"I can't stand living, but I'm scared of dying, but Old Man River, he just keeps rolling along."—Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II
With roots in African music, the blues was born in the Mississippi delta as a distinctively African American musical genre in response to the de-humanizing traumas of slavery and its aftermath. It has origins in spirituals, work songs, field hollers, etc., all of which are types of music associated with enslaved people attempting to deal with their painful situation. Although blues is a uniquely African American music, it has a uniquely universal appeal. There is something in the blues, and in music with qualities that derive from the blues, that people can relate to. What are these qualities? Irrespective of whether people who relate to the blues are truly able to relate to the collective historical trauma of African Americans, there seems to be something expressed in the music that strikes an emotional chord in people from a wide range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. What is this something? And why is the blues universally compelling? That is the mystery: that people of many different cultures respond to the blues and to the “bluesy feeling” prevalent in other music.
In this blog, we try to show that there is something about the blues that allows us to come face to face with universally traumatizing dimensions of human existence. Indeed, the music itself may be seen as a process of working through such trauma (musicians use the phrase “working it out”). How does the blues put us in touch with the universally traumatizing aspects of the human condition? We will look for answers both in the blues’ lyric aspects (such as themes of irony and the absurdity of existence) and musical qualities (such as pitch-bending and the bluesy sound produced by shifts and ambiguities between major and minor keys). First, however, we must explore the nature of emotional trauma itself.
Emotional trauma is an experience of unendurable emotional pain. In his book Trauma and Human Existence (link: http://www.psychoanalysisarena.com/trauma-and-human-existence-9780881634679) Robert Stolorow has claimed that the unbearability of emotional suffering cannot be explained solely, or even primarily, on the basis of the intensity of the painful feelings evoked by an injurious event. Emotional pain is not pathology, it is inherent to the human condition (we will have more to say about this later). Painful emotional states become unbearable when they cannot find a “relational home”—that is, a context of human understanding—in which they can be shared and held. Severe emotional pain that has to be experienced alone becomes lastingly traumatic and usually succumbs to some form of emotional numbing. In contrast, painful feelings that are held in a context of human understanding gradually become more bearable and can eventually be woven seamlessly into the fabric of whom one experiences oneself as being.
Trauma's existential significance
Having discussed emotional trauma in terms of its context-embeddedness, we turn now to its existential significance: how it is implicated in the human condition in general. Robert Stolorow has proposed that the existential meaning of emotional trauma lies in the shattering of what he calls the "absolutisms of everyday life"—the system of illusory beliefs that allow us to function in the world, experienced as stable, predictable, and safe. Such shattering is a massive loss of innocence exposing the inescapable dependence of our existence on a universe that is unstable and unpredictable and in which no safety or continuity of being can be assured. Emotional trauma brings us face-to-face with our existential vulnerability, our vulnerability to suffering, injury, illness, death, and loss, possibilities that define our existence and that loom as constant threats. Because we are limited, finite, mortal beings, trauma is a necessary and universal feature of our all-too-human condition.
The therapeutic power of the blues
The working through of painful emotional states requires a context of human understanding in which they can be held. Central to this process of helping us to bear and live in our emotional pain is the bringing of the visceral, bodily aspect of emotional experience into language. Such visceral-linguistic unities, unities of bodily sensations with words, of “gut” feelings with names, are achieved in a dialogue of emotional understanding, and it is in such dialogue that experiences of emotional trauma can be transformed into endurable and namable painful feelings. The blues are a wonderful example of such dialogue. The lyrics, of course, provide the words that name the particular experience of trauma. The more formal aspects of the music seem universally to evoke the visceral dimension of emotional pain. In the unifying experience of the blues, songwriter, performers, and listeners are joined in a visceral-linguistic conversation in which universally traumatizing aspects of human existence can be communally held and borne. In experiencing the blues, we are joined together in an experience of our existential kinship-in-the-same-darkness.
