Nobody Leaves This Place Without Singing the Blues

This afternoon, I found myself listening to last weekend's episode of Sound Opinions. The episode was all about the history of the famous Chicago blues record label, Chess Records--the label which made blues men like Muddy Waters and Little Walter into the legends that they became. (And which was, in turn, made into the legendary studio it became by guys like Muddy and Little Walter.) It was a real trip down memory lane for me, because I listened to a lot of blues in high school.

A lot of my musical taste back then was deliberately anti-mainstream, so something offbeat and historic like blues was right up my alley. The first blues album I owned was The Blues Brothers' Briefcase Full of Blues--not the most authentic of beginnings, to be sure, but it hit the right notes for me. And, actually, thinking back on it, not only is Dan Aykroyd a surprisingly good blues harmonica player, but their backing band had the likes of Steve Cropper and Donald "Duck" Dunn, two key figures in the lineup of Booker T. and the M.G.'s.

It didn't take long after that first album for my blues library to expand. My listening habits and my interest in learning to play blues harmonic caught the attention of my 10th-grade history teacher and my stepdad, both big blues buffs. Within a few months I had added B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Junior Wells, Big Joe Turner, and the Butterfield Blues Band to my collection. I learned about the differences between the different regions and periods in blues history, enjoying both the electric Chicago style and the earthier sound of Delta blues. I even started sitting in on some jam sessions with that teacher and some other students, me on the harmonica, others on guitar, bass, or piano. It was great fun.

You'd think that, given how dominant the blues were in my musical life at the time, I'd still be listening now, but somewhere along the way I fell out of the habit. I started listening to more esoteric forms of rock, electronic music, jazz, classical--I guess blues just fell by the wayside.

Listening to that podcast today, I realized that I miss those old albums of mine. It's such a vibrant, expressive genre of music, with so much life in it. It's exactly the kind of thing that I'm always complaining about being absent from so much contemporary music--a lot of which is either materialistic and shallow or lost in ironic distance. With the blues, you can't help but feel the energy and passion behind the simple chord progressions and raw vocals.

I've lost most of the blues CDs I used to listen to and I no longer have a tapedeck or record player, so if I'm going to pick up the blues again, I'll have to make almost an entirely new start. That means a not-insignificant expense of both time and money, but I think it'd be worth it.