Blues and the Poetic Spirit by Paul Garon

Blues and the Poetic Spirit

by Paul Garon
City Lights: 1975, 1996

by David Whiteis

copyright © 2001 David Whiteis

When I was young, people spoke
of immorality
All the things they said were wrong
are what I want to be . . .
-The Yardbirds, "Over Under Sideways Down"

"The Devil is a busy man."
- Sunnyland Slim

This reissue of Paul Garon's landmark extended essay on blues lyrics, surrealism and the revolutionary implications of merging the two may seem odd for our conservative times. We no longer live in an era when political visionaries turn to music -- whether bebop, blues, folk, r&b, or rock & roll -- for inspiration to change the world. Garon continues to suggest, however, that by appropriating the images of everyday reality and transforming them with the power of myth and archetype, blues lyrics can point the way toward a future where people will dare to challenge that reality and replace it with something new and liberating -- a world where, as the late William Burroughs suggested, "Nothing is true, everything is permitted."

Garon's analysis of blues lyrics, based on a critical fusion of surrealist theory, Freudian symbology and neo-Marxist class analysis, remains compelling. Despite his insistence on focusing almost exclusively on songs that most aficionados would consider "traditional" or "folk" in nature, which will doubtless lead some to quibble with his choices and omissions, his methods bring forth startling poetic insight, forceful social commentary, and unexpected illumination on almost every page. Nonetheless, the contemporary reader will probably find that many of Garon's socio-political conclusions are based on assumptions that haven't aged as well as some of his literary insights.

Garon postulates that the blues, as the music of "a people distinctively victimized by the whole gamut of repressive forces of bourgeois/Christian civilization," evokes "a voice that uses[s] the capacity for fantasy to kindle the spirit of revolt by placing the primacy of desire ahead of the claims of reality." According to this view the blues lyricist, disenfranchised from bourgeois respectability and compelled into an outlaw mode in order to survive, turns the forces of oppression against themselves. His alienation grants him the freedom to envision realities unbound by conventional rational or moral constraints, and realized through in-the-moment experience.

"Poetry," Garon writes, "in the most vital and active sense [is] the revolt of the spirit. The blues singer, immune to the more absurd bourgeois conventions, a free agent, indifferent and even hostile to the Protestant ethic and the repressive myths of 'responsibility,' . . . present[s] us with a vision not only of our unhappiness but of its conquest as well . . . Hinted at are new realities of nonrepressive life."

So far, so good: Most admirers of traditional blues or any other "folk" art will probably concur that part of its appeal is the challenge it mounts to our modern way of life, a way of life that too often feels claustrophobically insulated from the raw immediacy of experience, stripped of the sacred as well as the sensual. We want to "break on through" (as Jim Morrison, that archetypal '60s Dionysian, urged us to do) into a realm where, as Garon puts it, "the erotic tendency of life is clearly always present, if not always recognized." Garon finds that realm, literally imagined into existence, in the blues.

But Garon moves beyond mere transcendence. He sees the blues as primitivism incarnate, a call to arms against all things civilized and holy, a music of "Luciferian pride . . . free of the excess moral baggage of 'civilization.'" Quoting Frederico Garica Lorca, who extolled "the Negro, living closer to pure human nature and other forces of Nature . . . spilling music out of his pockets," Garon nonetheless insists that his "elucidation of the blues as 'primitive' is neither gratuitous or demeaning . . . we see in the blues a suggestion of humanity's original vitality and pride."

Well, maybe. I doubt that Lorca (or Garon, for that matter) ever went to a shack in the Mississippi Delta or a housing project on the south side of Chicago and asked the people living there what they thought about their roles as avatars of a heroic new primitivism. Many would probably find such idealization of "Negro" primitivism to be a form of intellectual slumming at best, and egregiously racist at worst.

