Talking to Dead People: Blues and the Roots of Modern American Music

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I am obsessed with dead Blues and Jazz musicians, but it’s okay. I think? No. I don’t talk to these dead people. But, I listen to their music or play along with them every day. For some reason, their spirits are able to reach the deepest level of my soul. Somehow, they inspire and guide me through the trials and tribulations of our modern world.

At this point you may ask: Why would anybody want to have an emotional, personal and spiritual connection with long-dead African-American musicians?

Jimi Hendrix plays at an amusement park called Gröna Lund in Stockholm, Sweden on May 24, 1967.

Jimi Hendrix plays at an amusement park called Gröna Lund in Stockholm, Sweden on May 24, 1967.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

First of all, let’s get a few things out in the open. I developed a serious interest in blues in my youth, when I started to appreciate this misunderstood and dying art form. When I was in grade 9, Jimi Hendrix inspired me to start playing the bass guitar. Hendrix was fully engaged in every note played, taught himself how to play, played an upside-down right-handed guitar as a lefty and didn’t read music. He was clearly the greatest rock musician of all time and revolutionized the playing of the electric guitar. I soon discovered that his raw playing and psychedelic style was deeply rooted in the Delta and Chicago blues.

My older brother Clifford, who died in 1987, encouraged me in this musical journey. Clifford took me to Jazz shows in Vancouver, which featured great musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Chick Corea, George Benson and Herbie Hancock.

This video features Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, who are two of the major figures in the development of of bebop and modern jazz in the 1940’s. Gillespie was a trumpet virtuoso and improviser. His beret and horn-rimmed spectacles, his scat singing, bent horn, pouched cheeks and his light-hearted personality were essential in popularizing bebop.

Dexter Gordon was an American jazz tenor saxophonist. He was among the earliest tenor players to adapt the bebop musical language of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to the instrument. This clip is from Round Midnight, which is a 1986 American-French musical drama film. It stars Dexter Gordon and Herbie Hancock on keyboards.The score for the film was composed by Herbie Hancock.The film is a wistful and tragic portrait that captures the Paris jazz scene of the 1950s. Clifford raved about this film.

I hung out at the Hard Rock café and went to see blues musicians at the Commodore Ballroom, such as BB King and Buddy Guy.

All this happened while I was in high school and before I was old enough to legally enter these clubs. In fact, Dizzie Gillespie called me over to his table between sets and asked me, “Do you play football”. I said “yes”, and then he said, “you are still in high school aren’t you.” He smiled and laughed. I returned to my table to enjoy the rest of the show.

The following video shows Buddy Guy playing an unbelievable version of his classic song, “The first time I met the Blues.”

This is an amazing clip of BB KIng playing live at Sing Sing Prison in East Harlem. BB King considers this one of this best performances.

I also consider myself to be a spiritual person. This does not mean I am perfect or without faults. But, when I have struggled against the most serious hardships in my life, I have always found strength in my faith, the memory of my brother Clifford, as well as blues and jazz music.

Several times just before an extremely difficult situation or hardship was coming to an end, Clifford has come to me in a dream. He speaks words of wisdom and encouragement. Or, I feel Clifford’s presence next to me, when I am enjoying a beautiful evening out with my wife Susan, eating good food and listening to jazz music at an intimate night club.

Fish Belly Blues is a “brand” name for online blues journalism, which encourages people to “Enrich your life through a love of Blues Music”. The blog will write insightful stories on blues news, business, events, shows, album reviews and profiles. The blues news is backed-up by in-depth profiles and features on key figures in blues history and the development of African-American music.

Young boy insists on having his photograph taken at the beach in Nouakchott, Mauritania in Sept. 2008

Young boy insists on having his photograph taken at the beach in Nouakchott, Mauritania in Sept. 2008

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Just like my older brother Clifford did for me, I want to share stories about the lives of inspirational figures in American musical history, share their sounds, as well as introduce these artists to a new generation of music fans. This journey will reveal that blues is one of the greatest inventions in American history. It is the foundation of all African-American music, including jazz, gospel, soul, rhythm and blues, disco, rap, hip hop, techno and house around the world.

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23 thoughts on “Talking to Dead People: Blues and the Roots of Modern American Music

  1. Fish Belly! I like that! Interesting family history too, and similar to mine. My father was English and my mother is from Sierra Leone and somewhere on her side of the family are roots in Bermuda. And I was born in Canada .The branches in my family tree are pretty far flung 😉

    Looking forward to reading more about jazz and the blues!

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    • Thanks again for all your kind words. I knew people would probably understand the blues part, I wasn’t so sure about the Fish Belly. I really do enjoy my family tree. My grandparents are Trinidadian, Venezuelan, Welsh and English. The number of countries increases the further you go back. I have lived in Trinidad, England the US and know my family on both sides very well. In a way the history has repeated itself, because my wife is from Trinidad, my boys were born in England and we live in Canada.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Although I’m not familiar with all these “dead” blues and jazz artists, I do follow an expansive range of music, blues being one. I recently saw B.B. King in concert, and he was phenomenal. I also wandered into Buddy Guy’s Legends bar in Chicago for a few hours of live music and to appreciate the walls covered in the world’s best blues legends. I can’t wait to read more!

