President Obama Must Learn to Feel and Sing the Blues

Pundits have suspected that President Obama has a hard time relating to ordinary people.  He seems to be distant and aloof, hoping to remain “above the fray.”  Unfortunately, he is also looking like a wimp who is afraid to fight for what progressives and liberals believe to be proper public policy.  His cultural and educational background taught him to compromise and be conciliatory.  However, this is not how the civil rights movement was able to make progress during the 1960’s.   This is a losing strategy for dealing with the angry and aggressive tea-baggers who are holding our country hostage.  As Bill Maher has stated we need a gansta (i.e., tough-black) president now more than ever!!

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus are offended and concerned that America’s “first black president” would forget his roots in the African-American community.  Problem is that Barack Obama has few if any connections to the legacy of slavery that has hung over the African-American community for centuries.   One way to think about this is that Barack Obama never had to really feel or sing the blues (this purely American music is intimately tied to African-American heritage and community.)   This article provides details on the history of the blues and its relationship to black culture.  You will also learn how to write your own blues song – using my free instrumental tracks for you to sing with.   I also review the wonderful book, DVD, and CD produced by Bill Wyman (former bassist for the Rolling Stones) called Blues Odyssey.  Pass this on so we all can start singing and enjoying the blues.


Elwood and Jake "Sang the Blues" much better than Barack can.

Much has been made of the fact that our president’s ethnicity is part black (i.e., African.)  However, the president’s life experience, viewpoints, and policy positions do not reflect the genuine “African American” experience.  In fact, being “black” in America is really about a system and culture of discrimination and inequality that persist to this day – not just about skin color, per se.  The president’s early life was not directly affected by this because he grew up on the multi-ethnic, tropical islands of Indonesia and Hawaii.  At that time, most of his African-American peers on “the mainland” were growing up under much more demeaning and difficult conditions – often in urban ghettos or rural wastelands.

Our president attended a private college preparatory school in Hawaii from the fifth grade until his graduation from high school in 1979.  He was one of only six black students at the predominantly white school.  This elite upbringing in a tropical paradise likely lies at the root of his disconnect from mainstream African-American culture and their plight.  His college education was at the premier schools that matter most to white Americans.  Again he has had many experiences that would not have been typical for his less well-off African American peers.

Obama’s family history, early life, and education are very different from those of current African-American leaders who launched their careers in the 1960s through participation in the civil rights movement (e.g., Jesse Jackson, Elijah Cummings, John Lewis, and the Rev. Al Sharpton.)  Unlike most black Americans, Barack Obama is not even a distant descendant of American slaves, but the child of an elite, educated man from Kenya and a middle-class, progressive white mother from Kansas.  Bottom line is that most African-Americans (as conventionally defined) trace their roots to African ancestors who were brutally torn away from their homeland and dragged to this continent against their will.  On the other hand, the president’s father had a passport to freely travel.

Given this upbringing, it is not surprising that President Obama does not pursue and push the progressive agenda in general and the black agenda in particular.  He grew up far removed from mainstream black culture and seems to have never really had to struggle to get ahead the way most black young men still have to do.  The president really needs to learn to feel and sing the blues if he wants to gain and retain the support of ordinary people – particularly African Americans.

In fairness to our multiracial president he clearly has delved deeply into his roots – including Kenya as discussed in “Dreams from My Father.”  He also has openly discussed race relations (recall the Cambridge police beer summit.)   His ideas and analysis on this subject are deep and complex – as one would expect from well-trained academic experts (witness the case of “yours truly” who turns each blog article into a dissertation.)   Now that he is getting back into campaign mode he is taking on the rhetorical styles and tactics of a community organizer crossed with a revivalist preacher.

Anyhow, it would be relatively easy to test my hypothesis that our first “black president” is unable or unwilling to embrace and sing the blues that are essential to being a true African-American.  For example, reporters could ask him the following questions:

  • Does his IPOD have any real blues tracks recorded prior to 1960 (e.g., Muddy Waters, Son House, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson?)   How often does he listen to these?
  • How often during his 15 years in Chicago did he attend the annual Chicago Blues festival?
  • How often did he go to hear live blues at Buddy Guy’s Legends or other Chicago blues bars?
  • Has he invited BB King, Buddy Guy or other living blues legends to perform at the White House?  If not, Why NOT!?

Other evidence shows that neither Obama, nor his 2008 campaign had any interest in connecting to or being associated with the blues.  The following picture displays the CD that the Obama campaign produced including what presumably are their favorite songs.  Check out the following back cover and you will find no genuine blues artists or music represented.  Given the importance of blues in African-American culture and heritage this omission is conspicuous.  There is plenty of hip-hop and R&B.

In many ways, former President Bill Clinton had deeper roots in the poor, rural south that spawned the blues and civil rights movement than Barack Obama had.  Many even referred to Clinton as a first black president (remember him jamming on sax!)  If we could ask the same line of questions of the former president we would likely find that he is big fan of the blues; who also truly knows how to connect with ordinary people.  It should not be surprising that President Clinton always has been and remains a stronger advocate for the poor and black than our current president.  This does give some progressives buyer’s remorse that they jumped on the Obama band-wagon instead of on the Clinton blues train.

Now for my own blues credibility – I grew up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago (graduating high school in 1970).  I read the works of Eldridge Cleaver, Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X – instead of the classics assigned in school.  I listened to and played the blues – along with rock and roll.  I was fortunate to see Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Jimi Hendrix (the first multi-ethnic celebrity) live in concert.   Like many other young people at the time, my support for the civil rights movement was fundamental in shaping my own identity and ambitions.  I agreed with Frank Zappa who said “I’m not black but there’s whole lots of times I wish I could say I wasn’t white.”  Above all, I listen to and play the blues more than any other type of music.

I also spent 1971-1972 working in a hippie poster shop in Piper’s Alley (located in Old Town Chicago and still home to Second City).  I played music and went to many great blues and rock clubs.   I played and sang folk and blues during my years at University of Illinois.  I then had a chance to experience the wonderful Madison music and political scenes between 1978-1982.  Then I left music aside until about ten years ago (to work my ass off and help raise two great kids.)  Now I hope to teach us all how to jam together to build happiness and health.  Music is the foundation of our culture.  In my opinion,  the most important music to shape and shake many cultures is the Blues – including its offshoots bluegrass, rock, and jazz.