Few interviewers have deigned to ask blues musicians whether they consider themselves to be any more instinctual or primal than anyone else. Most blues artists who have addressed the issue have been adamant that theirs is a music -- and a life -- of dignity, not disorder. Despite the mythic power many historians have granted to self-immolating spirits like Robert Johnson, the vast majority of blues musicians have lived -- or at least attempted to live -- modest and even conservative lives, characterized by desire for such nonrevolutionary rewards as physical comfort, financial stability and security for their families. The music, in most cases, has been a means to this end.

In many cases, as well, the music has carried messages of considerable moral depth and complexity. The popular soul/blues singer Bobby Rush, to use a contemporary example, calls his stage routines -- which feature scantily-clad dancing girls, ribald toasts, and vaudeville-like sexual hijinks -- "funk folklore." He has publicly expressed his frustration with white critics who insist on labeling him vulgar or "risque". As most of his African-American admirers understand, his songs and enactments, far from demeaning women or celebrating carnality for its own sake, are actually morality tales. They're rooted solidly in a longstanding cultural tradition in which trickster heroes, as well as their oppressors, get their comeuppance if they go too far in violating the sacred bonds of community and human kindness.

An odd symmetry exists between some critics' aversion to the sexuality in Rush's act and Garon's romanticization of the carnal and the unholy in traditional blues lyrics. "The blues," Garon insists, "enters the fray wholeheartedly on the side of evil. The 'devil's music' is the denunciation of everything religion stands for and the glorification of everything religion condemns . . . [i]t has no interest in the systems of divine reward and punishment; it holds out for 'paradise now.'"

In this view, Robert Johnson's celebrated midnight pact with the devil was an act of Nietzschean heroism, not Faustian tragedy. But it would probably have come to a surprise to Johnson, Son House or Charlie Patton that their music revealed "no interest in the systems of divine reward and punishment." Indeed, their music often seems concerned with little else. Its power derives not from some gleeful "Luciferian" defiance of all things godly, but from the inner torment felt by men who lived in terror of Judgment, of the doom they feared they had brought upon themselves by failing to adhere to values that they believed, in their hearts, were right. If, as we assume, their lyrics provide a window into their souls, these were God-haunted men, men whose self-destructive excesses may well have represented attempts to anesthetize themselves against the demonic forces they felt had claimed them.

Today, of course, few blues artists wrestle publicly with their demons in the manner of Johnson and House. Garon is adamant that modern blues, increasingly bereft of the kind of surrealistic poetry he believes once imbued earlier blues it with its revolutionary potential, is being robbed of its primal psychic radicalism by the very culture of bourgeois respectability it originally challenged. He's especially merciless in his skewering of white blues artists for their role in this process; he's even added a new chapter, "Tough Times," to drive the point home. He argues that white pretenders have torn the blues from their indigenous historical and cultural context, in which lyricists harnessed images of sexuality, violence and disorder as tools of resistance against an oppressive social system. Outside of that context, Garon suggests, such imagery becomes reduced to vapid vulgarity and gratuitous macho excess. He's convinced that the white presence in the blues has become so pervasive and corrupting that the music itself -- like many of the people who created it -- is in danger of having its history stolen.

As this process unfolds, he predicts, the blues will devolve into merely another pop music, empty of higher cultural or social meaning, even when performed by African-Americans. Garon points to "uninspiring" modern genres like Motown and soul music as examples of how artists who'd once have been Promethian blues outlaws now purvey watered-down, slicked-up music that has been emasculated by " . . . the Protestant ethic and the repressive myths of 'responsibility.'"

If nothing else, of course, this formulation makes Garon's thesis virtually critic-proof. One might point, for instance, to Muddy Waters' insistence that being remembered as a "gentleman" was more important to him than his musical legacy, or to southern soul/blues chanteuse Lynn White's commitment to her church, or to the oft-expressed desire of blues musicians, club owners and fans to create -- and find sanctuary in -- an atmosphere free of hard drugs and criminality. But given Garon's predetermined ideological conclusion, such attempts to challenge it could well be shrugged off as proving his point: the holy primitive, the Luciferian rebel, the spiritual/cultural anarchist has been quelled, and in his/her place is a grinning minstrel, parroting the dictates of church and society.

