Blues Is … Who Knows What Blues Is

 Vol. 10, No. 20

May 16-22, 2002

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Blues Is … Who Knows What Blues Is

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Where It Is Is Here
by Brent Seabrook

I’ve got to keep movin’
Blues fallin’ down like hail
And the days keeps on worryin’ me
There’s a hellhound on my trail
—Robert Johnson

Thousands of people are expected to crowd Sandy Point State Park while the blues fall down like hail this weekend. For five years the Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival has brought the legends of the blues to Chesapeake Country — and drawn consistent crowds.

This year’s lineup includes Jerry Lee Lewis, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Double Trouble and the Blues Imperials. Previous festivals have included Buddy Guy, Little Feat, John Lee Hooker, Wilson Pickett, Bo Diddley and James Brown.

James Brown? Since when is the Godfather of Soul a blues musician? How can such diverse performers fit under the same umbrella? Just what are the blues, anyway?

For answers, Bay Weekly turned to the musicians themselves.

Many Shades of Blue
“Everybody knows the blues was born deep down South, and it’s feeling sad and all that,” says Oregonian blues singer Curtis Salgado. “Or they’re thinking about the old man who’s blind and missing an arm, and he’s playing a guitar that’s out of tune, and he’s an alcoholic and a drunk and he’s black.”

Offering a second opinion is Big Money (yes, that’s his name), front man for Highway 49 and a Catonsville native. “The blues is original American roots music,” he says. “Came from the slaves,” he continues, “mostly down in New Orleans. It’s the cousin of jazz.”

On the American character of the blues heritage, John Ticktin agrees. “Blues music is one of two original art forms that exist in this country,” says the ‘Johnny’ of Johnny and the Headhunters. “One is jazz, and one is blues. They’re related, but they’re separate, and they’re the only art forms that originated in this country. Blues music has a totally different feel to it. It has a lazier, kind of pulled-back attitude. Then there’s rock ’n’ roll. Rock ’n’ roll has a straight-ahead, driving attitude, whereas blues has a lazy attitude, though musically they’re very similar.”

As blues musicians adopt many different styles, they hold many different opinions.

“I play some rock ‘n’ roll, as well,” Ticktin says. “As far as my interpretations of the blues, I am a purist, but on the other hand, I like a lot of roots music in general, including reggae and bluegrass, so I can’t really say that I’m a blues purist. A blues purist would be someone who only listens to blues.”

That would still leave a lot to listen to, as Big Money points out. “There’s first-generation blues, second-generation blues,” he says. “It’s all blues. When you’re playing a Lynyrd Skynyrd song, you’re basically playing the blues.”

“The blues has no certain boundaries to it,” says Salgado, who started us on this chase. “It’s a word used to describe an emotion — or your life. It’s basically the relationship between man and woman. It’s about how people treat one another — especially man and woman. I think Beethoven is a blues guy as much as Bill Monroe’s a blues guy, and as much as Muddy Waters is a blues guy. Hank Williams is a blues singer, ain’t no doubt about it. He sings it with a country tone and a country twang, but he’s a blues singer as much as he’s a country singer — as much as he is a soul singer.”

Birth of the Blues
Salgado is on a roll. “I think most artists feel there shouldn’t be any boundaries — it’s all a hybrid,” he says.

Music’s a hybrid of people, places and things. New Orleans is one of those melting pots. If you go back to New Orleans, and you’re in the slave times, you’ve got the French living there, and you’ve got a Creole girl who’s working for the French household, and then you’ve got some slaves there that are from Haiti, and some are coming from the Caribbean, and some from Africa, and you mix that with French and Spanish — poor Spanish, rich Spanish, slave Spanish.

“It was a mixmosh of people — it wasn’t just black and white — and everybody’s got their cultures. Everybody’s got their music and their religion, and you just throw that into the pot and stir it up,” Salgado continues. “That’s why the blues is what it is: because America was a hybrid melting pot of all these cultures.”

But from those exotic ingredients, a familiar flavor arose.

“Robert Johnson, Skip James, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Elmore James — that’s the lowdown blues right there,” continues Salgado, who’s as fluent at talking the blues as he is at playing it.

“It’s about blue-collar, hard-working people struggling to survive in their environment, talking and singing about their life and their surroundings, their families, their loves, what a hard day it is, how the sun is beating down and how hard they work, how their woman has mistreated them, or how their woman loves them, or how their boss has mistreated them. It’s just about daily life. You trim away all the fat and that’s what it’s about. It’s still out there and it’s still out there in its rawest, purest form.”

Raw and pure, but not effortless, adds Johnny Ticktin. “We have a station in D.C., WPFW, that every Saturday morning has two fantastic old black guys that are DJs — one is Nap Turner, who’s a pretty famous blues guy himself — and they were playing stuff this morning that was perfect. Just a guy with a guitar, you know? The music itself is so simple. It really is.”

