Saturday, January 13, 2007

Every Day I Got the Blues

Chicago’s blues history is pretty fascinating. Although I still haven’t visited Muddy Waters’ grave in Restvale Cemetary in Worth, which is about an hour from where I was originally living when I moved to Illinois, I still find myself occasionally grooving to McKinley Morganfield.

In 1954 Muddy Waters had a hit with the Willie Dixion song "Hoochie Coochie Man" and ever since I first heard this song I wondered what Muddy Waters meant when he sang that line "I got the John the Conqueroo." It is part of the verse that goes

"I got a black cat bone, I got a mojo too,
I got the John the Conqueroo, I'm gonna mess with you,
I'm gonna make you girls, lead me by my hand,
Then the world will know, the Hoochie Coochie Man."

According to

"John the Conquer root, refers to a number of roots to which magical powers are ascribed in American folklore, especially among the hoodoo tradition of folk magic among African Americans. The root, in turn, is named after a folk hero called High John the Conqueror."

That brand of mysticism in the best blues numbers elevates the singer to the level of mythmaker and the exploits of the great blues artists to the stuff of legend. Robert Johnson spent many nights wandering alone down dirt roads looking for the next juke joint and probably one step ahead of the hell hounds on his trail. Of course, the “hell hounds” could have been the bloodhounds of a local sheriff but could also have been a metaphor for all the troubles that probably followed any man of his musical stature during that time period. Blues singers beginning their careers often wandered on foot between gigs and thus were often blamed for the temporary chaos that erupted when they hit town. Songs such as “Staggolee” and “Midnight Rambler” paint the portrait of men on the wrong side of the law whose reputations became the subject of folklore.

Another famous archetypal image in popular music, “Mack the Knife,” is something of a “moritat” or a medieval version of the murder ballad that was typically performed by strolling minstrels. “Moritat” comes from “mori” meaning "deadly" and tat meaning "deed." In Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, the moritat singer with his street organ introduces and closes the drama with the tale of the deadly Mackie Messer, or Mack the Knife, a character based on the dashing highwayman Macheath in John Gay's The Beggar's Opera.

It’s the cathartic quality of most blues songs that I’m really interested in, however. The blues offers a release from the trials of life by offering up an example of something much worse. As with Greek tragedy (think Oedipus Rex, wherein the protagonist marries his own mother and blinds himself after realizing his mistake), the blues makes us feel a little better about our own lives.

Of all blues singers, Big Mama Thornton and Robert Johnson notwithstanding, I still get the chills when I hear Janis Joplin’s voice. “Cry Baby” is like an extended diary entry or an EKG of Joplin’s psychological state when the song was recorded. It’s effective and really resonates because of its cathartic quality. Janis goes on a trip of realization and in the process takes the audience with her. The pathos in her voice is so convincing that the listener momentarily forgets about everything but the experience she is relating and ultimately experiences ekstasis. It’s that ability to use tragedy to transform an audience that’s the stuff of rock legend and such a rare quality in music these days.

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