If that's the case, though, what is the living legacy of the psychic/social anarchism that Garon tells us is the blues' greatest contribution to 20th Century music and culture? We've come to a time when "mainstream" political and economic forces are wreaking more havoc on the social stability and moral constitution of oppressed African-American communities than an entire army of Deity-defying blues surrealists ever could. Julia Moody's apocalyptic vision in "Mad Mama's Blues" -- a city immolated in blood, flames, and chaos -- is being realized, but by the forces of oppression and nihilism rather than the forces of liberation.

Would Garon characterize a modern blues song like "Come On," Bill Coday's passionate appeal to deadbeat dads to "face up to responsibility," as nothing more than modern-day Tomming? How would he view the anti-drug lyrics that have become prevalent in soul/blues and "traditional" blues alike? What kind of solace might he offer the family of Chicago bluesman Boston Blackie, who was slain in a whiskey-soaked fracas by a fellow musician -- a man who is now free, having served less than two years of a minimum four-year sentence for second degree murder? Would Garon lecture them on the revolutionary virtues of blood-passion and the unfettered id?

One can't say for sure. But in his book, Garon romanticizes criminality and drug use with the exuberance of a Genet or a Burroughs, despite the toll these and other social pathologies have taken on the African-American community and the blues world itself. Most bluesmen -- most people -- who live lives of reckless surrender to desire and blood-lust die young, often in ugly circumstances. Yet this seems not to deter Garon from his vision of Dionysian excess as the avenging angel of human liberation.

Where Garon's analysis falls short, it seems to me, is not in its praise of the rebellious impulses inherent in the best of blues lyrics. Nor is he wrong to direct his ire toward repressed, hypocritical bourgeois society and all of its discontents. Rather, he seems to have forgotten that the liberating role and social function of the trickster -- the Lord of Misrule -- in the African-based cultures from which the blues evolved was largely ritual in nature.

It's in turning away from the ritual of abandon -- the Carnival; the fertility rite; the invocation of the spirits of darkness and mystery alongside those of sanctity and light; the trickster's story-song, sung by the elders for the edification of children -- that the Christian/Cartesian worldview betrays the spirit of the blues. There's little place for Esu-Eleggua and his raucous band of troublemakers in the boardrooms and suburbs of corporate America, in the empirical universe of science, or in the repressed moral landscape of modern Christian fundamentalism. As Garon rightly points out, human beings (and human society) need an outlet, a place of illumination and release, where the suffocating boundaries of everyday reality and moral restrictions can be transcended, even if only for a time.

That place of release is what a lot of young whites in the '60s thought they'd found when they first thrilled to the exultant carnality and lusty fellowship they discovered in jukes and on backstreets from Mississippi to Chicago. Even today, they come in droves to America's blues meccas, searching for the "blues experience" like pilgrims on a quest for a piece of the True Cross. But, like Garon, too many of these seekers miss the rest of the story. Mistaking the ritual bacchanal of Saturday night for a cultural constant, most leave the 'hood before Sunday morning rolls around. They thus come to reify the "blues experience" as a mythical state of ecstatic fury that no human being -- let alone any human community -- could ever sustain for long and remain sane.

But when Saturday night is over, most of those juke-joint revelers, as well as most of the musicians on the bandstand, leave the club and go home to families and tight-knit communities. Those who don't -- the outlaws, the modern-day Stagger Lees -- may enjoy an ambiguous celebrity among their neighbors, but they are not the backbone that holds their communities together. Like their progenitors in song, they too often come to tragic ends, ends that are witnessed as sobering lessons by the survivors.

