How Blue Can You Get?

How Blue Can You Get?

The rise of guitarist Buddy Guy, and what his career says about the blues.

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“A Distinctly Bluesy Condition” by Carlo
Rotella, in
The American Scholar class="text14"> (Autumn 2002), 1785 Massachusetts Ave., N.W., 4th
Fl., Washington, D.C. 20036.


Buddy Guy’s blues guitar playing, “as
instantly recognizable as his voice, can be shrewdly pent up, but when he
lets himself go—which is most of the time—it soars wildly over
the top in a torrent of fast, loud, often distorted notes that regain their
purity when sustained on a bent string pinned to the fingerboard.” That’s one of the characteristics that have put the 62-year-old Guy
squarely in the middle of an argument over the state of Chicago blues,
writes Rotella, an English professor at Boston College.


Guy grew up in Lettsworth, Louisiana, and followed the
well-worn track to Chicago in 1957, just in time to play a part in the
golden age of Chicago-style electric blues. His name easily sidles in among
those of the greats, now mostly departed: Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Magic
Sam, and others. But the city’s blues scene started to break up
during the mid-1960s. Shaking off the initial shock of urban life, black
audiences increasingly found the music’s “down home” sounds antique, while teenagers in thrall to the rock and soul music that
borrowed so freely from the blues couldn’t relate to the adult
perspective of most blues songs. And the landscape of Chicago itself
changed, as the South Side Bronzeville neighborhood that had long sustained
the music disintegrated.


Today, the Chicago blues scene has shifted to a very
different kind of neighborhood, including the affluent North Side
lakefront, and a very different kind of audience. A white audience.
That’s roughly where the arguments start.


Critics such as Bill Dahl see the story of Chicago
blues as a long slide since the ’50s. They “see a once-vital
genre reduced to a hot-licks subset of guitar rock, a new Dixieland (with
‘Sweet Home Chicago’ in the role of ‘When the Saints Come
Marching In’) designed to satisfy tourists seeking the rock
aesthetic’s equivalent of the source of the Nile,” writes
Rotella.


The critics smell the stink of inauthenticity, with
black musicians “playing white” and white musicians straining
to “sound black” in pursuit of the new blues audience.


And then there’s Buddy Guy, wailing away like
some white “abstractionist guitar hero,” an Eric Clapton or
Jimmy Page. In classic Chicago blues, notes Rotella, hot guitar playing
advertised itself as “an extension of the human voice raised in
song.” In the new “postindustrial” blues, the guitar
rules. And Guy is the case in point.


He is the dominant figure on the Chicago blues scene.
He has an international reputation, his own successful South Loop blues
bar, and, at long last, a solid recording contract. He’s even
appeared in a Gap ad. Guy is among those—such as Chicago’s
commissioner of cultural affairs, Lois Weisberg—who see the new
Chicago blues as a triumph for the musicians (who, after all, didn’t
have to make up all those old songs about hard times), the city, and the
races. The blues belongs to everybody, they proclaim.


Rotella himself comes down squarely on both sides. Yes,
Guy acts like a rock guitar wizard, but you could hear that in his music in
the 1950s, too. “His music reposes in a bed of changes and
contradictions—a complicated situation, both decline and renaissance
and also neither.”


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