The role of lyrics
We have claimed that emotional trauma puts us in touch with our mortality: we all know that we will die, but we don’t know when. These facts about our existence evoke conflicting feelings, and such ambivalence about our mortality often plays a central part in the lyrics of the blues. As one of countless possible examples, consider the first verse of the blues song by Louisiana Red, Too Poor To Die:
"Last night I had a dream
I dream I died
The undertaker came
To carry me for the ride
I couldn't afford a coffin
Embalmin' kinda high
I jumped off my deathbed
Cause I too poor to die
I's in trouble
And I'll tell you the reason why
I'm just too poor people
I'm too poor to go lay down and die."
The absurdity of our finite, mortal existence is clearly captured in these lyrics. Louisiana Red, obviously traumatized by the suffering of poverty, anticipates his death in his dreams. But the poverty that traumatizes him renders him “too poor to go lay down and die”—he can’t afford a coffin, embalming, or in subsequent verses, gravediggers, or to grease the devil’s palm—so he jumps off his deathbed and evades death. In a twist of tragic irony, the very same poverty that puts him in touch with his mortality provides him with the means for escaping it, and simultaneously it becomes the focus of his lament.
Musical characteristics of the blues
The blues has musical qualities that communicate the visceral aspects of emotional trauma. In music, one of the most important expressive devices is the use of tension and release. The tension and subsequent release can be melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic. Emotionally expressive music tends to have a greater degree of musical tension, which makes the release more effective. One of the ways in which tension is created in the blues is called “pitch-bending.”
Pitch-bending is a technique that is used by both vocalists and instrumental musicians. It plays on our ear being accustomed to hearing melodies composed of pitches, or notes, that relate to a key. A key is comprised of a series of usually seven adjacent notes (as in the major scale) that are fixed. Blues musicians will slide up or down in between pitches of a key, thus “bending” the notes and creating tension.
Pitch-bending gives rise to an ambiguity between major and minor keys. Blues musicians intentionally sing or play around the pitches of the key to create tension. Then, at just the right moment the musician will resolve the tension created by the pitch being out of tune by sliding up or down to the “correct” pitch. This technique is an enormously effective expressive device.
Because of this ambiguity in the blues between major and minor keys, the music is not really in either key. We suggest that this ambiguity is one of the elements of the music that gives it its power to capture viscerally the emotionally traumatizing quality of human existence. This is so because we typically associate music in a major key with happy or joyful emotions and music in a minor key with sad or painful feelings. Blues music gives us both at the same time, paralleling the way the lyrics can convey the tragic irony and absurdity of our existence, as we discussed earlier. Contradiction and irony are built into the structure of both the music and the lyrics of the blues, just as they are built into the structure of our existence.
We have tried to show that in the unities of its music and its lyrics, the blues provide a therapeutic, visceral-linguistic conversation in which universally traumatizing aspects of human existence can be communally held and lived through. Therein, we have suggested, lies the blues’ universal appeal. But, to grasp the profundity of the blues, we must return to its origins in African American history and in the traumas of slavery.
Why was the need for such a visceral-linguistic conversation especially powerful in this context, so powerful as to give rise to a musical genre with such universal appeal? LeRoi Jones suggests in his book, Blues People, that the birth of the blues was linked to the circumstances of newly freed African slaves having to establish their identity as African Americans. Having endured generations of brutal enslavement, these former Africans were faced with having to figure out their identity in a land where they and their ancestors were forcibly brought to work, and to do so amid the bleak conditions of post-slavery and post-Civil-War America. They needed a form of dialogue through which the devastating nature of their experience in America could be conveyed and shared in their English and, at the same time, that could capture viscerally the traumatic suffering entailed in that experience. It was in this context, claims Jones, that the blues came into being.
In the blues there is a quality of acceptance of the way things are, however miserable. The conditions under which the creators of the blues brought this profound music into being show a remarkable resilience of spirit. The world owes an incalculable debt of gratitude to the creators of the blues, who endured unimaginable suffering while bringing forth this powerful music that continues to help people face, own up to, and cope with the human condition.
Copyright Robert Stolorow and Ben Stolorow
[This blog was coauthored with my son, Ben Stolorow, who is a working jazz pianist performing in the San Francisco Bay Area, both as a solo artist (link: http://www.benstolorow.com) and together with his sister Stephanie under the name “Stoli Rose” (link: http://www.myspace.com/stolirose)].