Sunday, January 09, 2005

Got Blues?

Last night we were privileged to see Guy Davis perform right here in li'l ol' Westminster, at the 263-seat Carroll Arts Center. Davis is a young blues player in the old-time tradition, Delta blues, the kind played on a back porch with a bottle of bourbon at your side and a tired hound dog at your feet. That's the kinda blues I love--none of that slicked-up, electrified Chicago-style Blues Brothers nonsense, although that has its place, too, for a certain kind of mood.

Davis looks much younger than his gravelly voice comes across out of my CD player. He told some great stories, including one about meeting the President when Guy's parents Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were honored at the Kennedy Center last month. They talked about their strict mamas and Davis said Bush seemed like a nice guy, but he couldn't reconcile in his own mind the nice guy in front of him with the not-so-nice guy (Cheney) standing by the hors d'oeuvre table.

He played several songs from his latest CD, the enthralling, addictive Legacy, including originals like "Payday," "Long As You Get it Done," and the blues classic "Things About Coming My Way."

My whole life, I never liked blues music at all, thought it was boring and repetitive, didn't give a hoot that rock 'n' roll grew out of it. Then I went to Memphis in October 2003. We took my mom to Graceland for her birthday, and while we were there we hung out on Beale Street, listened to some blues. We took a tour of Sun Studios and heard some original recordings of the Prisonnaires, Joe Hill Louis, and other early Delta Blues greats.

Even then it didn't really take hold of me, although I was starting to understand how other people might like it. Chris bought a couple of CD's at Memphis Music on Beale Street, owned by a certified bluesologist, who personally recommended The Rough Guide to the Delta Blues (various artists) and Alvin Youngblood Hart's Big Mama's Door.

I can remember the moment, the location, the song, when blues first grabbed my soul. It was later in that same trip, when Chris and I headed to Florida for this guy's wedding. We were driving from Tallahassee to Cape San Blas (which I highly recommend--Cape San Blas, not Tallahassee, and stay here if you go), down through the Apalachicola Forest (I love saying "Apalachicola"), and we put in Big Mama's Door.

It starts with the title track, and something about hearing Alvin sing about takin' that right-hand road down to Chickasaw, while driving through the deep deep DEEP South infected me like a virus, one I don't ever want to get over.

Blessed and doomed in the same moment. There's a blues novel stuck inside me now, if I ever get the guts to write it, because that's the only way I know how to honor something I really love.

I've been trying to come up with a way to describe the appeal of blues to those who don't get it yet, but it's impossible. It's like one of those spontaneous religious experiences of salvation the born-agains talk about, and you can't convert someone who hasn't felt it themselves, you can only wait until they do so you can grab their hands and talk about it for hours, eyes shining with the light of mad devotion.

All I know is blues makes me happy, no matter my mood--blue, red, yellow or green. Not cheerful--unlike bluegrass, whose indomitable faith inspires but occasionally alienates me--but happy, deep down in my wretched soul.

Ain't got no money
Ain't got no grub
Backbone and navel
doing the belly rub
But after all my hard traveling
Things about coming my way.


This Side of Salvation

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Jeri Smith-Ready

Jeri Smith-Ready is a Maryland author of books for teens and adults.

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