October 17, 2005

If it don't fit

And now, a bit about the blues. If I was asked to list my top ten songs of all time, I'd put down Roop Tera Mastana, and after that I'm willing to bet most of the entries would be blues-based. Case in point: "I Believe I'm In Love", by the Fabulous Thunderbirds.

Something elemental about the blues, and I'm hardly the first to make that observation, so don't congratulate me. Perhaps it's the rhythm, or perhaps the way the chords follow each other in that simple sequence that just sounds so right. Or perhaps it's the improvisation that's invariably part of a blues-based song.

I don't know, I just listen.

In the '50s, a whole generation of musicians discovered the blues and used the chords in that joyous music genre we came to love as rock and roll. Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and the Big Man himself, Elvis: each churned out huge hits, and almost every one was built on the blues.

But before the 50s, the blues was primarily black music, sung in beer joints and piano bars across the American South through the first half of the 20th Century. In fact, in being expressive of the black American experience, blues has no parallel. There are blues about work and unemployment, railways and migration, the Depression, the war. And, as every blues fan quickly realizes, a remarkably high proportion of blues is about ... sex.

Bashfulness prevents me sharing the lyrics of some of these lusty classics here. But the titles will bring a smile to your lips, I promise.

So in 1935, Lucille Bogan whooped and hollered her way through "Shave 'Em Dry", an exuberant song that will still startle you with its outright bawdiness. Bo Carter sang "Banana in Your Fruit Basket" in 1931. "The Best Jockey in Town" was a Lonnie Carter hit, also 1931, exploiting that staple of sexual imagery, the rider on a horse. Lil Johnson, a singer who positively rejoiced in her use of outrageous lyrics, recorded "Hot Nuts" in March of 1936, and followed up with "My Stove's in Good Condition" a month later. The Mississippi Sheiks made hits of "Driving That Thing", "Ram Rod Daddy" and "Bed Spring Poker". The last is a relatively complex song that likens sleeping around to a poker game played on the beds of neighbours. Aletha Dickerson, singing as Barrel House Annie, is responsible for "If It Don't Fit (Don't Force It)", and let's face it, there could hardly be better advice, no?

And in June 1939, Lilly Mae Kirkman turned out "He's Just My Size", after which her blues recording career nosedived (nosedove?) into oblivion. Though to be fair, it was probably the war that was responsible, rather than a sudden outbreak of Victorian prudery.

So prevalent were all these songs about sex, that black blues singers began calling smut in song lyrics "blue". (I've always wondered, but never managed to confirm, if that's where "blue films" comes from). And, curiously, March was the most popular month for recording such songs. Something about the onset of spring, no doubt.

If their uninhibited performances -- that comes through even on the scratchy old albums -- are any indication, these singers clearly delighted in their naughty titles, their lyrics that left nothing to the imagination. "The impression is one of a powerful life-force, an optimistic sexuality charged at times with a challenging aggressiveness", wrote blues historian Paul Oliver. The energy and the songs were the singers' own expression of primal, explicit human emotions. Because blues is like that: elemental and simple, primal and emotional, naturally sexual.

So when Joe Ely belts out his "Mustta Notta Gotta Lotta", you know just where he's coming from. "Please understand me, everything's all right, I just mustta notta gotta lotta sleep last night!"

Oh yeah Joe, of course everything's all right!


Pareshaan said...

Nice article, What I would like to know is where to look for all these albums. Am a growing blues fan, and would love to hear more soem more, so do let me know?
Also have you seen the "Lightning in a Bottle"? Its a lovely documentary on the blues and their influence on music.
And what about "Masturbation Blues" by David Alan Coe??
Well Coe isn't exactly a bluesman, but I guess his title takes the cake!

Anonymous said...

Apun bhi blues mein ghus raha hai. :P
Would Clapton be considered in that genre?

Anonymous said...

And please write more articles on music.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Pareshaan, any good record store should have a section on the blues. Considering where you are, I suggest a trip to Austin's Waterloo Records, 6th and Lamar I think, a superb home to Austin music and lots of blues stuff. I had an album with all these on it, unfortunately the CD has somehow got corrupted.

Nope, I haven't seen "Lightning in a Bottle", but I will look for it.

Ani, Clapton owes a lot to the blues: many of his songs are blues-based. The Rolling Stones had an excellent and not so well-known album called "No Stone Unturned" in which nearly every tune has that blues sequence underlying it.

Pareshaan said...

Thanks for the pointer regarding Waterloo, though I don't think, I'll be able to make it to Austin this time.
This CSR thing is really big, its news to me, rather shocking. And I thought this kind of crap only happens in Bihar (especially after seeing Matrubhoomi).
What do you know!