Dr. Tom picks and sings the BLUES - Summer 2011

Click Here to Listen to and Download Me Playing a Moderate-paced Blues in E-Major

Click Here to Listen to and Download Me Playing a Slow-paced Blues in A-minor

Muddy Waters - King of the Chicago Blues

I also have written my own blues song called  “Take those Son-of-a-Bitches Out.”  It was inspired by the passionate speech given on Labor Day by Teamsters’ president James Hoffa (son of late Jimmy Hoffa.) I went from this song right into the classic by Canned Heat called “Goin’ Up the Country.”   Here are the words.   You can listen to me sing, as well as play guitar, bass and harmonica.  Enjoy and tell your friends!!

Click Here to Listen to Me Playing “Take those Sons-of-Bitches Out”

“Take those Sons-of-Bitches Out” By Dr. Tom Hoban © 2011

Stop the right-wing wackos before they kill us all. (2X)
Take them sons-of-bitches out and give our country back.

With tea-baggers at the wheel, we will go off track. (2x)
Take them sons-of-bitches out and give our country back.

Conservatives want to take our rights but we have time to fight. (2X)
Take them sons-of-bitches out and give our country back.

Rick Perry and those other jerks will screw us that’s for sure. (2X)
Take them sons-of-bitches out and give our country back.

Progressives have to come together speak with one strong voice. (2X)
We must take them sons-of-bitches out and give our country back.

Progressives now can really fight since the unions have our back. (2X)
Take them sons-of-bitches out and give our country back.

What are “The Blues?”

Here are some of the more accurate and interesting definitions of “The Blues”

Houghton Mifflin Word Origins

America has long had the blues, but not until African Americans set the blues to music did we know what to do with them.  … African Americans had better reasons than most to feel the blues. So perhaps it is not surprising that they were the ones to make the most of the blues by setting them to music. This kind of blues came into being a few years ahead of jazz, to which it is related, thanks to W.C. Handy. We locate the beginning of what he called the blues in 1911; its fame was spread by his “Memphis Blues,” followed in 1914 by the even more famous “St. Louis Blues.” Following his lead, Americans of all colors have been hearing and singing the blues ever since.

Oxford Grove Music Encyclopedia

From obscure origins, the genre had developed by 1900 to its typical three-line stanza, with a vocal style derived from the field holler or shout of southern work songs. By the 1920s the first blues recordings were made, of the Mississippi delta ‘country’ tradition (and other southern regional variants) and the ‘classic’ vaudeville-based blues of such singers as Mamie, Clara and Bessie Smith, Sara Martin and ‘Ma’ Rainey. The migration north to Chicago during the 1920s led eventually to a new ‘urban’ blues tradition, coarser and fiercer than earlier styles. This led in the 1940s to the style known as rhythm-and-blues. All instruments were by this time amplified. The principal exponents were Muddy Waters and Howlin? Wolf. Blues influenced rock and roll and other genres, including skiffle and soul music.  It has continued as an independent genre, performed by B.B. King, Buddy Guy, among others.

Gale Encyclopedia of US History

Blues as a musical term can describe an oral tradition of African American poetry set to music using blues form (typically three-line stanzas with the first two lines being similar, set to a twelve-bar harmonic framework called a blues progression); the form of the poetry and/or the music; and an aesthetic that remains an ideal for Jazz performance in general.  Blues originated as an expression of the individual and interactive social tradition of a displaced African American population. It began with the African American agrarian working class of the Mississippi Delta and combined African American and European American traditions, particularly hollers (field work songs) and British ballads. It was established by the late 1800s as primarily a vocal and improvisatory genre, often with instrumental accompaniment.

Often using Slang, blues lyrics address life’s troubles, freedom, and gender roles and relationships, and are often explicit about sex. The recognizable style of the blues may include call and response, a constant rhythmic pulse, blue notes (lowered third and seventh scale degrees), and gritty timbres.  Publications (from about 1912) and recordings (from about 1920) came after blues had long been an established oral practice.  Many small and large jazz ensembles still play blues titles, use blues form, and borrow its manner of expression.  Blues has influenced many styles of jazz and instigated numerous pop genres, including Rock and Roll. The participation of different races and nationalities in the production and consumption of blues today make it a global phenomenon.

U.S. Highway 61, known as the “blues highway,” rivals Route 66 as the most famous road in American music lore. Dozens of blues artists have recorded songs about Route 66 … (CLICK TO ENLRGE any photo!)

For Your Listening and Learning Pleasure I have compiled the lyrics for over three dozen of what I consider to be among the most important and crucial blues songs.  I can play and sing them all!!  Click here to get the PDF file of these wonderful songs.  Then download the originals from your favorite source.  Spend a few months sings, drumming, pickin’ or simply groovin’ to them.  That will provide some insight into what it means to have and sing the blues.  Send this to the Prez ASAP.  Let me know what you think!!

Blues by Larry Hoffman

Since the 1960s, many talented white musicians have chosen blues music as their primary vehicle of expression — using as their models the great black players of the past and present.  The battle rages.  Purists insist that blues is an African-American cultural expression, inaccessible in essence to the white practitioner. The opposition points to the universal spectrum of feelings — from sadness to joy — that blues expresses.

What remains indisputable is the historical fact that the blues was developed entirely by the Black American, who over the years incorporated African elements of melody, rhythm, and phrasing with the European inventions of diatonic harmony and form. Both audience and player alike were predominantly Black for that gestation period. The modern White player came later — to “discover” the authentic music and recast it. Some incorporated it with rock & roll, pop, folk, and country music, while others faithfully covered gems of the classic blues repertory. Regardless of the color or nationality of the players who have been involved, it is universally acknowledged that blues is Black music. …

Blues is about tradition and personal expression. At its core, the blues has remained the same since its inception. Most blues feature simple, usually three-chord, progressions and have simple structures that are open to endless improvisations, both lyrical and musical. The blues grew out of African spirituals and worksongs. In the late 1800s, southern African-Americans passed the songs down orally, and they collided with American folk and country from the Appalachians. New hybrids appeared by each region, but all of the recorded blues from the early 1900s are distinguished by simple, rural acoustic guitars and pianos.

