The Blues As Contemporary Art Form

Jim Morrison once said “I am an American first.” The Blues, one of only a few truly American artforms, appropriately provides the backbone to the music of the Doors. Here you can explore it's roots, history and players.

The Blues Moves Into the Future

After twenty years, the blues movement, which had been revived in the 60s, was once again beginning to run out of steam. Again, some eager young blood was waiting in the wings to get things rolling again. At the head of the crew were Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray.

By galvanizing the familiar forms of electric guitar blues, Stevie Ray Vaughan refreshed the whole genre with his virtuosity. In the short term, his influence seems more extensive than Cray's, his work inspiring a generation of guitarists much as B.B. King's and Jimi Hendrix's did two or three decades ago. But Cray may be one of the most important figures to come out of this period in the long run, because he steered the music into new territory.

If you define the blues by the rigid categories of structure rather than the flexible language of feeling and allusion, Cray and contemporaries such as Larry Garner, Joe Louis Walker and James Armstrong are a new and uncategorizable breed, and their music blues-like rather than the blues, each of them blending ideas and devices from a variety of sources - soul, rock, jazz, gospel - with a sophistication foreign to their forerunners.

The rediscovery of the blues has been expressed in widely different ways: the "new country blues" of Keb' Mo', Alvin Youngblood Hart, Corey Harris, Eric Bibb and Guy Davis - in the old fashioned bar-band blues of Magic Slim or Little Mack Simmons, who deliberately turned back the clock to fifties Chicago, or through the fiercely contemporary fusions of blues, reggae, rap and world music as explored by Little Axe, Ben Harper, Michael Hill or Lurrie Bell.

But this is only half the picture. By now it is clear that the future of the blues lies as much in white hands as black. Not all of those white inheritors are American. Among them are the Czech-German slide guitarist Rainer Ptacek, as well as artists from Japan, the Netherlands and Russia. Blues, like jazz before it, has become an international musical language. But what comes next?

There have been times when it has looked as if the blues would settle into a dull middle age, following in the weary footsteps of traditional jazz or Fifties rock 'n' roll, to become a perpetually recycled repertory in pub bands and Holiday Inn lounges, until all blues bands sounded like the Blues Brothers. Right now, that doesn't seem like such a big risk.

There have been glum predictions of the death of the blues ever since Big Bill Broonzy died 40 years ago. Yet new singers and players show up year after year to turn the funeral ceremony into a celebration of life and continuity.

Copyright ©2002-2008 by Tony Russell/

The Blues As Contemporary Art Form