“Repeal the Blues” (Ray Noble & His Mayfair Dance Orchestra)

Possibly the Dale Carnegie message of 1939: “good news” comes after the decision to “repeal” and exile the blues. Assuming a ban(ning) logic, bells toll amid trumpet flares at trax’s end signal positive town-by-town change. What’s really spreading is alcoholism, where happiness is indecipherable despite and because of the neutralization of inhibitions—merely a compensatory structuring to make the “blues” inhabit an inhospitable place. Not quite the stateless state, the blues, as such, is unelectable; a high court without appeal(s).


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“Stone Crazy” (Buddy Guy)

Presently positioned as the object of Jimi Hendrix’s affection, it’s also become common knowledge that Leonard Chess initially constrained Guy to sideman status and fairly tame guitar tones. But the beginnings of Guy’s (amplified) overdrive can be heard here in 1962. Restrained initially, the lines/runs slowly become more direct and shrill; in the solos, the distortion emanates from the note’s floor/base and occupies the majority of registers. The narrator’s main complaint: he’s betrayed by a lover who thinks his “little heart is made of iron.” Even his daughter knows this isn’t true, so it’s willful abuse. But this leads to a complaint about labor and location: slinging guitar in the North isn’t compatible with the clothes he’s accustomed to wearing. So, he’s going “back down South.” (But that’s not gonna happen; he’s just started ripping the top off of blues amplification, and the song goes on to be released in different forms on almost 50 different albums/compilations.) Devastated, overwhelmed, and speaking from a contractual/obligatory positioning, seeking an appropriate climate is a luxury. After the plaint: a throbbing, throttling identity whose work—levied at the point of a finger—begins.


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“Dark Was the Night—Cold Was the Ground” (Blind Willie Johnson)

On September 12, 2013, Voyager 1 became the first Earth-made object to enter interstellar space. Perhaps more importantly, the “Golden Record,” curated by a Carl Sagan-led group, is affixed on its outside, offering what has been deemed a “global anthology” of Earth life as conceived in the early 1970s. Containing images, sounds, music, and “spoken greetings” in fifty-five languages, the LP was also meant to serve as a document of our shared “cosmic loneliness.” And the contents of the disc (folk-ed trax, especially) parallel the problem the record was to solve: how to bring people together by transcending difference that redeploys difference in order to communicate our “diversity.” Along with “Melancholy Blues” by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven, Blind Willie Johnson’s piece represents the blues on the disc. Marked by forlorn humming and at the edge of speech, Johnson’s trax resists what Jeffrey Carroll deems the “directly expressive [and ‘wordless’] . . . rhetoric of the interjection” (When Your Way Gets Dark: A Rhetoric of the Blues). If one invests in the “emotion” of sound, what’s abandoned is the articulation of abandonment that emerges from a homeless wanderer. And this isn’t Simmel’s “stranger,” who serves as a marker of and diagnostic for group belonging, but a manifestation of isolation articulated toward the other. “Meaning” isn’t present as such. What is: the disturbance of being at home in this world. Or: the alien-ness that comes from (punishing) relation.


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“Strange Things Happening Every Day” (Sister Rosetta Tharpe)

True! First, this electric guitar blues and its solo qualify as strange for 1944 (and prescient in rock’n’roll retrospection). On another level, “strange things,” closely read in Sister Tharpe’s lyrics, are ongoing conversions to “Jesus” from the realm of liardom. But “strange things” refers to the Bible, too, where, “Thine eyes shall behold strange things, And thy heart shall utter perverse things” under the influence of wine (Proverbs 23:33; ASV [1901]). And what strange things are these? The King James Version narrows matters to “strange women”: foreign concubines, prostitutes, adulterers. Perhaps Tharpe takes wine and women and song to heart at the seeming border between the secular and the sacred. Indeed, the border itself is at stake in the very idea of the “strange” more broadly considered as the foreign, alien, different, external, extreme, exceptional, queer, rare, uncommon, singular, and surprising. Advocating a posture of lubricated wonder and welcoming toward the other.


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