After World War II, the blues began to fragment, with some musicians holding on to acoustic traditions and others taking it to jazzier territory. However, most bluesmen followed Muddy Waters’ lead and played the blues on electric instruments. From that point on, the blues continued to develop in new directions — particularly on electric instruments — or it has been preserved as an acoustic tradition.

Electric Chicago Blues was developed in the late ’40s and early ’50s, taking what was essentially Delta blues, amplifying it, and putting it into a small-band context. Taking the basic guitar and harmonica lineup and fortifying it with drums, bass, and piano (sometimes saxophones), the form created what we now know as the standard blues band. Over the years, the electric Chicago style has been flexible enough to accommodate singers, guitarists, pianists, and harmonica players as the featured performer in front of the standard instrumentation. It has developed over the decades as well, with later versions of the style moving away from the strict Delta guitar patterns and embracing the lead guitar work of B.B. King and T-Bone Walker, creating the popular West Side subgenre.

During the ’60s, the blues were rediscovered by a new generation of young listeners. A number of older country-blues artists, like Son House and Furry Lewis, experienced a dramatic upsurge in popularity, as their older records became popular and they became in-demand performers. Many of these artists recorded prolifically during the Blues Revival of the ’60s, and these records became quite popular. At times, these recordings were the only opportunity the musicians had to record extensively since the ’20s or ’30s (or were the only chance to record at all).

Blues Music History In A Nutshell

The history of the blues is a strange story with deep roots and a lot to say about the shape of American culture.  The blues emerged from a black cultural melting pot in the American South of the 1890s, drawing on a rich mix of African-American spirituals, traditional songs, European hymns, folk ballads, work songs and hollers, and contemporary dance music.  By the 1910s (when the first recorded blues were published as sheet music), the blues had taken the form widely recognized today: 12 bars, AAB lyrical structure, and a distinctive scale with the third and seventh notes flatted.

Blues came into its own as an important part of the country’s relatively new national popular culture in the 1920s with the recording, first, of the great female classic blues singers and, then, of the country folk blues singers of the Mississippi Delta, the Piedmont of the Carolinas, and Texas. As huge numbers of African Americans left the South (driven by dismal socio-economic conditions and the hope of a better life above the Mason-Dixon line) between 1915 and the 1940s, the blues went with them and took root in the urban centers of the North, particularly Chicago.

The blues, one prominent writer has suggested, happened “as a result of one group of people being forced to enter another’s history.”  The story of the blues, then, is the history of African Americans told through the story of their most popular music. The blues is the story of the frustrations of failed Radical Reconstruction, of violence and oppression in the Jim Crow South, of the desperation of the sharecropping system, and of the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. The story of the blues is the story of black culture coming to a position of prominence and influence in American society.

It is the story of the young white liberals and intellectuals who sought out the rural blues as an artifact of America’s vanishing agrarian past. It is the story of the cultural present finding inspiration in the cultural past.   But perhaps most fundamentally, the story of the blues is one of American race relations, a document of struggle and conflict on the one hand. but also a suggestion of something universally human that just might point the way toward a future more premised on understanding and cooperation.

Mississippi John Hurt

Understanding American culture means understanding the blues By Michelle Hall

Harriet Ottenheimer and Wayne Goins have the blues.  Ottenheimer, professor of anthropology at Kansas State University, and Goins, associate professor of music, have been interested in the musical phenomenon since they were children, studied it in college, played it professionally and now teach it in their anthropology and music courses. In recognition of the “Year of the Blues,” they taught an entire course on the blues.

Harriet Ottenheimer

Ottenheimer said although many people like to listen to the blues, not many know where it came from or what it means.  “If they like the music, they should understand where it comes from,” she said. “People don’t realize the extent to which American culture is African-derived.”

Goins said he feels it’s important for people to understand the social atmosphere the blues grew out of.  “People don’t have ‘the blues’ anymore,” he said. “It’s foreign to us the way the blues evolved — we have too little to cry about now. We feel like blues should be more a part of American culture.”

The blues developed in small cities along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers in the 1890s and made its way to the delta in the early 1900s. It was an early party music developed by the children of former slaves, Ottenheimer said. Its musical and cultural foundations come from Africa, Europe and the Middle East. …

Wayne Goins

Kansas State University professors Harriet Ottenheimer and Wayne Goins took different paths to get to their love of and interest in the blues.  Growing up in Chicago, blues was the first style of music Goins learned to play on the guitar. His father was a harmonica player and his uncle, a blues guitarist who gave Goins his first gigs. Goins said he fell in love with the warm sound of the blues guitar.  “Every song I heard, I pretended I was there in the studio, making the music with them. The passion with which guys like Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf sang was overwhelming to me and I just knew I had to get closer to that music.  Goins continues to play jazz and blues music professionally, and has played on Broadway for Pearl Cleage’s “Blues for an Alabama Sky.”

Ottenheimer’s father was a “blues fanatic,” she said. Her family would listen to records and attend concerts in the late 1940s and early ’50s, where she became an “autograph hound.”  “I grew up in love with this music in New York City,” Ottenheimer said. “Going to concerts and meeting the musicians just blew me away. I wanted to know more, and I wanted to be a part of it all, to understand it all. What did it really mean, for example, to have ‘trouble in mind?’ or to be ‘laughing to keep from crying?'”

In college, she started out with a major in music and switched to anthropology and enthnomusicology for graduate school. By then she had learned the guitar and was playing in coffee houses and bars — her specialties were blues and folk. Ottenheimer even wrote her doctoral dissertation on blues singing in New Orleans.  She continues to teach, research and write about the blues and has published numerous articles on the subject.  “I will probably always love the blues,” Ottenheimer said. “Blues has an amazing ability to capture the most overwhelming experiences and emotions and to put them into words and music. The music and the lyrics can touch you emotionally like almost nothing else. It’s cultural, it’s personal and it’s poetic.”