It's ironic that Garon evokes African myth to support his thesis. Only a theorist caught up in western Cartesian dualism could suggest, as Garon does, that to defy an oppressive social order one must give oneself over to the powers of nihilism and destruction. In fact, it is exactly this kind of dualistic thinking that has led many blues musicians to sordid and untimely ends. Alienated from "respectable" society; judged by a church-driven moralism that betrayed African cultural roots in its mania for dividing the cosmos into Good vs. Evil, God vs. Satan (and here Garon is prescient in his criticism of the destructive effects of Christian moral constructs); caught between the options of either submitting to an oppressive social order or embracing the blues life; encouraged further into excess by their isolation from moderating influences and social institutions; sometimes consumed, as well, by guilt over their fallen spiritual status -- too many have fallen prey to the very demons Garon suggests might free them, demons their spiritualist ancestors once ecstatically invoked in ritual and dance. Thus they fulfill the prophecies of the churchmen and moral absolutists who originally cast them out.

To equate such self-immolation with revolutionary defiance reflects a dead-end pseudo-anarchism that's every bit as misguided and oppressive as the social order it pretends to oppose. In fact, to become truly empowered by the liberating poetic spirit of the blues, we need to re-acquaint ourselves with both the solid foundation of morality and faith -- newly defined, based on humanistic, life-affirming principles -- and the ritual abandon of the bacchanal. To the extent that we lose that balance we become either repressed and dry, or immolated and doomed.

Garon's vision of primal, blood-and-blues-driven rebellion against all things holy comes too close to the empty nihilism of the Yardbirds' paean to adolescent angst, quoted at the beginning of this article; it is miles removed from the poetic (and prophetic) power that resonates through Sunnyland Slim's aphorism. Dionysus himself would know better: Like most of the world's great gods of fertility and revelry, he dies at the appointed time and is later re-born. After Saturday night comes Sunday morning; we need both in order to survive.


C o m m e n t s

Blues Myth and Blues Reality 1 of 1
Matthew Presti February 09, 08

Although I could only read about half of this critique because of my short attention, although curiously enough I had no trouble holding it straight through Garon's book, I've noticed a few things that evidence you have not read this book. You wrote:

"I doubt that Lorca (or Garon, for that matter) ever went to a shack in the Mississippi Delta or a housing project on the south side of Chicago and asked the people living there what they thought about their roles as avatars of a heroic new primitivism"

Well, just about. The primitive avatars are the blues musicians, residence unknown, not the housing projects and the people living in squalor. Like the Andalusian gypsy of Lorca's day and of the "Canto Jondo".

"But in his book, Garon romanticizes criminality and drug use with the exuberance of a Genet or a Burroughs, despite the toll these and other social pathologies have taken on the African-American community and the blues world itself. Most bluesmen -- most people -- who live lives of reckless surrender to desire and blood-lust die young, often in ugly circumstances. Yet this seems not to deter Garon from his vision of Dionysian excess as the avenging angel of human liberation."

Is the purpose of Genet's work to romanticize the criminal, or to sanctify the evil in the criminal act? Same thing with Burroughs, who doesn't romanticize drug use at all. If anything, his work demystifies drug hierarchy. In this book, Garon distinguishes between blues musicians that openly sing about drug use and yet have never used the drugs they sing about, and others who sing from their real life experience of addiction.

"What kind of solace might he offer the family of Chicago bluesman Boston Blackie, who was slain in a whiskey-soaked fracas by a fellow musician -- a man who is now free, having served less than two years of a minimum four-year sentence for second degree murder?"

What kind of solace is there to offer in an entirely corrupt world? You would like to criticize Garon for romanticism, yet you perpetuate the "romantic bluesman" by choosing particular examples that further the myth of the destitute individual romantically slain in raucous bardery, who comes from a virtuous family who, as you characterize most African Americans, are innocently struggling against the inner terror of Divine Judgment.

Listen to Son House's "Preachin' the Blues" again:

In my room I kneel down to pray but the blues come along, and it blowed my spirit away

True, many bluesmen who lead raucous lives reconcile with their Church. But that's also when they stop singing and swinging the blues.

"But given Garon's predetermined ideological conclusion" It's this kind of rationalism that insists that just because no one speaks of ideology, they are somehow controlled by its definition, which is most prevalent today in the universities and the reason why such critical discussions will never take place in a university setting. As long as this kind of placid idealism controls our universities there will never be blues scholarship of any importance. Sad but to say...

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