Like most people, I get to feeling bad from time to time about one thing or another. Things don’t always go my way, and the march of daily disappointments often leaves me in the dumps.
But what gets me through the blues is music — music simply called “the blues.”
Blues music emanates from the roots of our difficulties. It’s music that has its genesis in the blood and sweat and toil of men and women who worked hard in the dirt and the dust and the mud and the grime of fields and forests long ago; men and women for whom music was one of their few salvations.
Some people still work like that, but many more of us in this day and age do our work sitting on our butts, talking on the phone, staring at a screen, pecking away at a keyboard. Now, I happen to love my work — pecking away at a piano keyboard. It’s not backbreaking, hard labor. But I still get the blues, and playing blues music helps me deal with the bad stuff that inevitably happens.
The rhythms and chords and scales of the blues may seem simple, but to me the sound of the blues is as complex and contradictory as our lives. Minor melodies of experience play against major chords of desire, over a groove that pushes fast and pulls slow, creating a harmonic richness full of dissonance and resolution. I find great joy and satisfaction in hearing and playing through these moods of the blues.
The stories this music tells are those of the human experience: our woes and sorrows, our joys and triumphs. When I play the blues, the music has a way of distilling complicated troubles. It addresses the thing that’s really getting me down and brings it to light, allowing me to sing and dance in its face. When B.B. King cries, “The Thrill Is Gone,” Charles Brown warns about “Bad Bad Whiskey” and Otis Spann proclaims, “It Must’ve Been the Devil,” I know I’m not alone. Someone else has suffered just as I have.
The blues also brings me together with a community that is not distinctly liberal, conservative, religious or secular. Rather, it is all those things. It is universal — everybody gets the blues. There are blues lovers and musicians all over the world who support live performers, listen to blues radio stations, go to blues festivals, form blues societies. They publish magazines, create podcasts, sponsor competitions and present awards.
They do this because the blues means something to them and the music speaks to their soul — just like it speaks to mine.
So whenever something gets me down, I get down to the roots of American music and rejoice in the immortal words of Little Milton, who sang, “Hey Hey — the Blues is all right, Hey Hey — the Blues is all right.”
You see, I believe in the blues.
John “J.T.” Thompson lives in Bellefonte. His essay aired Sept. 5 on WPSU.