For more information, you can a copy of the syllabus from a cool college course they taught at Kansas State University entitled:

African American Music and Culture: Focus on the Blues” (ANTH 517)

Blues in Chicago by Adam Green

As legendary guitarist Robert Johnson put it, Chicago has been a “sweet home” for the blues. The most recognizable cultural signature this city has produced, Chicago blues has diverse and contradictory roots: African American migration from the South and the growth of the modern music industry; regional folk genius and ethnic entrepreneurial savvy. This rich sense of origin and history makes blues music such a celebrated civic resource, one that still shapes cultural and social practice throughout the Windy City. …

During the 1950s, Chicago blues flourished, developing the signatures—use of rhythm sections and amplification; reliance on guitar and harmonica leads; and routine reference to Mississippi Delta styles of playing and singing—that identify it today. Consolidation of blues recording continued, with new labels Chess, Vee-Jay, and Cobra all signing and producing large numbers of artists. Of these, the most prominent was Chess, whose first generation of artists—Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield), Little Walter ( Jacobs), Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Burnett)—were exemplars of Chicago blues style.

The distinctive sound of these artists restructured popular music, providing fundamental elements for subsequent genres like soul and rock and roll. Indeed, the work of Waters on songs like “Rollin’ Stone” (1950) and “Hootchie Cootchie Man” (1954) had international influence, subsequently inspiring the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and other British bands. Dixon was also a figure of special note—in addition to playing bass and writing for artists ranging from Waters to Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, he supervised most of the studio sessions at Chess beginning in the mid-1950s.

A key catalyst to the blues’ postwar popularization were “black-appeal” disc jockeys, such as Al Benson and Big Bill Hill, who ensured that records released by Chess, Vee-Jay, and other labels received public exposure. By the late 1950s and early 1960s a new generation of West Side artists, including Otis Rush, Magic Sam (Maghett), and Buddy (George) Guy, carried the work of Waters, Dixon, and other Chess artists even further. Chicago blues soon attracted substantially broader audiences. In 1959, Dixon and Memphis Slim toured England and the Middle East: they would return to Europe in 1962 with a full roster of artists to perform in the first of many annual American Folk Blues Festivals.

Live at the Chicago Blues Fest

Overview of the Blues

Blues music, along with its jazz counterpart, is the only true American music form.  Blues has its deepest roots in the work songs of the West African slaves in the South. During their back-breaking work in the fields of the Southern plantation owners, black slaves developed a “call and response” way of singing to give rhythm to the drudgery of their servitude. These “field hollers” served as a basis of all blues music that was to follow.

Following the end of the Civil war, black men had few options other than back-breaking manual field labor or becoming a traveling minstrel. Many chose the occupation of traveling minstrel playing raucous, all-night country dances, fish-fries, and juke-joints. These musicians relied on their physical stamina and mental repertoire of many blues songs. Although the lyrics of many blues songs are soulful and melancholy, the music as a whole is a powerful, emotive and rhythmic music celebrating the life of black Americans. The lyrics of the songs reflected daily themes of their lives including: sex, drinking, railroads, jail, murder, poverty, hard labor and love lost. …

During the Great depression, blacks migrated north along the route of the Illinois Central Railroad toward Chicago. They brought with them blues music, and soon the sound of it filled rowdy urban nightclubs. To compensate for the loud crowds and bigger venues, some of the more inventive performers such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, made the switch to electric guitars and added drum sets to their bands.  This new electric Chicago blues was more powerful than its predecessor.

Sure Would Have Loved to Be There. I was fortunate to see each individually in Chicago!!

Selected Blues Quotes

Of course, there are a lot of ways you can treat the blues, but it will still be the blues. – Count Basie

Blues is a natural fact, is something that a fellow lives. If you don’t live it you don’t have it. Young people have forgotten to cry the blues. Now they talk and get lawyers and things. – Big Bill Broonzy

The blues are the true facts of life expressed in words and song, inspiration, feeling, and understanding. – Willie Dixon

Then I started checking out blues albums from the library and playing the harp along with them. – John Goodman

Once I was checking to hotel and a couple saw my ring with Blues on it. They said, ‘You play blues. That music is so sad.’ I gave them tickets to the show, and they came up afterwards and said, ‘You didn’t play one sad song.’ – Buddy Guy

See, that’s nothing but blues, that’s all I’m singing about. It’s today’s blues. – Jimi Hendrix

Blues is easy to play, but hard to feel. – Jimi Hendrix

The blues tells a story. Every line of the blues has a meaning. – John Lee Hooker

Anybody singing the blues is in a deep pit yelling for help. – Mahalia Jackson

I have heartaches, I have blues. No matter what you got, the blues is there. ‘Cause that’s all I know – the blues. And I can sing the blues so deep until you can have this room full of money and I can give you the blues. – John Lee Hooker

Leadbelly playing his massive 12-string. I have one like that.

The history of a people is found in its songs. – George Jellinek

It is from the blues that all that may be called American music derives its most distinctive characteristics. – James Weldon Johnson

Audiences like their blues singers to be miserable. – Janis Joplin

The blues is life. – Brownie McGhee

The blues and jazz will live forever, so will the Delta and the Big Easy. – Jack Nicholson

White folks hear the blues come out, but they don’t know how it got there. – Ma Rainey

The blues ain’t nothing but a good man feelin’ bad – Leon Redbone

When you sit down and think about what rock ‘n’ roll music really is, then you have to change that question. Played up-tempo, you call it rock ‘n’ roll; at a regular tempo, you call it blues. – Little Richard

If you don’t know the blues… there’s no point in picking up the guitar and playing rock and roll or any other form of popular music. – Keith Richards

The blues is losing someone you love and not having enough money to immerse yourself in drink. – Henry Rollins

Marker honoring Muddy Waters

A guy will promise you the world and give you nothin’, and that’s the blues. – Otis Rush

Nobody can tell you how the blues feel unless they have the blues. We all take it differently. -Otis Rush

When blues pain grabs you, you’ll sing the blues right. – Otis Rush

The blues comes right back to a person’s feelings, to his daily activities in life. But rich people don’t know nothing about the blues, please believe me. – Jimmy Rushing

There was one emotional outlet my people always had when they had the blues. That was singing. – Ethel Waters

There’s no way in the world I can feel the same blues the way I used to. When I play in Chicago, I’m playing up-to-date, not the blues I was born with. People should hear the pure blues – the blues we used to have when we had no money. – Muddy Waters

All you people, you know the blues got a soul. Well this is a story, a story never been told.  Well you know the blues got pregnant And they named the baby Rock & Roll. – Muddy Waters

As far as I’m concerned, blues and jazz are the great American contributions to music. – Edgar Winter

Bill Wyman’s: Blues Odyssey

There are a lot of books, CDs and videos about the blues.  One of the best ways to start is with the recent project by Bill Wyman – founding bassist with the Rolling Stones.  BTW, he still records and performs with his own band – Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings.  This is a man that was there at the beginning with Brian Jones who I profile and promote in an earlier article.  They made a pilgrimage to the south side of Chicago in the mid-sixties.  The first few Rolling Stones albums included covers of many standard blues songs.  Here I will provide some information about this wonderful project that will provide you with excellent background on the history and significance of the blues.

