Thursday, November 12, 2009
  I've Got The Write To Sing The Blues

I've got a right to sing the blues,
got the right to moan and sigh
I've got a right to sit and cry
down along the river

Sam Cooke

Thankfully for you all, I don't sing in public. I don't often sing in my bathroom either, but that's because its acoustics aren't as good as others I've splashed around in.

As to whether I consider myself qualified to sing the blues, the answer is an unequivocal no. I’ve been done wrong, and had my fair share of setbacks, but my life has been a bed of roses compared to people who could really do justice to the blues. I could even sing a blues song if I had drunk enough gin, or you held a gun to my head, but it would convince no one, and believe me, I’m not complaining.
© John Merchant

However, and only relatively recently here in Indonesia, I do have the right to write, and moan and sigh, and sit and cry. I'd like to say that we all do, but as elsewhere, there are always those who are denied that right because they don't have the tools.

Income disparity is obviously the key. Those with 'surplus' income have access to the media, albeit with a few controlling what we are expected to believe and how we are expected to conform. Education costs, so many poverty stricken families are forced to send their children out to earn income, thus restricting knowledge to the haves. (This is not the place to examine the fundamental faults of a knowledge-based schooling system.)

Some of us are 'lucky' to have access to the internet, a technology which empowers those of us willing to challenge the entrenched elite. Again, though, for all the fine words emanating from the latest Minister of Education about connecting all schools to the internet, some don't have electricity, let alone the bandwidth.

So, I'm lucky. I can, therefore I do.

And my main moan today refers back to last weekend's Jakarta International Blues Festival.

The original blues were sung by the children and grandchildren of former slaves who were indentured sharecroppers working those cotton plantations in the southern states of the USA on which their recent ancestors had worked.

The blues were created at a time when those in the Delta realised that they had not been truly emancipated. From 1890 onwards, blacks recognised that religion spiritually, but not necessarily physically, rescued them from their brutal situation. This manifested itself through the blues, where individuals could express their resentment and lack of faith in America and white society.*

The white man could get education and he could learn to read a note, and the Negro couldn’t. All he had to get for his music what God give him in his heart. And that’s the only thing he got. And he didn’t get that from the white man; God give it to him.
Willie Thomas interviewed by Paul Oliver August 7th 1960

Eventually, with industrialisation and the outbreak of World War 1, there was a mass migration from the plantations, by now ravaged by the boll weevil, to the factories of cities such as Chicago. Although the pay and conditions were poor, at least the work opportunities offered hope. And electricity, thus giving rise to urban blues, as opposed to the acoustic rural blues of the Mississippi Delta, which continued to 'document' life's travails.

Strangely, it was in Britain, rather than the USA**, which embraced this music.

Almost in passing, in the late-1950s and early-1960s, Chris Barber was mainly responsible for arranging the first UK tours of seminal blues artists such as Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee and Muddy Waters. This, along with encouragement from local enthusiasts such as Alexis Korner and John Mayall, sparked the interest of young local prospective musicians such as Peter Green, Eric Clapton and the members of the Rolling Stones in the blues and caused the British blues explosion that in turn resulted in the British invasion exported back to the US in the middle to late sixties.

And this took place during my teenage years and, along with my father's jazz record collection - jazz itself being a branch of the blues tree, formed and continues to inform my musical education.

Music has the power to move us.

It can make me cry. Check out the second movement (Adagio) from Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez (Adagio), or On The Way Home by one of Indonesia's master guitarists, Dewa Budjana.

Or laugh.

Oh Lord, wish my bed wasn't silken sheets so tight
I got to keep my strength up got to do a show tonight
I'll have a cup of coffee while I'm taking in the news
No need to have a shave 'cause I'm gonna sing the blues
Bonzo Dog Band - Can A Blue Man Sing The Whites

Referring back to my previous post, it is part of Sue Bonnington's musical heritage, and Jan Akkerman's too, and presumably Mike Wilger, who I chatted with but whose set I missed, mainly due to the lack of accurate scheduling information. I therefore also missed the set by Gigi with Dewa Budjana. Would they have moved me?

Apart from SP and me during Sue's set, I saw no-one dancing on Saturday night. Where was the display of rapport, of recognition? Maybe Slank who have performed in support of the KPK or Iwan Fals in his anti-Suharto heyday would have captured the essence of the blues, an essentially 'honest' music as it's all about soul, humanity's inner core.

I do applaud any effort to promote live music here, but I wish it wasn't so 'commercialised', presented as a 'gift' from Gov. Fuzzy Bodoh or a promotion for cigarettes (or Heineken, or Pond's Whitening Cream).
*Asterisks denote passages taken from Blues Culture in the Mississippi Delta 1890 - 1920, the unpublished dissertation by Son.No.1 (1999)

**Respectable white citizens criticised the lack of cultivated black music forms and the savagery of their dancing whilst themselves performing the Charleston - which bore a remarkable resemblance to a West African Ashanti ancestor dance.


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