talking blues

LAST NIGHT I GOT TO TALK about the blues with Volkonski (the title of our discussion at the Pärimusmuusika Ait was “can a white man understand the blues”). It’s part of a series of discussions where a foreigner discusses the music of their homeland. I chose the blues to represent the US, because, as Morgan Freeman says, the blues is America’s classical music. We listened to Muddy Waters (“Got My Mojo Working“), John Lee Hooker (“Decoration Day“), Howlin’ Wolf (“Little Red Rooster“), Willie Dixon (“Hoochie Coochie Man“), Robert Johnson (“Hellhound on My Trail“) and I insisted on including Jimi Hendrix (“Machine Gun“). We also played “Commit a Crime” off The Rolling Stones’ 2016 Blue & Lonesome album and a tune by Gary Moore. For modern day tastes, I included The Black Keys (“Crawlin Kingsnake“) off Delta Kream (2021).

I was asked about how I found out about the blues. My memory failed me, but on the way home, I remembered watching The Blues Brothers on TV when I was about eight or nine years old, and telling my third grade teacher, Mrs. Vreeland, the next day that I couldn’t do my math homework, because “I was too busy watching The Blues Brothers.” That movie included performances by John Lee Hooker, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and even Cab Calloway (yes, he was still alive). Years later, in high school, a friend and I picked up the “mission from god,” and formed our own soul band (which needs to reform).

During the discussion, we also discussed blues folklore. The West African origins of the word “mojo”, which comes from the Fula language and means “witchcraft,” or what exactly a John the Conqueroo Root is. I also described the concept of a nation sack, where a person, usually a woman, collects some personal items of a man she wants to control, and keeps them in a tiny sack that she carries on her at all times. I also was asked to define the term “Hoochie Coochie Man.” “Hooch” is liquor, and moonshine in particular. “Cooch” is slang for a woman’s sex organs. A “Hoochie Coochie Man” likes drinking and sex. The Estonian translation was “handsa-tussu mees” or “puskari-vittu mees.” A “kõva vend” as Prince Peeter Volkonski said.

The blues were the music of the lower classes along the Delta, the Mississippi River, and later in the northern cities. It was the music of the Hoovervilles made of cardboard and metal houses, of gambling and prostitution, and crime, in general. It was the music of people who didn’t know when they were born, or could barely write. It was called the devil’s music. But, as Volkonski said, you could listen to the gospel in church in the mornings and sing the blues all night.

We agreed that a white man could understand (“mõista” also translates as intuit, or recognize) the blues, but we weren’t sure if a European could ever play it with as much grease, dirt, and soul as Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker. It gets inside you, but it’s almost impossible to copy. Many have tried, but only few have succeeded. He praised the Stones’ album as being as close to the genuine article as you could get. “It’s almost as if it was recorded by a completely different band,” he said. Volkonski loves this music and spoke passionately about it. He’s a true Blues Brother or “bluusivend.”

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