But Ticktin believes that simplicity is deceptive. “My friend’s 13-year-old son is in some jazz band, and he goes, ‘Oh, yeah, blues — I can play that, no problem.’ And I’m like, ‘Dude, you couldn’t play one blues song if your life depended on it.’”

Big Money playing harmonica.
photo by David L. Clow.
Long Road Traveling
So how did the blues travel from New Orleans to Annapolis. How did it fall into the hands of its modern practitioners?

“You mean 40-year-old guys in ponytails, wearing Rolexes?” Big Money laughs. “We’ve just kind of adopted it. The blues has been my life since back when I heard the Rolling Stones, when I was like 12 or whatever.

“I fell in love with second-generation blues,” he continues, “with the British Invasion of the ’60s, with the Beatles and Rolling Stones. They all fell in love with the blues and brought it back to us. We thought it was originally from England. You look at the albums and see the songwriters, you know — Muddy Waters and Skip James — you thought they were just other British guys, until we did our homework, and we discovered, hey, this is our music. The British teenagers had taken it over and given it back to us.”

Big Money isn’t the only one who arrived at the blues via a circuitous route.

“I originally liked American rock when I was growing up,” says Ticktin, “only to find that the songs I really liked and the artists I really liked were actually doing covers of blues songs.”

Salgado, too, came from a ways away.

“You know, I’m not from the Mississippi Delta,” he says. “I was born and raised in Everett, Washington. I’m a singer. I tell a story, and people seem to relate to that. For me, it’s like therapy. I’ve been doing this all my life; I’ve never had a straight job. I grew up listening to jazz and blues and soul and gospel. That’s the stuff that just tickles my auditory nerve. I’ve been singing since kindergarten, in choirs.”

Big Money was born and raised in Annapolis, but he moved to New Orleans when he was 18.

“I went down there with the band I had in high school,” he says. “We graduated from high school and hit the road. We were all real young and inexperienced. I mean, I’d never seen a man dress like a woman in Annapolis.”

Salgado also toured blues Holy Land.

“I remember being in Louisiana with a band called Roomful of Blues,” he says. “I was with this intelligent person, and he referred to anybody black with the N word.”

Salgado became increasingly aware that he had inherited a musical form not native to people of his skin tone.
John Ticktin, the ‘Johnny’ of Johnny and the Headhunters.

“I had a guy come up to me and say, ‘Man, you sure do sing your ass off for a white boy,’” he says, “and I’m sitting here thinking to myself, ‘I hate that.’ First of all, why does color have to come into it? There’s a man, James DePreist, an elegant, articulate, brilliant human being, who runs the Oregon Symphony, which is a very respected symphony. He is an African American. So should I come up to James and go, ‘Hey, man, you sure conduct this white music good for a black guy.’”

But Salgado isn’t blazing any trails; he’s instead following in the footsteps of white performers daring — or arrogant — enough to adopt an African American art form as their own.

“Elvis really broke the barrier,” says Big Money. “He was the first white guy to sing like a black man. It wasn’t cool to do it before that. He started singing like a black man and the kids went nuts, because it had real emotion, real feeling. It wasn’t all white bread like the pop hits of the early ’50s, like Perry Como and all those guys. No soul, no heart.

To Big Money, it looks like blues’ audiences are growing not only older, but whiter.

“I can’t begin to explain why black America hasn’t embraced the blues,” he says, speaking of young African Americans in particular. “I don’t know if it’s too old school or what. It touched me; it’s touched me my whole life. Rap and hip-hop does nothing for me. It’s annoying, actually, and I can’t listen to it.”

Salgado, on the other hand, appreciates these new musical forms.

“There’s a lot of great new grooves out there,” he says, “hip-hop and new jack swing and funk. There’s new textures and colors, and new technology, and it’s going to be infused into the blues. Will the people be able to handle it? They’re gonna do what they always do — at first they’ll reject it, and pretty soon someone’s gonna get wise, they’re gonna get hip, people are gonna take it, and it’s gonna be acceptable to them.”

Salgado looks forward to that day.

“It’s trying to change,” he says, “and I think it’s the blues purists that are keeping it back. People have this one perception that the blues is this, and they won’t accept any other perception of it — which is sad, because that’s how it got there in the first place.”

Sidetrip to Chicago
Big Money can’t argue with that. In fact, he owes a debt of gratitude to blues’ early innovators.

“Everything progresses,” he says. “In the ’40s, or somewhere, they figured out electricity, and how to put a pickup on a guitar and make an amplifier, and that changed the way blues was going.

“Different regions of the country developed different sounds,” he continues. “Chicago’s where everything was electrified. There was a migration of blacks from the south up into the industrial northeast, up into Detroit and Chicago, after the war. And at the same time, the electric pickups and electric recordings were going on, so Chicago has a very unique electric-type sound. Mississippi’s more of a rural, original sound. New Orleans has more jazz influences — the rolling piano, Fats Domino — that’s more of a New Orleans sound.”

But the Chicago sound is what dominates the contemporary blues scene.

