I’ve often thought that if blues musicians would just sleep in they would be happier. So many blues songs begin with “I woke up this morning…” only to be followed by a litany of frustrating events. Of course, to be a blues musician one must have the blues and to have the blues I suppose one must get out of bed and face the world. Might as well get an early start. Unhappiness as a raison d’être may seem like an unhealthy exercise until considering the cathartic power of music. Perhaps blues musicians are on to something.
Music, like humor, can be used to varying degrees for varying effects. Some music is strictly utilitarian, designed purely as a backdrop to dance, or even march. Similarly, humor at its most basic level can be mere entertainment and nothing more. This is a noble purpose in and of itself; however, humor and music each have a transformative element that when harnessed properly can heal. When the two are combined effectively this power can be immense. This is true for every genre and period of music – from the “Vesti la giubba” from Pagliacci to Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” to Cee Lo Green’s “F**k You” – but is perhaps most effective in the blues and its logical extensions: country, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll.
This is because humor and the blues share similar expressive properties. The blues is counter-intuitive. One would think that a sad man or woman singing sad lyrics over a droning, confining musical bed would evoke sadness in the listener. Someone who is overworked, tired and lonely singing about being overworked, tired and lonely seems like too much to ask the listener to bear. Yet, in practice, the reality is that the blues makes us feel better. There are psychological explanations for this. For one, our problems often seem less tragic when compared to those of another. Further, there is a comfort we as humans instinctively take in shared collective experiences.
For example, it never takes long at a funeral for the somber conversation to turn toward some humorous story or remembrance involving the deceased. There is usually an initial, unspoken moment of awkwardness where mourners feel almost guilty for laughing at what is supposed to be a sad and serious time. But that false sense of guilt dissipates quickly upon realization that it is not only OK to laugh in times of despair and loss, it is appropriate and even essential.
In “Divin’ Duck Blues,” the great pre-war Tennessee bluesman Sleepy John Estes laments his lack of good luck in a comical and oddly optimistic way. The song begins with a now familiar couplet purporting to explain the singer’s alcoholism, or possibly even suicidal tendencies.
Now if the river was whiskey and I was a diving duck
I would dive on the bottom never would come up
There is nothing funny about alcoholism or suicide; however, the charm of the imagery in the opening lyric gives the entire song a lightness that serves it well. (Cowboy crooner Tex Ritter adapted the lyric to waltz time a few years later for his 1933 song “Rye Whiskey,” delivered with a comical drunken slur – complete with fake hiccups.) As the song progresses Sleepy John tells us about the dangers of fooling around with married women and finally ends up at the railroad station hoping a train will pass by before he has to start walking. This is hardly a comical song but there is an odd buoyancy underscoring the singer’s experience and the imagery of a duck diving into a whiskey river allows the listener to enter this world on a humorous note.
Perhaps no American artist synthesizes despair and humor better than Hank Williams (and the legendary country artist was most certainly a bluesman at his core). Hank’s was a poetic and tortured soul. He lived – and died – on the perpetual Lost Highway full of broken families (cheating lovers, absentee fathers, estranged children), fast freight trains, honky-tonks and moonbeams. Yet even his bleakest sentiments contained a poetic grace. The “lonesome whippoorwill,” the “purple sky” – these images keep the idea of being so lonesome one could cry palatable.
Hank – sometimes called “The Hillbilly Shakespeare” – was equally adept at comedy as well as tragedy. For every “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” or “Alone and Forsaken,” there is a light hearted romp like “Hey Good Lookin’” or “Settin’ the Woods on Fire” which celebrate life. One element of Hank’s genius was his inherent understanding that humor and tragedy are not mutually exclusive. In “Move it on Over,” the protagonist has stayed out all night long one too many times and is locked out of his home by his angry and frustrated wife, forced to literally sleep in the doghouse.
She’ll crawl back to me on her knees, I’ll be busy scratchin’ fleas
Move over good dog ‘cause a bad dog’s movin’ in
In the ironically titled posthumous 1953 hit “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive,” Hank reveals a laundry list of examples outlining the lousy lot he’s been dealt in life. The wit in his writing and delivery is infectious and no matter what trials we as the listener may be facing in our lives, listening to Hank Williams list his miserable experiences in such a comical, absurdist way makes us feel immediately better.
My distant uncle passed away and left me quite a batch
And I was livin’ high until the fatal day
A lawyer proved I wasn’t born, I was only hatched
Even failed suicide attempts can be funny in a Hank Williams song. The singer in “Long Gone Lonesome Blues” is heartbroken and at the end of his rope so he decides to drown himself in the river, with little luck.
I went down to the river to watch the fish swim by
But I got to the river so lonesome I wanted to die
And then I jumped in the river
But the doggone river was dry
Talk about not being able to catch a break. Clearly a master at fusing laughs and longing, who else could take a song about a failed suicide attempt in a dry riverbed and turn it into a catchy, hummable #1 hit record?
For Big Joe Turner, the blues was something to be shouted and laughed, rocked and rolled away. The blues was not a lonesome, reflective thing but a jubilant celebration of life, love and Saturday night – a reason to dress up to the nines and hit the clubs on Central Avenue and forget the daily doldrums of working-class life. This reflected the optimism found in the vibrant African-American communities of post-war Los Angeles, where Big Joe Turner was the undisputed “Boss of the Blues.” Big Joe Turner did not contemplate suicide in his lyrics, not even comically. Where Sleepy John Estes wished to drown in a river of whiskey, and Hank Williams just needed water in his dry river in which to drown, Big Joe Turner flipped, flopped and flew.
When I get me the blues I get me a rockin’ chair
Well if the blues overtake me gonna rock right away from here
So what can we take away from the words of Sleepy John Estes, Hank Williams and Big Joe Turner – each a unique and influential blues musician coming from a different perspective to the same eventual place? The answer is self-evident: don’t take things so seriously. It’s only life and, try as we might, none of us will get out alive. All we can do is appreciate the abundance of beauty along the way. Even with life’s innumerable trials there are endless opportunities to laugh. It is our duty to embrace these opportunities. No matter how bad the blues may get us – and it will get us all at times – put on some records, grab a rockin’ chair, have a good laugh and watch the blues disappear. As another famous bluesman from Minnesota once said, “it’s life and life only.”
Matt Powell is a writer, musician, lawyer and entrepreneur living in Venice Beach, California. He has a Bachelor of Music from Berklee College of Music in Boston and a Juris Doctor from Loyola Law School, Los Angeles. He is the guitarist and songwriter for The Incredible Heavies and The Sharbettes, as well as the co-founder and designer at Plecas Powell Design, a mid-century modern furniture design company. He often writes about music as a means to explore the interconnectivity of broader issues and themes.