THE BLUES—Why It Still Hurts So Good
by Marie B. Trout, PhD
(Yakkabiz Publishers, 337 pages, available to order on Amazon.)
Oh, the first line of the blues is always sung a second time,
The first line of the blues is always sung a second time,
So by the time you get to the third line,
You’ve had time to think up a rhyme.
(“Poppa’s Blues,” lyric: Richard Stilgoe)
Let’s face it. The blues are very forgiving. Perhaps that’s why they hold an allure that connects with so many. Life can be tough, but somehow the right arrangement of musical notes and a trustworthy voice can help us get through it with a little dignity and maybe even a morsel of insight. That’s the ‘hurts so good’ part. Attending a blues concert is an immersion in emotion, imagination and recognition that connects audiences of all kinds to a visceral experience unlike any other.
In The Blues—Why It Still Hurts So Good, author Marie Trout has delivered an entertaining, informative book that speaks volumes on virtually every relevant aspect of the blues as it is today. The book treats the blues (and the fans of the musical genre) with an admirable blend of scholarly inquiry as well as first-hand instinct. After all, it’s her world; Dr. Trout is an historian, a writer, a cultural chronicler and she also happens to be married to a blues artist (Walter Trout). She earned her Ph.D. writing her dissertation in Wisdom Studies on the healing effects of the blues. Eventually, that dissertation became this enlightening book.
In the study, she raises questions about the role of modern blues and the audiences that thrill to it. Her methodology, combining survey and interview, is sound and it results in a series of fully supportable conclusions. If you’ve been to a blues concert, you’ll likely recognize yourself in the observations. Is there any genre of music so inviting, so tempting, so affirming… so available in which to lose yourself? Athough the general effect of the blues is a common narrative, the book shows how each listener’s response and negotiation with the music is highly personal. As a middle-aged, white guy in 2017, this listener isn’t exactly like the guys who began and developed the blues, but Dr. Trout’s Grounded Theory study (of what blues fans get out the genre today) made sense to me. The blues that once aided one in strategizing ways to survive various oppressions are the same blues that allow another to loosen his tie and survive in other ways a century later. The name implies otherwise, but the blues are a strengthening and healing experience. Although addressing different needs, the power of the blues remains constant.
There is much to admire in Dr. Trout’s work. Not the least of which is the ample size of her inquiry. She interviewed more than one thousand blues fans, performers, and industry insiders. There must be something about the blues that invites people to let their guard down; many of those questioned were exceedingly forthcoming with their descriptions of how the music fills needs sometimes left empty in contemporary society. In the end, Dr. Trout paints a portrait of the blues as being one of the most malleable and useful forms of art out there.
But, of course, when dealing with the blues, there is no end. Like life itself, the negotiations with truth and meaning and where we fit into it all goes on and on… at least long enough for us all to have enough time to think up a rhyme.