Ticktin says, “My band goes after a sound of Chicago blues from around the ’60s. It’s a very electrified sound, and that’s the sound that Muddy Waters paved the way for by playing an electric guitar in the blues. Muddy Waters did for blues what Bob Dylan did for rock ’n’ roll when he picked up an electric guitar. Remember when Bob Dylan played an electric guitar at the Ann Arbor folk festival and freaked everybody out? The purists hated it, but it opened the whole world to folk rock.

“That’s what Muddy Waters did,” Ticktin continues. “He took what was an antiquated, front-porch art form — because that’s what they would do, they would sit on their front porch playing guitar, singing with their friends and family down in Mississippi. That’s where Muddy Waters was from, and that’s where he learned it. They learned on acoustic guitars — they probably didn’t even have electricity.”

Salgado says, “Muddy Waters was a Delta blues singer, from the Delta, and the sound of blues in the Chicago area was different in the 1930s. It had a more jazzier feel to it, and it’s approach was a jazzier, more jump, more swing approach to it. Muddy Waters comes and he brings his country self to Chicago, and the times are different, the city’s different.”

“Electric guitars had hit the scene,” Ticktin says. “He picked one up, and Muddy Waters was one of the first guys to play electric guitar with the blues. After that there was a whole slew of guys — you got Buddy Guy and you got Otis Rush, and Magic Sam, and tons of guys at that point that started electric blues bands, and that’s the sound that we go after.

“Muddy Waters was a monster,” Ticktin continues. “He was huge and if you ever saw him play, he would completely scare you, because he was so powerful. He would come on stage and command everyone’s attention, and it was like a religious experience when that guy hit the first note. He had a sound that went right into your soul, and he could control the audience incredibly with that.

“He was really big, and I don’t think much has changed since he did that,” Ticktin concludes. “In fact, I don’t think anyone can do what he did. I even went to see his son, who was playing recently, and he was pretty ham-handed; he couldn’t cut it at all.”

Bluesmen of all stripes will perform this weekend at The Chesapeake Bay BluesFest, including Jerry Lee Lewis, opposite left, Bob Margolin, Hubert Sumlin and the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
On Down the Line
So much for the future.
What about the present? Ticktin and Big Money share the Bay’s Best stage with eight other local acts this weekend. Salgado performs on the main stage Sunday afternoon, just before The Bob Margolin Blues Revue, featuring Hubert Sumlin.

“Bob Margolin used to play with Muddy Waters years ago,” Ticktin says. “Huber used to play guitar on all the Howlin’ Wolf stuff. I’m looking forward to seeing him.”

Ticktin is less excited about Jerry Lee Lewis.

“He’s not a blues artist,” Ticktin says. “Jerry Lee Lewis is a draw name, and that’s why they hired him — so he could draw a crowd.”

But — armed with his more inclusive definition of the blues — Salgado leaps to Lewis’ defense.

“He grew up on it, playing barrelhouse boogie piano,” Salgado says. “He is the embodiment of rock ’n’ roll, and rock ’n’ roll is just blues with a stronger backbeat; the emphasis is on the rock instead of the roll.”

Sidestepping the debate, Big Money says, “My favorite performer there will be the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Kim Wilson is the leader, and I saw him play about 12 years ago in Baltimore, with his solo act, which is strictly a blues act. I was a drummer at the time, and I was just fooling around with the harmonica. When I saw Kim Wilson play, I said, ‘That’s what I wanna do. I wanna stand up front and sing and play harp.’”

So, what can we expect when Big Money does just that? And what will we hear from Ticktin and Salgado?

“What you’re gonna see is a band that comes out and plays blues songs,” says Salgado, “some of them old and traditional, some of them original. So you’re gonna see sort of a mixture of rock, soul, blues, Delta blues and country — all thrown together.”

“In my particular band — Highway 49 — it’s a mix of all the influences,” says Big Money. “When we’re playing bars, we’ll mix it up. We’re not a straight blues band. I’ve got collections of CDs of all the old blues masters, and I’ll hear a song I’d like to do, but I won’t try to copy it note for note and tone for tone. I’ll sing it in my style.

“We’re playing a James Brown song with a totally new arrangement,” he says, “which is gonna be impressive. He played the festival last year. We’re gonna play ‘Cold Sweat’ — we’re gonna open up with it — but it doesn’t sound anything like the record. We’ve changed it and made it into a blues song. More guitar-driven, because obviously we don’t have any horns. It’s the same chord progression, the same melody; you just change the accent. In fact, before the vocals start you’re not gonna know it’s ‘Cold Sweat,’ then the vocals’ll kick in and you’ll go, ‘Oh, wow. That’s ‘Cold Sweat.’ That’s cool.’”

“True to the bone,” is how Ticktin describes Johnny and the Headhunters. “We’re just authentic and pay homage to the real sound. It doesn’t matter what we play, we’re fun. It’s not heavy and hard to listen to.”

Who needs all those sad feelings, anyway?

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly