Thursday, December 01, 2011

The Art of 12 Bars

When I first read Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" I became acutely aware of the fact that American history teems with alternative narratives, the narratives of struggles and movements that get shuffled underfoot by the sanctity of a mainstream mythology that provides the defining values of our society and civilization. Zinn's work to remains vital, and perhaps is most significant, not because it supplants the mainstream American meta-narrative, but because it compliments it, problamtizing our collective assumptions and reintegrating into the mythology the conflicts and contradictions that comprise the essential American experience.

I reflect on this while listening to BB King's "Lucille," the song named after the guitar that delivered King from the plantation. Watch an old performance of any of the greats - BB, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters - and you will see in the style, the dress, the attitude, the sound and the setting, something that is a quintessentially American art form. The myth of the blues begins in the deep south. It emerges as reflection both of the reality of sharecropping and Jim Crow, and the yearning to create an actualized alternative narrative to the minstrel show. The progress of the blues, from the Delta to the industrial north, its electrification and increasing sophistication, is the history of African American migration, displacement and perpetual marginalization. And to the degree that the Black experience as expressed in 12 bars reflects a deep contradiction within American Civilization - the myth of all persons being created equal - the blues itself is rife with telling internal conflicts. On the one hand, blues owes much to the spiritual and work song, expressions of a communal ritual reflecting an a religious configuration used to express life of exile. On the other hand, we find the blues man as the essential outsider: Robert Johnson selling his soul at the crossroads, bargaining with the Devil himself in exchange for preternatural musical abilities.

In reckoning with Rock and Roll and all its iterative forms and dispersions, we always return to the blues, gospel, and audacity of the outsider.The form and context remains based in tension and opposition. This remains true through the main sequence life Rock and Roll from Little Richard through Hendrix and indeed to Chuck D and Ice Cube. This tension urges us to face the American experience through the lens of the 12 bar progression, the constitution that provides the basic outline for improvisation and individual expression and innovation.