Frank Marino received this Email question from a "student" of the blues and he answered it quite extensively, honestly and insightfully.
Hello my name is Misty Davis and I go to Washington College in Md. I am doing a research paper for a blues class I am taking. My topic is on young blues artists. Well, my question for you is, What do you think of these young blues artists? Do you think they have what it takes? Can you compare them to any of the great legends such as Robert Johnson? I hope I am not offending you but I do not know much about the blues past or present...they only names I have heard of are Jonny Lang and B.B. King. So if there is any info you can give me on anything please do so. This is a really important paper and will determine my grade.
Thank you for your time
I can only give my own opinion on your questions, but the truth of the matter is that there really is no valid answer to your questions regarding young blues artists, because of the very nature of what the music is all about. Blues isn't about sounding a certain way, or playing a certain way, although it seems to have become so in the public perception. It is a form of music originally based largely on simplicity and feelings. If we were to go back to the origins of blues in the American sphere, we would invariably find that those few musicians of the day were playing a type of music which, at the outset, was not as commonplace or "labeled" as it has since become and, due to the rather sparse nature and dearth of musicians doing it (relatively speaking) it began to evolve into that certain definitive sound as more and more people imitated it, which later allowed others to identify it with statements like..."Yeah, that's real blues..." or..."Now THAT guy can really play the blues..." and such. But, in fact, nobody ever really decided to play a defined musical style or set out to make it popular, much less to sell it to the public commercially. It was a form of expression, and not considered an "art". I personally am quite uncomfortable with the notion of blues as "art", because that implies that some of it is "good" and some "bad", and this ultimately leads to the exclusion of the "bad" players from the acceptance of the audience. And what would that mean if a musician or singer was genuinely feeling the same emotions as the so-called great players, but was not as technically proficient at expressing it on an instrument? Would that exclude him from the list of "blues artists", just because he didn't learn his chops? Could we say that a person singing "Amazing Grace" is not really singing Gospel Music just because he hasn't got a great voice, or because his vocal pitch or inflection leaves something to be desired? Is there a "right" way to emote? Is there a "right" way to pray? Well, playing the blues is largely a choice of someone who simply "wants" to. We can't begrudge him or her for trying, and we don't know his intentions, and playing the blues is about first and foremost, intentions. It's a form of lamentation, a type of musical whimsical complaint. There really is no "right" way to complain, or feel blue, if you get my point.
Now, playing the blues for public consumption is another matter. I would submit to you that there are enormous amounts of musicians who play blues tunes impeccably, from a technical standpoint, but that just means we are judging them according to how well they imitate a sound we think we've heard before, and how well they are able to invoke in us the "familiarity" that we derive from hearing the music. But this doesn't mean they are really playing blues, any more than it would mean that a person who did a paint by number was an artist. The true test of a blues player is primarily his intent, and there is no way to measure that. you could have a person playing with true intent and no chops and you would say "he isn't really playing blues" and conversely, you could have the most amazing set of chops, with no intent or feeling whatsoever, and you may tend to say "Now THAT'S a great bluesman".
And so, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but "truth" is only in the heart of the one who knows what he's up to. Now, many if not all of my colleagues will be in great disagreement with me on this matter, because it's just not politically correct to point at some of the "Greats" and imply that they really aren't playing blues because their intentions are suspect. But once you agree that the intention or "feeling" of blues is an inescapable criteria for it's definition, then any judgement of it's nature or veracity must take those intentions into account and must be scrutinized very closely, in order to arrive at a conclusion, if that's what is needed.
I prefer to not even make those judgements on a regular basis, because I know that I can't really get into someone's head and tell you what he's doing it for, but I have my personal doubts about some of the players, who shall remain nameless. True, I only arrive at these conclusions by observation from a distance, but experience in the music business has taught me a bit about recognizing tell-tale signs about many things, and honesty in musicianship is one of them.
Now as to the names you've mentioned, I can certainly put B.B. King into the group of genuine players who "has what it takes", but I really don't have any idea about Jonny Lang. I know that he plays excellently and does, in fact, invoke that familiarity that I mentioned previously, but as he is rather young and new to the scene, I really can't comment on his intention or emotional drive. I'd like to think that he genuinely does what he does, and he most probably does, but the question would best be answered by him. As to being compared to Robert Johnson, this is a question I hear many times. It seems that so many people today speak about Robert Johnson in terms of him being the barometer by which we will judge blues players, but the funny thing is that most of the people, musicians included, who refer to Robert Johnson can't usually name 4 or 5 of his songs, and sometimes can't even name 1. And that's what I mean by blues having become fashionable and politically correct. If you ever listen to Robert Johnson, and then listen to the "greats" who quote him as an influence, you would be extremely hard-pressed to notice even the barest of similarities in style, emotion or content, and especially in sound in the great majority of cases, although you may find it in the minority. This is how you can tell whether or not they are really being honest with you.
I guess what it comes down to is that real blues is about real feelings...feelings of loss, remorse, loneliness, slavery, deprivation, homesickness, destitution, helplessness, and many other feelings of the inner heart and soul through personal experiences.
And it's pretty hard to keep feeling that way when the whole world anoints you as great, buys your records in droves, contributes to a luxurious lifestyle filled with wine women and song, and generally does everything to make you enjoy a life that many others could only dream of having.
And while you may have started off honestly expressing your soul, the success that it brings in some cases very quickly allows you to forget the roots, and so you soldier on in automatic mode producing and re-producing what brought you there, but you have long since stopped playing the blues.
I hope that this discourse has been helpful to you for your paper. Please let me know how it turned out...But a small warning...most of the people, especially "teachers", that you espouse these views to will invariably declare them as "heresy". Nobody likes to know that their idols sometimes have flaws.
By the way, I love your name.....Misty....it's really "cool".