That Look in His Eyes at 4:05

By  |  January 21, 2017
Still from Lineament (2012) © Hiraki Sawa. Courtesy of James Cohan Gallery, New York Still from Lineament (2012) © Hiraki Sawa. Courtesy of James Cohan Gallery, New York

Oh man. Blues.

One of my tasks as curator of the Alan Lomax Archive is to manage its YouTube channel. Several years ago, I noticed a particular strain of commentary recurring on the five clips that compose the recorded output of an utterly obscure and equally affecting singer-guitarist named Belton Sutherland, whom Lomax met in rural Madison County, Mississippi, in 1978. 

this is how it’s done with real blues!
Real O.G. Blues. No fancy shit!
This is blues

Since then I’ve been hunting and harvesting this musico-cultural phenomenon in the comments sections of other YouTube videos. These videos typically, but not exclusively, pertain to the performance style called blues, although in some cases the comments might appear on sacred performances accompanied by a guitar or on ragtime and instrumental pieces that are not, technically speaking, blues. 

I can feel the blues just pouring into and out of that old guitar from his soul. Whew!! 

My commentariat is markedly uninterested in the vastly more successful black female blues singers of the early 1920s—the so-called “blues shouters,” with their orchestral accompaniments—and gravitates instead to the rawer, rustic exponents of the so-called country or down-home blues. Artists like Texas’s Blind Lemon Jefferson, Georgia’s Blind Willie McTell, and Alabama’s Ed Bell are certainly of interest, although players from Mississippi (Delta and Hill Country)—Son House, Skip James, Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Fred McDowell, R. L. Burnside—elicit the richest variants of my quarry. The commenters approach their subject from various perspectives—some musical, some emotional, others (very broadly speaking) historical. Owing to their positive insistence on a definitive Thing That Is The Blues, I call their expressions Blues Affirmations. 

This is BLUES BABY 
YEEEEHHHHHAAAAAAAAAA 
man i love this shit !!!

That thing being affirmed is a musical category (as above, the guitar-driven country blues), as well as an emotional feeling (heartache, to be sure, although more acutely ambivalence, alienation, oppression, and responses thereto). Most crucially, however, it’s a way of being, a metaphysic: the enduring, virtuous spirit or essence of the blues. It’s the blues way; the real blues; the right kind of blues; shonuff deep blues!!; the real, down South, low down, heartfelt blues. Blues Affirmations are longings for simpler, if starker, states: the “authentic” and “true.” They envision and celebrate the fantasy of a lone musician wrestling with demons and wringing poetry from a desolate condition, yet with an undiminished emotional sensitivity. He—as he is nearly always a man—does so seemingly without the aid of electricity (leaving aside the predominantly electrical processes of the recordings; front porches are frequently invoked).

the Blues needs no roaring electric guitars and smashing drums to show all the hard aspects of life without disguise

And without hope of fortune or fame (leaving aside the pursuit of financial gain that compelled many blues artists to hone their crafts). 

He didn’t have a shoe brand but he had passion and talent, and that’s what music is all about... Everything else is business, not music... I love the blues, it is pure and intense. It’s real music

He exists in, if not an Edenic America, at least one more noble than our own, with its debased and pernicious popular culture. 

And this is how it was done, folks. Stripped down to just guitar and voice, blues in all of its glory roots right here! No autotune, no editing, just the real raw deal in its purity!

 

You get the blues, or you don’t get the blues. Blues Affirmations insist upon not just the geographic, temporal, or economic imperatives that engender “real blues,” but also that there is a particular psychological temperament and/or existential disposition required to be moved by them. It’s a depth of experiential capacity that separates legitimate blues fans from, say, the Jack White or Eric Clapton acolytes who followed their leads to a certain Robert Johnson song posted on YouTube (and having said as much in their comments, invited the scorn of the former). For many, it’s essential to make the distinction between the technical presentation, however virtuosic, of the musical genre “blues” and the emotional state that is “the blues.” Thus: doing blues vs. having the blues. 

Blues CAN be easy. but feeling it isnt. i feel it. its freaking awesome.

This distinction is one that would have been inscrutable to the musicians whose recordings are being commented on. Blues was not the unmediated “heart song” of an oppressed person or people (politically, existentially, or otherwise). Rather it was an enactment of an emotional experience: musicians playing blues were telling tales of feelings that their listeners understood from their own frustrations, disappointments, and doubts. Everyone knew the blues; everyone had the blues. The virtue, as far as the musicians were concerned, lay in performing material that the most people wanted to hear—and the most people wanted to dance to—and performing it well. But to many Affirmers, so far removed from the jukes and picnics and house parties, the cardinal virtue is deep, sincere emotion. 

that look in his eyes at 4:05.... thats the blues right there

Another, at times, is poverty. 

There is nothing that will ruin a people better than prosperity! The opposite of this is the Blues!

To these fans, the combination of presumed impoverishment with powerful musical performance is a potent brew.

Blues like this comes from the basement of the human condition. It’s what happens when you can’t go any lower and rising up seems like an impossibility. This music is a kind of saving grace. It’s all that an artist can do after they’ve reached their wit’s end. It’s almost like praying. It’s filled with compassion and it’s a last hope. 

The Blues Affirmations are idylls that join a long, familiar line of idealizations of the expressive yearnings of rural Southern blacks (constructed largely but not exclusively by whites): Dorothy Scarborough, John and Alan Lomax, the so-called Blues Mafia of the 1960s. They have simply, essentially distilled their forebears’ sentiment for maximum online pith. But the longing for authenticity and realness has never hummed at quite the pitch it does presently—the presumptions of generations of romantic blues fans notwithstanding. These moments of digital communion with what might well be to many Affirmers an ancient and sacred American creation are themselves honest, true, and real. 

Would it really still be the blues if it was topping charts and flaunting platinum? Personally, I don’t think so. Blues is part of the soul of this country. You can’t put that up in lights.

And while without access to YouTube’s analytics it is impossible to confirm my hypothesis, the Affirmations appear to be global in origin, posted by users who at least purport to be from Ukraine, France, South Africa, Australia, South Korea. 

I’m Japanese, but I can feel real blues more!! 

Perhaps these are simply intuitive human responses to the ineffable and sublime qualities of this enduring music. Perhaps—once the ad is skipped and Skip James is keening that the Devil’s got his woman or Robert Johnson is wishing he had possession over Judgment Day—the online Amen Corner just can’t keep from shouting, testifying, affirming: 

this is where the blues started - AND THIS IS WHERE THE BLUES ENDS.


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Nathan Salsburg is a guitarist, a producer, and the curator of the Alan Lomax Archive. He edited the Lomax Kentucky Recordings online exhibition, which features seventy hours of audio recordings made in Eastern Kentucky for the Library of Congress between 1933 and 1942.