A few weeks ago I was driving (probably a little too quickly) to pick up pizzas for my son’s birthday party, I was lucky enough to have the radio on for the local jazz station’s weekly blues evening. The DJ was revisiting some of the releases from the past calendar year focusing especially on possible award winners in the upcoming and endless award cycle. When he introduced an album up for the Grammy for Best Blues Album and the Blues Music Awards for Best Blues Album and Best Traditional Blues Album I might have yawned (awards shows don’t always impress me). But from the first note to the last (I was late returning with pizza because I listened to five full tracks) this was the best thing I had heard on the radio in years.
The band? A group of talented and seasoned musicians who form the Heritage Blues Orchestra. The album? Their debut And Still I Rise.
Maybe the best album you’ll hear all year
I don’t often like to get nationalistic or jingoistic, but we, as Americans, should take pride in our musical art forms, though not without first admitting that they were made possible by a particularly vile bit of history. The cultural blending from forced migration (i.e., slavery) and economically or politically motivated immigration created a violent and vibrant mixing pot (more a boiling and roiling stew than a true blend) that gave birth to the most influential musical forms of the last century: jazz, blues, rock, R&B, country, folk and hip-Hop all come from the admixture of our national heritages.
Of these genres, blues is probably the least well-represented in mainstream culture even though it may be the oldest, most pure and the granddaddy of them all. Blues musicians of the greatest talent labor in relative obscurity because the genre doesn’t have the catchy colloquialism of its rock, pop and hip-hop descendants or the Caucasian-approved art-house elevation of jazz. The repetitive and seemingly ‘un-original’ nature of its composition, moreover, makes blues seem less exciting to modern audiences
Unless, of course, you spend some time watching blues musicians and realize how talented they are (or learn to play a little yourself). When I was learning to play the guitar, my teacher—who could play an impressive range of genres with equal talent—spent time teaching me the basic picking patterns of piedmont and delta blues both as a way to give depth to my musical knowledge and to strengthen my hands for folk and classical pursuits. While I never became the guitarist he hoped (it was the nineties, power chords were all I needed!), I have never forgotten the feel for it or the basic twelve-bar blues.