NPR MORNING EDITION – December 13, 2001

Click HERE to Listen

Former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman takes a look at the history of the blues. Wyman remembers the music and artists that influenced the Stones and other rock ‘n’ roll bands. (8:51)

Bill Wyman still playing the blues in 2009

Blues Odyssey – DVD Description from Bill Wyman’s website

Bill Wyman’s Blues Odyssey is told with the passion and insight that only he can command, through his having known many of the legends, played with them, talked with them and taken their music to the world. Former Rolling Stone Bill Wyman talks with many of the blues greats, and the programme includes contributions from a host of legendary performers. There is concert and performance footage, some never seen before, as well as candid informed comment from men and women who share Bill Wyman’s love for the blues.  Over two hours of footage featuring Bill Wyman personally interviewing such luminaries as BB King, Buddy Guy & Sam Phillips, in a global journey documenting  the history of blues music.  Plus – watch footage of the Rolling Stones in concert performing the Robert Johnson classic Love In Vain.


  • The Early Days
  • The Birth Of The Blues
  • Country Blues
  • Urban Blues
  • Robert Johnson And Elmore James
  • The Birth Of The Stones
  • Back To The Country
  • John Lee Hooker
  • Sun Records
  • Chicago
  • Chess Records
  • BB King
  • Spreading The Blues
  • Muddy Waters
  • Willie Dixon

Bill Wyman shared the stage and a true love of the blues with the late, great Brian Jones ( '60s)

Bill Wyman’s Blues Odyssey DVD starts by exploring the primitive origins of the blues in Africa and takes us on a global journey through the rural southern states of America up to the urban northern cities and eventually over to Europe and the UK.  Along the way are shown not only the areas where many of the great blues players came from, but also a number of the places they played in and around, allowing you to see and get a true sense of where the blues came from, thus helping not only to unravel the mysteries, but also furthering the romance of this vital genre of music.  Set to a backdrop of classic blues from pretty much every blues performer of significance over the last century, not to mention material from Elvis Presley, Cream, and Eric Clapton, from later generations, this is one of the most significant documentaries on the blues genre of recent times.

Bill Wyman - noted author and musician.

Blues Odyssey – Book Description

In this evocative and intensely personal history of the blues, Bill Wyman pays tribute to the musicians who inspired him and whose music he took around the world as a member of the Rolling Stones. The starting point of Bill’s Odyssey is the journey of African slaves to the plantations of America’s Deep South. We follow their descendants as they walk, travel the highways, and ride the railroads out of the Delta and the troubled South via Memphis to the northern cities of Chicago and St. Louis. But this is no superficial history: Bill Wyman’s in-depth odyssey reveals a society where poverty and injustice as well as love and faith, found their expression in a musical style that gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll.

Location shots of smoky juke joints, railroad stations, and endless highways combine with richly detailed maps to bring the Blues alive. Feature spreads with previously unpublished photographs from Bill Wyman’s personal archive showcase 40 Blues legends from Robert Johnson to John Lee Hooker, telling the story of their fascinating and often troubled lives. Bill Wyman is a legend in his own right. He has known and played with many of the Blues legends, and his personal knowledge and unprecedented access give this book an authenticity that is almost impossible to match.

Blues Odyssey – BOOK REVIEWS

From Publishers Weekly

As much a history of the African-American experience as it is a music resource, Wyman’s latest book (after Stone Alone) chronicles the rise of that heartbreaking, uniquely American music: the blues. With beautiful photographs, maps, drawings, portraits, time lines and record cover reproductions, the book spans nearly 400 years, from 1619 and the origins of slavery to the modern-day sounds of Bonnie Raitt and Eric Clapton. This stands as a truly comprehensive look at the blues. Readers learn about Papa Charlie Jackson, one of the first bluesmen to record (in Chicago, 1924); Ma Rainey, credited with bridging the gap between “urban” and “country” blues; and John Lee Hooker, who before his recent death was the “last living link to the prewar Delta blues tradition.”  The authors also discuss particular songs, including “Beale Street Blues” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” telling who has covered them and when. Instruments, geographical locations and record labels are discussed, as are society’s racial reactions to the music (for example, although physical segregation was rampant in the 1950s, radio helped in eroding the differences between black and white).

From Library Journal

Wyman, former bass guitarist for the Rolling Stones and the author of two previous books, has assembled a visually stunning coffee-table tribute to the blues that serves as the companion volume to the Bravo special (and DVD) of the same name.  Wyman brings out the connections among blues and jazz, vaudeville, rock’n’roll, minstrel song, and white country music as well as anyone could in anything short of a scholarly treatise. Included are the author’s interesting vignettes from his tour notes with the Rolling Stones, interviews with blues performers, brief biographies, fact files, and influences. Wyman’s love of the blues and his attachment to its practitioners are obvious at every turn.

From Booklist

Ex-Rolling Stone Wyman’s book is focused–jus’ da blooz, man–and altogether splashy, gaudy, and busy. Hailing from picture-book (as distinguished from art-book) producer DK, it goes with a Bravo cable-TV series, and it rocks. The basically chronological text happily lurches along, excitedly highlighting particular performers, venues (e.g., juke joints), songs, and subtopics like a hyped-up kid pointing out landmarks to visitors. The pictures are more family-album-like than gorgeous, and they are frequently laid out on top of panoramas that also serve as backdrops for the text. Rather than judiciously mentioning the most important performers, Wyman and Havers drop names like mad, which just boosts the book’s user-friendliness.

