I wonder,” said Specter. “The audience is by far made up of an older white [crowd], many of whom are probably not terribly progressive.”

“Just say it like it is: They are Trumpsters,” Branch interjected with a laugh, referring to Trump’s supporters. “You’ve got all this happening, and as Dave just said, most of our audience are older white people. Even as Black artists, that is our audience. And if you really express your political views, sometimes you are met with a lot of pushback. The typical response is, ‘Shut up and play. That’s your job. Play music, make me dance, and make me smile. ’”

Like the world it documents, the blues is always changing. In much the same way that rural, acoustic Mississippi blues morphed into the raucous, electric whomp of Chicago blues, today’s younger blues musicians are open to new sounds and fresh approaches. Take the mohawk-sporting artist known as Fantastic Negrito, who won the Best Contemporary Blues Grammy for his 2018 album, Please Don’t Be Dead (Cooking Vinyl). His music owes as much to George Clinton and Prince as it does to Howlin’ Wolf or Albert King. On the new album Kindred Spirits (Tricki-Woo), the sibling duo Larkin Poe presents an acoustic, slide-heavy sound that works as well on covers of Post Malone and Lenny Kravitz as it does on tunes by Robert Johnson and Bo Diddley.

And even though Kingfish was mocked by hip-hop heads in middle school for being obsessed with something as old as the blues, he sees a blues-meets-hip-hop hybrid as not only inevitable, but natural. “Hip-hop is the great-great-grandchild of the blues,” he said. “All of it is Black music. And what people don’t get when it comes to rap is, the same way Son House was telling his story, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, that’s exactly what they’re doing—but they’re doing it in their form.”

In 2018, Kingfish enjoyed a guest spot alongside hip-hop legend Rakim on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series. He also interpreted the blues classics “The Thrill Is Gone” and “I Put A Spell On You” for the soundtrack album Luke Cage: Season Two, a project centered around the work of hip-hop artists Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge.

“One day, I hope to see what can I bring to the table as far as a blues and hip-hop connection,” Kingfish said.

The merger of hip-hop and blues may or may not be the music’s future, but streaming definitely is, according to Alligator’s Iglauer. “It’s shifting partly because we’re losing all those sales at gigs, which were, for Alligator, close to 10 percent of its annual income,” he said. “At the same time, streaming is growing. It’s not growing like it is with pop music, because the streaming services are basically pop-oriented. But the great thing about streaming is now the entire Alligator catalog is available to stream in China. It’s available to stream in India. It’s available to stream across Africa.”

Even better, the youth orientation of streaming services has introduced some younger listeners to blues artists. Iglauer cited some listener demographics from Spotify: More than half of listenership for established acts like Shemekia Copeland or Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials was over 45 years old. Kingfish’s biggest audience, however, was the 28 to 34 demographic, followed by 35- to 44-year-olds.

Still, the biggest cloud on the horizon for the blues—for all forms of music—is the pandemic. “I call it the bad dream that hasn’t gone away yet,” said guitarist/vocalist and ZZ Top cofounder Billy Gibbons, over the phone from Los Angeles. At the time of the interview, he was days away from flying to Austin, Texas, for his annual holiday gig called the Jungle Show. In previous years, it’s been a two-night engagement at the legendary blues venue Antone’s, but the 2020 version was a single performance, documented via livestream. “We’re going to give it a shot, and everyone’s excited—we can work together.”

For Gibbons, live performances are essential. “You know, the bands want to get to work,” he said. “The managers want their bands to work. The booking agents want the bands to work.” And, of course, the audience yearns to attend concerts again.

Gibbons mentioned that singer/guitarist Jimmy Vaughan recently had played a trio show in a huge hall in Texas that, thanks to pandemic restrictions, allowed entry to only 75 patrons. Gibbons asked him what it was like: “He said, ‘We couldn’t see past the front row. We just carried on like the room was packed, and it was great. The enthusiasm was in the air.’ So, I took that as pretty indicative of just how ravenous people are to get back into being entertained.

“Everybody’s waiting for the curtain to rise,” he added. “In the wake of these last eight months, there’s been a lot of introspection. Just about every sector of every society around the globe has a new appreciation for what was and what is. When the sun rises, it’ll fall on a different landscape—which I think is a good thing.” DB

This story originally was published in the February 2021 issue of DownBeat. Subscribe here.

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