If you know me at all or have been following this blog over the last couple of months you probably have come to the realization that I am a huge fan of George Carlin. Carlin would take a simple observation and give it a spin that made you stop and think. There were those who came before him such as Lenny Bruce that inspired Carlin and those that came after him who Carlin inspired for example Bill Hicks and Lewis Black.
I love Carlin's philosophies and how he laid it out in what seemed to be perfect logic. I loved the way he would look at the human condition and exaggerate it until it was so outrageous that a person would start to wonder if humans really were that bizarre I found it as astonishing to me as you probably are finding it that I disagreed with Carlin on a few things. So Mr. Carlin, wherever you are, give me a listen and a chance to explain. By the way I have a pretty good idea of where George may be in the afterlife and I pray that I never get the chance to meet him in about twenty years or so.
Carlin was performing one of his classic HBO specials one night when I heard him lay down the law that "white people have no right to play the blues." He went on to lay down a scalding blast aimed towards John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd for their Blues Brothers act. I understand where he was coming from as far as the Blues Brothers were concerned. Not only were they playing the blues as an act instead of seriously, but Ackroyd had opened up a "House of Blues" club that was suppose to give blues artists a venue to perform their art. It is like calling Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" real news.
No one knows when or where the blues started but it was probably on the front porch of some old black preacher in southern Louisiana. I can picture the old man having lost his wife to a disease and finding himself in sudden loneliness took leave of his church to travel around the south sharing his great lost love in the form of song. Certainly there was a time in which the blues were written and performed by people who were writing songs from broken hearts and broken lives and performing them with all the heart felt sadness that enveloped them.
Robert Johnson came on the scene as probably the first well known blues singer. Legend has it that Johnson had sold his soul to the devil in order to be able to play guitar with the skill that he had acquired. It is said that Johnson never let anyone actually see him play guitar but always had his back to the audience in the clubs or the recording studio. If the legend is true then Robert Johnson probably most definite had a good reason for singing the blues. He died at the young age of twenty seven. There are many stories about how he died but as far as I know, none have been established as the ultimate truth. Perhaps he did sell his sould to the devil and the devil came calling for his soul at an appointed time.
George Harrison wrote in one of his songs that "You got to pay your dues if you want to sing the blues and you know it don't come easy." This was the point that Carlin was trying to make. White people had not payed their dues. I am sure that as privileged as the white race has been in this country in our history, there have been some white people who have paid their dues. The black race does not have a monopoly on misery. Hank Williams music was loosely based on the blues. His songs are gut wrenching and full of heartbreak and sadness. Like Robert Johnson, Hank died very young at the age of twenty nine.Could the devil have come back to harvest another soul? Possible I think. Carlin wrapped up his monologue by saying "It isn't enough to know which notes to play, you have to know why you are playing them." I agree that in a short moment of musical history that this was probably the case. That time has passed.
To me the blues have become a musical style instead of a cry for mercy as it was in its early days. There are blues singers of every race and gender. I do believe that to be a legitimate blues singer, you have to be able to feel the words and the notes from your heart. Todays blues performers, the good ones, have a way of bring this sense of lost souls to their music. B.B. King, Albert King, Buddy Guy along with Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Gregg Allman and others seem to have this deep understanding of the music and the words. They are able to pull it out from deep inside of them somehow and give us true blues in their performance. Coincidentally, Vaughn died at the an early age as well when he was thirty five. Perhaps the devil does have an important part that was played in the development of the blues.
The problem I have with Carlin's thinking is that he took the Blues Brothers and cast a net over a whole race of people excluding them from performing a certain style of music based solely on their race. That is just plain not right and one of the few mistakes in the Carlin philosophy that I have found.
Everyone gets the blues. Everyone should be able to express it once in awhile.