Bill Wyman and Brian Jones grazin' and groovin' in the GRASS - back in the bye-gone daze and haze.

For More about Brian Jones on my BLOG – Click Here

Blues Odyssey – MUSIC CD (Reviews from Amazon)

Leave it to a Rolling Stone to assemble the most generous, distinctive collection of classic blues issued this year. I purchased this set on impulse because I love early blues recordings and heard that Bill Wyman, of the Rolling Stones, had just produced a broadcast series based on the lives and works of early blues musicians. To be honest, there aren’t many early blues recordings on CD that have been as carefully researched or as beautifully remastered. There are two disks and 46 cuts on this bargain-priced collection, only about a third of which are performed by die-hard favorites like Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, Big Maceo, Lonnie Johnson, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Memphis Minnie and Blind Lemon Jefferson. The balance of the collection includes performances by musicians you may not have ever heard, or at least listened too very often, from Mamie Smith and Bo Carter to Casey Bill Weldon and Georgia White. But there isn’t a bad cut in the bunch. As with most of Wyman’s recorded projects, there is a distinctive, laid-back feel to the compilation. The music is intensely personal, and very listenable. Originally remastered in the UK by Denis Blackham, the warmth and presence of the collection is startling. Add to all of this a booklet that is handsome and informative, and I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend 20 bucks. PS. You don’t have to love the blues to enjoy most of these performances. Anyone who loves vintage jazz or roots music can dive right in. Very strongly recommended.

I’m rarely in someone’s Amen Corner, but I can’t disagree with anything the previous reviewer wrote. Rather, let me expand on it. The Rolling Stones, particularly in their salad days, were heavily influenced by black American blues as were many of their British contemporaries. Here the listener has the chance to hear 46 of the songs which influenced that generation of musicians and which touched Wyman in particular.  Bill Wyman has put together a fine group of old blues that feature a wide range of musicians, both famous and obscure, playing a wide range of blues styles. Rock fans who have never listened to traditional blues will recognize a number of these songs which have been covered by artists ranging from Van Morrison to John Mayall.  The 2-CD set includes an informative booklet containing short biographical sketches of each featured artist. It also contains many rare photos obtained from various sources.  Hats off to Bill Wyman! Blues Odyssey is a noteworthy compilation, very well remastered, that is worth every penny of its price. If you love the blues, buy this one today.

For all of you who enjoyed Ken Burns’ epic Jazz series, former Stones bassist Bill Wyman follows it up here with his own study and insight on the musical genre that he obviously loves, the Blues. Besides the handsome coffee table book, this 2 CD set contains most of the legends of the American blues spread over 46 tracks, from Papa Charlie Jackson’s 1925 recording of “All I Want is a Spoonful” to 1951 blues tracks from Elmore James and B.B. King. No, “The Thrill is Gone” isn’t covered here nor are the newer blues artists like Robert Cray or Stevie Ray Vaughan, just the old masters.  One thing I was reminded of was that the blues did not begin with Robert Johnson who emerged in the mid-’30s. Of course! Just like rock and roll didn’t begin with Elvis. Get this collection and check out Wyman’s commentary on each of the artists. It’s very informative and easy to get a grasp on what for many is an arcane musical genre.  And yes, as Wyman states, “the Blues are perfect however you feel.”

Chuck Berry doing the splits in London - was a major influence on the Rolling Stones, Beatles and others.

When Bill Wyman left the Rolling Stones in the early `90’s he claimed there were more important projects he wanted to work on including photography, art, and writing. Wyman was the first Stone to release solo albums that were released on Rolling Stones Records label.   Wyman has excelled in at least one post-Stones arena: writing. While his two books regarding his time as a Rolling Stone offer a sanitized glimpse behind the curtain, Wyman’s book, `Bill Wyman’s Blues Odyssey’ and the companion two CD set is nothing short of an excellent narrative of that great American art form, `the blues.’ For a brief time a companion television piece also aired on satellite networks.

Wyman’s companion two CD set release for `Blues Odyssey’ is the finest example I have ever heard representing this era of the recording industry. Within the compact disc is a 22 page booklet with excellent liner notes regarding each artist represented on this collection. The Linear notes are a good indication of how well the Wyman’s book was written.  What Wyman has truly accomplished is to lend his name and credibility within the industry to create well deserved interest in the artists that are unquestionably the pioneers and bedrock of the music industry and rock music in particular. Through the use of video, the printed word, and digitally enhanced audio recordings, Wyman has created a veritable time machine that allows the serious music fan to truly experience this music as it sounded when it was originally recorded.


As I mentioned at the start, despite being black President Obama is unable to sing the blues because he has not lived them.  The blues are so essential to African-American culture that they represent one way to get an intimate glimpse into and greater appreciation for what it means to have the blues.  In American today, just about everyone has the blues – about the future and the present.  Like the president, we all need to sing the blues now and then – as an emotional outlet if for no other reason.  It is also easy and fun.  You don’t need a good voice – but being loud helps. I found a couple good overviews about what it takes to write a standard 12-bar blues.

If you want to have some instrumental blues to listen to then I invite you to download the MPs files that I created (playing rhythm guitar on a nylon-string, lead guitar on my new Epiphone Riviera (see above) and harmonica.  You can jam along on any instrument (including clapping you hands!)   Then if you want simply record yourself singing over my music.  You can do that with a cell-phone voice recorder or even make a video.  You don’t have to fill it all with words.   Then send it back to me and we can share our blues!!

 Click Here to Listen to and Download a Moderate-paced Blues Shuffle in E-Major

Click Here to Listen to and Download a Slow-paced Blues Shuffle in A-minor

I play best when channeling the spirits of my heroes - Thanks Jerry who loved and lived the blues! (Back a few years ago when hair and beard were long. Too hot here in south.)

As an added bonus I have found and attached two PDF files that are lesson plans published by PBS to go along with Martin Scorcese’s ambitious project:  “The Blues.”  There is a lot more information available at their website.  It is definitely a great project worth watching.  I have a copy.

One lesson plan is entitled “Blues as African-American History.”

This lesson enables teachers to use blues music to explore the history of African Americans in the 20th centur y. By studying the content of blues songs, students can learn about the experiences and struggles of the working-class Southerners who created the music, including the legacies of slaver y and the cotton economy in the South, the development of Jim Crow, the Great Migration, and the Civil Rights Movement.

