I tried to write this post over the weekend. The result was a rushed serial biography of all the important innovators in Jazz and Blues music. It was boring. I realized the most interesting topic that I wanted to talk about was the appropriation of music from cultures other than one’s own. After watching my buddy Laith Al-Saadi on The Voice tonight I realized that should the main thing I talk about.
Jazz, Blues, and Rock and Roll are significant because they are musical forms that could only come from America. Although it was for an awful reason (slavery) – there was nowhere else on the planet where Europeans and Africans mixed culturally in the way they did in the South.
Jazz is the best example of this. It really is as simple as European melody and African rhythm. These elements were put together by African-Americans, but quickly became mainstream – as popular with Whites as it was with Blacks.
Early Jazz came from more than just New Orleans – Scott Joplin was from Texarkana, Texas – W.C. Handy was from Alabama - but it was codified in New Orleans. What we think of now as Jazz developed mostly in New Orleans from 1900-1920 by people like Buddy Bolden, Joe “King” Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, and of course Louis Armstrong.
The Blues had an even hazier history – Leadbelly, Robert Johnson – these were men who were “discovered” by researchers – but you wonder how many others were out there who had just of an important impact on the music, but remained anonymous. Blues was a rural music, while Jazz came from the cities. Blues players still picked cotton by day and played juke joints at night in the Mississippi delta.
Yep, we’re going to skip ahead all the way to this guy – Elvis Presley. For most Americans of a certain age Elvis is a god. But for many Black folks he “stole their music.” I can see their point. Rock and Roll came out of the Blues. And the first Rock and Roll innovators were all Black – most notably Chuck Berry. Elvis got his start at Sun Records in Memphis. Until I made this trip I didn’t realize how close Memphis is to the Mississippi Delta where Blues music got its start. Beale Street was hopping even in the early 1900’s – all kinds of music were being played there.
Elvis got his break with Sun Records and Sam Phillips. Phillips signed both Black and White musicians – he went with whoever he thought had talent. Elvis just got more traction. So, while I can understand the whole – “he stole our music” thing – I think in the end it’s a good thing that Elvis was so popular. He showed how incredible this music actually was. It wasn’t just music for Black people picking cotton – it wasn’t some musical dead end – it was a music that connected with everybody.
This music then took over the entire world. First in Britain – people like Lennon and McCartney took notice of Elvis – Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones etc . . . Jazz became the defining music of Paris and Tokyo. Anyone in the 20th century who was “cool” anywhere on the planet consumed music first created by Black Americans.
I think the main reason that it took over in such a huge way was that it simply was good music – but more than that – it allowed people to express themselves in ways that their cultures didn’t always allow. When we think of Britain we think of the stiff upper lip – Mick Jagger turned that into a curled lip. Brits found a music that had recognizable melodies – but an emotion and beat that was completely new. Eric Clapton has said that when he was 19 he wouldn’t talk to you if you didn’t know who Robert Johnson was. Think of that – Robert Johnson recorded barely an album worth of material – he died when he was 27 – and yet someone half a world away from a culture that shared only the English language – a young man felt that this voice and guitar spoke to him in a way that nothing had ever spoke to him before.
So, now we get to Laith. Laith is half-Norwegian and half-Iraqi. Growing up Laith had a pretty basic white bread American upbringing. I knew him because he went to the same Lutheran church as me. He had two sisters who were much older than him and who listened to a lot of Beatles. His mom listened to a lot of classical and his dad listened to a lot of Arabic music. Before he started playing guitar at the age of 14 I doubt he had ever listened to the Blues – he might not have even listened to Jazz. But as he learned how to play guitar he also learned about the history of guitar. There was of course the stuff popular on classic rock stations coming out of Detroit that we could hear in Ann Arbor. But he always was digging deeper. Eventually he found the Blues. and he taught me a lot about Jazz and Blues music. By the age of 16 he had formed a band called Blue Vinyl. They played a lot of Rock and Roll – but Blues was always the main jumping off point for their music.
So, tonight Blake Sheldon said about Laith’s performance - “I don’t know much about the Blues – but I can’t imagine it getting much better than that.” I’m sure some Blues nerds will disagree with him, but I think it’s true. With his virtuosic guitar and his voice that vacillates between growl (as all the coaches seem to like to call it) and what I would call an almost honey drenched twang – he does it as well as anybody I’ve heard. And I’ve heard most of the greats live. Yes, of course I’m biased – but come on – tell me what he could improve!! : )
The question is, does a half Norwegian half Iraqi dude who was born in 1977 into a relatively well to do family in the U.S. have any business singing about how he was “Born Under a Bad Sign”? I would say actually “yes.” The human condition has always included pain. It doesn’t matter how much money you have – bad things happen. As the Buddhists would say – suffering is part of the human condition. We all know what it means to suffer. The magic of the Blues is that it is, at least in part, a cure to the very thing it sings about. It was invented by people who lived lives more depressing and painful than any of us could imagine. They invented it to help them to survive – to process what had happened to them – to rise above their suffering in an incredibly beautiful way. But that message – that working through of a problem to get beyond the problem – is universal. The fact that somebody with Laith’s background can play the Blues as well as anybody is a testament to its power – and it’s a testament to his spirit and his soul.So, you know what to do – vote for him. Listen to Pharrell! Here are the ways you can do it.