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    • This is fantastic to hear. I am glad that you follow such a range of music. I also love many forms of music including Calypso and Reggae. I decided t focus on blues so I could learn how to play and have a solid foundation. I stick to jazz, because if you can play that,you can play anything. Way to just wander into a great blues club. My dream is to make the pilgrimage from Chicago down the Mississippi to all the great clubs in St. Louis, Kansas and New Orleans.

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    • Thanks for the words of encouragement. I still need to work on the lay out a bit more. I love all forms of blues and try not to get to technical. The main reason for this is I am very traditional and can’t really read music. I play by ear. I suppose my biggest influence is the Chicago blues. In particular, I am stuck in the era with all the great performers from Chess Records, such as Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters and Little Walter.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You are a great writer and perhaps a song writer too? I’m very interested in your blog as I had my first real taste of blues when I spent a week in New Orleans this year. What a treat, incredible music at the diveyiest (made that word up) bars every night! Looking forward to more posts and perhaps recommendations 🙂

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    • I have always wanted to go to New Orleans. I had an opportunity to go once, when my wife was sent on an assignment there. She went to jazz clubs with live music, food and drinks for a low cover charge. I always regret not going, because Katrina hit not long after and some these clubs never re-opened.

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  4. I get your love for the blues and music from this era. This was an era where love for music (and not commercialism and image) was pure and true. You’ve done well setting up the technical aspects of the blog. I’m looking forward to reading along!

    One other thing… my family if from Guyana, so I will fully understand anything Trinidadian or Caribbean you refer to. 🙂

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    • Thanks. In terms of technical aspects, you hit on two important points. First, the Blues has cousins in the Caribbean and South America, due to similar cultures, musical influences and conditions. Secondly, the blues played a key role in the development of the US commercial recording industry in the 1920’s. This is why there is a vast record of blues musicians to discover on social media today. Believe it or not You tube is a powerful tool to learn about the blues.

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  5. Hi Rich

    I got a note from Ed Hird here in North Van. that I might like the blog you have just started. He said something about a first article, so I was sort of expecting a short beginning blog. I was surprised to fine the quantity of articles and the depth. I have spent the whole morning studying more about blues and learned more about how it is at the root of and has paralleled jazz, my love in music.

    I often think of the musician I heard interviewed who reminded me that “…it all comes from the blues.” Another interviewed bluesman corrected the interviewer that blues is not sad music, it is about lifting one’s spirits. To me, blues means you look at what makes you blue, go through it and feel a music that comes along side you and lifts you up and brings the strength needed to carry on. It is truly unique in that way.

    Jazz and blues are so closely connected, joined at the hips, I suppose you could say. My interests are in vintage jazz and swing from the 20s, 30s and 40s. I sort of drop off after that, however, am slowly becoming more willing to explore later forms of jazz. Now, I also have blues to take on my journey.

    I have been writing blogs for a few years, however, I don’t seem to have the readership that you have gained so quickly. Much of what I write about is about what I call the Technojungle and I am working toward a book. If you have time, please have a look at my blogs.

    There is an aspect of my writing about the Technojungle and how it can dehumanize us where I propose that learning to live a jazz lifestyle can be one way to accentuate our humanness. By that I mean to look at the essence of what jazz music is and live a more creative, spontaneous, improvised life. I may now take a look at how blues might also contribute to a more humanized approach to life.

    My Jazz article is here: http://technojungleblog.wordpress.com/2014/10/18/the-jazz-lifestyle/

    Next time you get to Vancouver, look me up. I think we have much to discuss.

    Bob Grahame

    myBobLog: http://myboblog.wordpress.com

    PhotoBlog: http://photoblogbob.wordpress.com

    Feature Photos: http://featurephotosbybob.wordpress.com

    The Technojungle Blog: https://technojungleblog.wordpress.com

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    • Wow. That is quite the comment Bob. I know why you are writing a book. Actually, I think this comment is a book. Ha Ha. ON a serious note (excuse the pun), I would be willing to talk to you any time about blues and jazz. After I went back as far as I could to study blues history, I also got stuck in my favorite era of blues (Chicago 1950’s in particular Chess Records – Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf and Little Walter). However, my reason for doing all this was to become a better musician, so I have made an effort recently to listen to as much current stuff as possible. I have a similar problem with Jazz. But, gaining a deep understanding of blues and jazz is difficult at the best of times, because there is just so much of it to know.

      As far as techno is concerned I went to quite a few raves, when I lived in England. I think I understand the hypothesis about dehumanization. But, I think techno does embody the creativity, spontaneity and improvisation that you associate with Jazz. I think the change in technology just allows this creative energy to be expressed in a different way. It also makes the music for more accessible, in terms of getting involved as a musician and a producer. No need for years of study at music school or technical college. In the end, this is an extremely liberating force.

      Anyway. This is all a theoretical discussion we should probably have in a different forum (e-mail richardvgilbert@gmail.com). Thanks again for the very positive comments.

      Rich

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