The second plan is useful here and is entitled “Blues Lyrics.”

This lesson examines both the content and form of lyrics in blues songs. In addition to highlighting the basic musical form of a blues song, it also addresses the use of floating verses in blues music, both within the context of the original era in which the songs were sung and also in relation to how this practice is perceived today.

Hip Jazz cat Blowin' Sax - Think Bill Clinton!!

How to Write a Blues Song by Blake Flannery

Blues is a feeling and a genre of music. When someone says “You’ve got the blues,” it either means you are a cool cat or you are depressed. This article focuses on the cool cat meaning. This is not about how to write a depressing song, so let that myth of the blues be busted. The blues is a “cool” genre of music that was born out of African American influences. You can literally trace the evolution and migration of blues music all the way to Chicago. Writing blues songs is an American tradition.

Some people say that you have to experience the blues in order to write blues songs. This article will give direction and inspire without having to live the blues.  This is for those of us who love blues for its expressive potential, even if we didn’t live through its creation. This is for those who haven’t picked cotton, migrated to Chicago, or played on the street corner for change.

The pattern of blues songs makes it a quick and easy write compared to most other song forms. There are no real rules for the blues, just a bunch of things that most blues songs have in common. For example, John Lee Hooker didn’t really care if he changed through a chord progression, but he sure could boogie. Then there are blues virtuosos who play variations of chord progressions and beautiful tasteful solos that make you want to cry. It’s all up to you what you want. Here is how to write a blues song:

Step One: Immerse Yourself

This seems a no brainer, but you have to start listening to blues if you don’t already. Whether you use your MP3 player or your old record player, listen for chord changes, repeating lines, and soulful melodies. Even better, go see someone play blues live. You will get to see the emotion needed to play and sing in the blues style, and you will come home with the smell of blues on you just as much as the smell of alcohol and smoke. Seeing legends like Buddy Guy, B.B. King, and others will give you inspiration that will last at least a day.  Besides listening to the legends you can immerse yourself in some newer blues guys.

Step Two: Choose a Theme

You lost your job, your best girl left you, your baby is cheatin. Whatever the theme figure out what you want to say. Blues songs don’t have to be about suffering, but they commonly are because blues are rich with feelings. Personal struggles give the songs more live and validity. Write your song in first person for the most personal touch. For example, “I woke up on the wrong side of the bed cause you were missin this morning.” The one line describes a lot more that’s going on than simply getting up in the morning. Many blues lyrics create inferred ideas that are metaphors. Many times they are sexual or spiritual.

Step Three: Write the Music

Hopefully you play an instrument, but if not try this. Try tapping the rhythm as you sing your song. Another option is to download some generic blues background tracks to sing along with. In fact, I have recorded and attached some for you to start with.  These are helpful if you want to learn how to solo on guitar, harmonica, piano, etc. You can work out your parts. Then you can record yourself with your computer with an inexpensive computer mic or use some studio recording equipment for the real deal. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Remember it’s the blues, so it can sound a little rough. The 12-bar blues is a simple structure of blues you may want to try first.

Even Bulldogs get the Blues!!

Step Four: Edit Your Blues Song

You should perform or play your song for people to get their feedback. Use some people who are musicians as well as others who aren’t. This will give you a chance to polish the song further and make sure it is listenable for the average person. You may get suggestions about lyric fit, timing, or melody changes that will improve your song. When you are done, write another one. You will only get better with time and practice. I have included a link to a sample of one of my original blues songs: “My Misery,” and I included a video of me playing the first blues song I ever wrote. Maybe it will give you some ideas. Don’t copy them too much, I did copyright them. Please share it if you are able to write your own blues song.

Tips for Writing a Blues Song

  • Don’t put too much thought into your song title: Use some of the lyrics you have written already as your title. Don’t go for anything abstract. Blues music is mostly direct and hones with the exception of sexual innuendos, so make sure your song title is easy to understand.
  • Write matching lyrics and music: The words to your song should be consistent with the music. Ask yourself, “Are the words in this song consistent with the feeling behind the music? If not you should write different music, or change the lyrics.
  • Keep writing new songs: If you get stuck while writing a song, move on. There’s no sense in wasting your time on one song when you can learn to write songs even better with more experiences. Let your creativity flow first, then you can be picky when you revise and record. When a song is complete move on. This way you learn from writing more distinct songs.

Writing a 12-Bar Blues from the BBC

The most characteristic type of blues is the 12-bar blues song.  Here’s how you can write one in eight steps.

1.  Pick a Subject

The main subject for the blues is the awfulness of life – how you’re down on your luck and how everything is going wrong. The most popular one is ‘my baby’s gone and left me’, but it could equally be about how you’ve got no money, how you’ve lost your job or any other example of the cussedness of life.

2.  Write the Lyrics

The lyrics of the 12-bar blues consist of three rhyming lines. The first two are identical or similar.  The lines should be fairly long – although the exact length and the number of syllables, and so on, is not important. It should rhyme though. The first (and second) line may launch into the woe straight way, or may tell a story which ends in the bad things happening later. Here are a few examples of first lines:

  • Working from seven to eleven every night.
  • Been down so long being down don’t bother me.
  • The dog was in the kitchen, I was staring from outside.
  • I went down on 31st Street to pick up a jug of alcohol.
  • I just had to get out of Texas, baby, cause it was bringing me down.
  • Well I woke up this mornin’ and found my pet dog had died.

Once you’ve mastered the first verse, go on to write the second, third, fourth and so on. It’s good form to stop at about five.

3.  Pick a Key

Grab that old guitar and strum an A chord. This is a good key, not too high and not too low. Sing a low A and a high A. Good, you can sing that high. If the top note is a bit of a wail, so much the better. Can you also sing down to the E below the low A? Even better, it’s not too low.  If A is too low or too high, you’re going to have work a little harder and figure out which chords to use yourself, as we’re not going to do it for you here.

4.  Sing the Scale

Sing out a blues scale based on A:

A B C/C# D E F# G A

The third note in particular needs an explanation. It starts at a C but slides up to a C#, making it not really either. When singing your melody, you can use either C or C#, whichever sounds best, or slide between them. This is a blues note.

