The blues and writing about the genre; filling the hole in my life; my early musical ambitions; revelations in Louisiana; acceptance and understanding
A personal break through for me as a journalist (I think) came after recently speaking with blues musician Chris Thomas King, the Louisiana native and so-called King of New Orleans Blues.
I’ve known of King since he starred in “O Brother Where Art Thou” as Tommy Johnson, an early blues musician from the Mississippi Delta. His eerie and reflective rendition of “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” always intrigued me as a kid. When I was learning how to play the guitar, and when I was acquainting myself with the blues, I often did my best to imitate King’s sound. I never thought that one day I’d speak to the man.
Then again, I never thought I’d live in Louisiana, the heartland of the blues.
My interview with King comes at an interesting point in my life: I am 26; trying to establish myself as a writer; managing a newspaper in West Baton Rouge, Louisiana; displaced from my home state (Washington); in a committed relationship with someone for the first time; and yet I am still somehow lacking in some aspect. What it is, I can’t say.
I have a good life, but the things I once found fulfilling – even just a few years ago – seem forgotten to me. My “lust for life” seems like a forlorn quest, or just another unremarkable path to self-acceptance. Perhaps that’s not such a terrible ending, but I have a hard time imaging how I will ever reach that ending happily and at peace.
As a kid, the answer to happiness – or at least self-respect – was an easy one: music.
Since taking up the guitar at 12, I took the phrase “play till your fingers bleed” to heart. Although I never actually cut my fingers on the strings I damn sure tried. I loved my guitar. It was actually my dad’s guitar that he owned since he was about 19; an ember-colored Applause, similar in design to the Ovation guitars. I wasn’t very sentimental at the time, but I enjoyed the fact that my father was passing down the skill to his son with the very guitar that he learned on.
The guitar was huge for my size, but it was a point of pride for me. My friends’ parents bought them nylon-stringed guitars and cheap-o electric ones, but not me. I was determined to learn the hard way. As my friends quit after just a few months of playing, I stuck with it and I got better.
Music, and certainly the blues, taught me so many things about myself when I was growing up. My guitar was my therapist, my friend, and – as corny as it sounds – my first love. I could consult it when I was angry, lonely, happy, etc. I was constantly pushing myself to experiment with it.
I broadened my horizons with the harmonica a little bit, but at 16 the piano became my next challenge.“Roadhouse Blues,” by The Doors, was the first song on piano that I learned and it was the cornerstone for every other song I learned or composed. Everything I practiced on piano was jazz, blues or rag, in some way or another. My parents loved it and they encouraged me to continue. By the time I was 18 I couldn’t be kept from the piano. At high school parties, the old piano somebody’s parents kept in the dining room became the unassuming center stage, eventually stacked with cans of Coors Light and bouncing with music. I never dreamed I would lose it that skill. But I did.
Everything changed when I joined the Army though. There was no more piano, as I could not easily transport it around. The $2,000, 75-lb Roland keyboard (my most prized possession) that I purchased at 17 after a summer’s worth of work sat back home in my old room, which my parents promptly turned into a storage room.
Though, when I got to Ft. Riley, Kansas, I purchased a new guitar (a $120 Old Hickory that is still one of my favorite guitars). I also met some excellent musicians in my Army unit, the 1st Engineer Battalion, and played with many of them. But those relationships were only short-term.
When I came back home after three years, I was immediately involved with a girl. But I was too shy to play music in front of her (not sure why that was the case). I still played, but only when I was alone. Playing the piano became an occasional treat while was visiting my parents house during holidays in college. I was busy learning how to become a writer and wanted to be successful. Music seemed to be falling to the wayside.
All of my old friends who I used to jam with had either moved away, taken up busy jobs, or simply forgot how to play. And so here I am today. Moved away, working a serious job and slowly forgetting how to play.
But not everything is so depressing. Working and living in Louisiana has been full of surprises. I knew Louisiana was rich with blues history, but it turns out that much of that culture comes from the places that I cover in my newspaper, such as Baton Rouge, Port Allen, Erwinville, New Roads and the dozens of rural communities tucked into bayous and farmland all around the Mississippi River.
I first realized this at the West Baton Rouge Museum, just a few doors down from the newspaper’s office in Port Allen. The more people I spoke with, the more I began to learn how intricate and tight-knit the blues community was in the area.In fact, one of my most interesting revelations about Louisiana so far has been the discovery of the rich culture that seems to be hidden in some of these rural communities. The cities, such as Baton Rouge and New Orleans, for all their glamour and advertising, seem lost in their pursuit of tourism and money. The one-horse towns have no pretense, nor is there a need for any.
Understanding this has been inspirational. I called my parents early this summer and asked them if they could ship my guitar to me. Since I’ve lived in Louisiana the only instruments I’ve had access to have been my girlfriend’s broken banjo and child-sized nylon guitar (which is still missing a couple strings).
Needless to say, it’s been a while since I’ve played regularly. The only problem is that the calluses on my fingers are long gone. It’s a reeducation, which I suppose will be healthy.
I don’t know for sure if picking up the guitar is going to help me fill the vacancy that I’ve felt in my life. It may be more complex than that. But rather than define these things and look for a remedy or medicine, I think I need to simply relax and enjoy the guitar for what it is.
When I spoke with Mr. King, I had so many questions. The article I wrote about his recent lecture in West Baton Rouge was too brief to discuss the importance of the blues in any meaningful manner, but it did scratch the surface at something
During one of King’s lectures at the local museum, he told his audience that the thesis for his research in the history of the blues was “blues thought” and “blues philosophy.” During the conversation I had with him, I pressed him to define the meaning of those terms. He told me that to define them would defeat the purpose of having them, that condensing these concepts into a sentence or a phrase would devalue them. Blues philosophy simply is.
As a journalist and a writer I am compelled to retell stories and define issues, but I’m beginning to realize that maybe I have become too smart for my own good. Not everything requires a definition. Perhaps it’s time to stop asking questions and just accept some things for what they are.