Who gets the blues? A friendly debate.

ThoughtsCan a relatively privileged young man play the blues as well as an impoverished old man? That is a debate that is held repeatedly in blues circles and it cropped up again this morning. Let’s look at the two sides of the debate and put it to a vote.

My father, who prefers to be called “Pops,” has a passion for music and is a regular commenter on this blog. I consider his comments to be blogs themselves. They are always well-written and maybe one day he’ll agree to be a guest blogger here. But for now, take a look at an excerpt of his comment on my Track of the Week featuring “Quarryman’s Lament,” by Joe Bonamassa.

….I really think that [Kenny Wayne Shepherd] is a player who loves the blues from the bottom of his heart, even though he’ll never be an authentic blues player. That music is unique, in that it’s underpinnings are rooted in pain, longing and a bit of suffering. I don’t think that Kenny will ever experience that sort of despair, hence, his playing of the blues will always be from the outside, looking in….      -Pops

Pops believes like so many others that true blues can only be played by people who have truly suffered. I respectfully disagree and this is where the debate begins. Let me state my case:

It is not a musician’s level of suffering that makes him an authentic blues musician but rather his expert ability to transform that suffering into music.

First, I’ll attempt to refute a common misstep. Everyone suffers, it is a requisite for being human. I believe that everyone experiences emotional pain, the kind that inspires blues songs. From an outsider’s perspective, we incorrectly feel like we can judge people’s suffering and rank one person’s pain against another’s. Pain is a very personal experience and therefore any such comparison would be unfair.

Since Kenny Wayne Shepherd is human I have to believe that he has suffered. That suffering is the source of the blues. What separates the blues greats from the wannabes is their ability to channel that raw emotion into a compelling musical performance. Although an old man may have more time to practice the art of converting pain into music, that doesn’t mean the old man will actually practice that art. As with most things, practice and talent make the difference.

So I’ll wrap up my side of the debate by saying that Kenny Wayne Shepherd and his youthful contemporaries are very good at transforming their suffering into music. And they didn’t get that way because they’re old or poor. They got they because they are extremely talented and because they practice that art everyday of their young lives.

So now that I’ve made my case, take a listen to three young, blonde bluesmen.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd broke onto the blues scene just 5 months after turning 18 when he released his first album Trouble Is… in 1995.

Joe Bonamassa, born just over a month before Shepherd, released his first album A New Day Yesterday in 2000 at the age 23.

And Jonny Lang released his breakout effort Lie to Me one day before turning 17 in 1997.

Now let’s put it to a vote.

For more information about me and the guitar lessons that I give in and around Baltimore, visit www.ewguitar.com.

8 responses to “Who gets the blues? A friendly debate.

  1. this reminds me of the scene in “white men can’t jump” where sidney (wesley snipes) is telling billy ho (woody) that he can’t “hear” jimi hendrix… that he’s allowed to “listen” to jimi, but that he can’t really hear him because he’s white haha. anybody?

    • Yeah, that was a funny scene! I liked it when Billy Ho said “Gladys Knight and the Pimps” instead of “Gladys Knight and the Pips.” That was hilarious!

  2. Can someone feel devastation at an early age. Sure! Hell when you are young, just ‘breaking up’ with ‘the love of your life’ is devastation. Look at all the trauma that young people go through in school. Some get teased to the point of suicide or seclusion. Many people have dysfunctional families that cause major heartache. I think that an ‘older’ person knows what these feelings mean more than a young person but the feeling are still there. Now whether or not these players that you mention have felt this is unknown to me but if they can convince their audience, then perhaps they have……

  3. Talent is abstract anyway, and some people are great actors. It’s all about the performance. Pain can’t be measured, but talent can. No matter the age, it’s all about how one brings it all together in a fashion that understood, enjoyed, and heard. The younger generation probably can put more feeling into their pain,trauma, mishaps, where as an older “person” may put more “wisdom” and meaning into his pain, mishaps, trauma, and life stories. I know that at 38 the meaning that comes from the same pains that I had at 21 are completely different and how I handle them are completely different.

  4. I don’t think age is the key, but pain certainly helps. For better or worse, drugs or alcohol had an influence on many of the greatest musicians in history. That kind of accelerates the musician’s aging/suffering level. Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan were putting out incredible, authentic music in their 20s, but it was their talent mixed with drugs/the bottle that seemed to crystallize it. Hendrix probably died b/c of it.

    Great call on Billy Ho hearing Jimi. I do think there’s a little bit of truth to that sentiment when hearing some of the younger blues players sing. Not b/c they’re white or black, but you can just TELL when someone has the pain pouring out of them. It’s hard to fake. I think the guitar is agnostic to the blues, so anyone can play authentic blues on the guitar, but only a select few can sing the blues.

  5. I agree that pain can be experienced at any age and by anyone from any walk of life. In fact, pretty much everyone experiences heartache in their life (if not everyone). I don’t have the figures, but I’d venture a guess that most of blues songs are written about the loss of a lover. Not many past puberty haven’t had that experience. It is the ability to take that experience and be creative enough to describe it through music and with that true feeling that listeners can relate to their own experience. I’ll even make the point that blues wouldn’t be successful or interesting at all if it weren’t for the fact that everyone listening can relate to what is being expressed because they have felt something similar themselves at some point. I think there are plenty of young guitarists out there that have the creativity and talent to keep the blues legacy alive for years to come and even take it to new levels. It is easily my favorite genre to listen to. Check out Davy Knowles and add him to the list of talented, young blues guitarists if you haven’t already. You may be glad you did.

  6. I believe that anyone who has a penchant to create music, employs the discipline required to acquire the skill set necessary to successfully play his or her instrument of choice, does so because they have something to say. Emotional triggers today are somewhat different than what they once were at the inception of the “blues”.
    What evoked the earlier blues musician’s emotional infusion into his playing was more “raw” in nature. Remember, the advent of the blues, and all types of musical expression, came before the modern age of mass media. The way I see it, life is no easier now than it was then, but because of an entirely different set of emotional stimuli. Society today, through the corporate advertising barrage, constantly alerts you to what your life should be, based on their established paradigms, and their desire to create a world of mindless consumers, looking for the newest flavor of the month. From the very start of all musical expression, emotions were not influenced in any other way from media stimulus. Yesterday’s musician’s impetus to express themselves came from a more personal level. I’d venture to say that their needs, desires, and social commentary were shaped devoid of any outside media influence. I guess what distinguishes the modern blues player from the older players is that today’s player has to think of what’s commercially viable, and the older blues players just let the music take them where it may.

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