5.  Practice the Rhythm

Blues is played with a shuffle rhythm. Try saying Humpty Dumpty Rumpy Pumpy over again, with one word per second. You’ll naturally settle into the Blues rhythm, with a strong beat and the ‘y’ syllable coming just before the next beat. Now try that on your guitar on the A chord:

down …(up) down … (up) down … (up) down … (up)

That’s one group of four beats, which is known as a bar. There’ll be 12 of these in the blues.

6.  Practice the Chords

The chord structure of the 12-bar blues is almost always the same. The ‘/’ symbol here means the same chord as before. We’ll only show the chord at the start of each bar (group of four beats):

A / / / D / / / A / / / A7 / / /
D / / / D / / / A / / / A7 / / /
E / / / D / / / A / / / A / / /

There are minor variations on it, but that’s the basic 12-bar structure. Play it until it gets into your soul.

Albert King

7.  Add the Vocals

Now it’s time to add the song to the chords. Don’t worry about the fact that you haven’t written any tune. Just sing the words out anyway that sounds right. Remember to repeat the first line again the same for the second line, even though the chords are different. Finish off with a different tune for the third line.  Repeat for the other verses.

8. Share the Blues with a Friend

You might like to let a friend sing some of the verses, or perhaps they could improvise a guitar solo by making guitar sounds while miming on air guitar instead of one of the verses. If you haven’t got a friend, that would make a good first line for your next blues:  “Oh I ain’t got no friend, not one in all the world.”

Howlin' Wolf with inspiration for "Good Morning Little School Girl"


Here you will find key segments from some of my favorite blues songs. I hope you find these inspirational and informative.  Wish the president would check this out if he wants to be a real African-American.   These are meant more as literary quotes than as lyrics to sing along with.  If you want to get full lyrics of these and 30 other songs then:

Click Here to download the PDF file I created

Big Boss Man by Jimmy Reed

Big boss man can you hear me when I call
Big boss man can you hear me when I call
Oh, you ain‘t so big, you‘re just tall, that‘s all

You got me working, boss man, working ’round the clock
I want me a drink of water, you sure won’t let me stop
You big boss man, can you hear me when I call?
Oh, you ain’t so big, you just tall, that’s all

Born Under a Bad Sign by Booker T. Jones

Born under a bad sign, I been down since I begin to crawl
Born under a bad sign, I been down since I begin to crawl
If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all

Hard luck and trouble is my only friend
I been on my own ever since I was ten
Born under a bad sign, I been down since I begin to crawl
If it wasn’t for bad luck,, I wouldn’t have no luck at all

I can’t read, haven’t learned how to write
My whole life has been one big fight
Born under a bad sign, I been down since I begin to crawl
If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all

Hoochie Coochie Man by Muddy Waters

Gypsy woman told my momma, before I was born
You got a boy-child comin’, gonna be a son-of-a-gun
Gonna make these pretty women, jump and shout
And the world will only know, a-what it’s all about

Y’know I’m here
Everybody knows I’m here
And I’m the hoochie-coochie man
Everybody knows I’m here

On the seventh hour, of the seventh day,
on the seventh month, the seventh doctor said:
“He’s born for good luck, and I know you see;
Got seven hundred dollars, and don’t you mess with me

Blow Wind Blow by Muddy Waters

When the sun rose this morning, I didn’t have my baby by my side.
When the sun rose this morning, I didn’t have my baby by my side.
I don’t know where she was, I know she’s out with some another guy.

Don’t the sun look lonesome shading down behind the trees?
Don’t the sun look lonesome shading down behind the trees?
But don’t your house look lonesome when your baby’s packed to leave.

Blow wind, blow wind, blow my baby back to me.
Blow wind, blow wind, blow my baby back to me.
Well you know if I don’t soon find them, I will be in misery.

Muddy Waters used to sing a song called "Champaign and Reefer."

You Can’t Lose What You Never Had by Muddy Waters

Had a sweet little girl, I lose my baby, boy ain’t that bad
Had a sweet little girl, I lose my baby, boy ain’t that bad
You can’t spend what you ain’t got,
you can’t lose some little girl you ain’t never had

Had money in the bank, I got busted, people ain’t that bad
Had money in the bank, I got busted, people ain’t that bad
You can’t spend what you ain’t got,
you can’t lose some little girl you ain’t never had

Messin’ With the Kid by Junior Wells

What’s this a-here goin’ all around town
The people they say they’re gonna put the kid down
Oh no, oh look at what you did
You can call it what you want to,
I call it messin’ with the kid

You know the kid’s no child, and I don’t play
I says what I mean and I mean what I say
Oh yeah, oh look at what you did
You can call it what you want to,
I call it messin’ with the kid

Statesboro Blues by Elmore James

Wake up, mama, turn your lamp down low
Wake up, mama, now, turn your lamp down low
Have you got the nerve to drive old a poor boy from your door?

You know I woke up in the mornin’, now, I had them Statesboro Blues
I woke up this morning now, I had them Statesboro Blues
I looked over in the corner, grandma and grandpa had ’em too

Mama died and left me, papa died and left me
Ya know I ain’t good lookin’, but I’ll someone sweet angel-child
I’m goin’ to the country, baby do you wanna go?
If you can’t make it, your sister Louise says she wants to go.

Walking Blues by Robert Johnson

Woke up this morning I looked ’round for my shoes
You know I had those mean old walking blues
Yeah, I woke up this morning I looked ’round for my shoes
Girl, I had those, ooh, mean old walking blues

Some people tell me that worried blues ain’t bad
It’s the worst old feeling I ever had
People tell me that worried blues ain’t bad
It’s the worst old feeling, ooh child, I ever had

Sitting on Top of the World by Howling Wolf

One summer day, she went away;
Gone and left me, she’s gone to stay.
She’s gone, but I don’t worry:
I’m sitting on top of the world.

Worked all the summer, worked all this fall.
Had to take Christmas in my overalls.
She’s gone, but I don’t worry:
I’m sitting on top of the world.

Categories: Musician Tributes, Prez Obama | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “President Obama Must Learn to Feel and Sing the Blues

  1. Great article Dr.!

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