Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Blues Dharma

I remember the first time I saw the word "dharma." It was not in a book about the teachings of the Buddha, nor was it in the writings of Jack Kerouac. It was on the back of an album jacket. I was probably 14 years old at the time, and the album was "An Anthology of British Blues, Vol. 2." One of the bands featured on this compilation was the Dharma Blues Band, and they performed on two tracks: "Dealing With The Devil" and "Roll 'Em Pete."

Music, like everything else, is subject to the laws of dependent origination (see blog from 12/2, 12/3, & 12/4/09 for more on this subject). This seems especially evident when looking at the history of the blues in the twentieth century. The acknowledged "Cradle of the Blues" is the area in and around the Mississippi Delta. Impoverished black sharecroppers would sing during their work in order to help pass the time while doing backbreaking labor. In the evening, improvised instruments might be played as accompaniment for the voices. Guitar, banjo, and harmonica were the instruments of choice. One performer would pass his knowledge onto another, and soon a tradition was firmly in place.

As an adolescent in Overland Park, Kansas in the late 1960's, I was unaware of the roots of the rock music I was listening to at the time. Soon, however, as I began to read about my favorite musicians and bands, a pattern emerged. My generation's musical idols, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Steppenwolf, The Rolling Stones, and on and on, were quick to acknowledge their antecedents and influences. Names like Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King, T-Bone Walker, Junior Wells, Blind Willie McTell, Muddy Waters, and the most legendary of them all, Robert Johnson were cropping up over and over again. I began to steep myself in their music, which is how I came upon an obscure collection of British blues in the record store.

Oh, yes, the dharma of Dependent Origination... Well, I have two little stories that illustrate this in relation to the blues. The great slide guitarist, Muddy Waters, was playing at a blues festival in New York in 1965. He had just been "re-discovered" by white audiences, and was enjoying a good measure of attention. He was visited backstage by another blues musician named Son House. Mr. House not only taught Muddy Waters how to play guitar, and was also an influence on none other than Robert Johnson. When the younger members of Muddy's band saw the skinny House with his loping stride, a couple of them began to imitate him. According to Son House's manager, Dick Waterman, Muddy immediately pulled them aside and said angrily, "I seen you mockin' that man. Don't you be mockin' that man. When I was a boy comin' up, that man was king. King! If it wasn't for that man, you wouldn't have a job. If it wasn't for that man, I wouldn't be here now."

The second story is a personal one. When I was 16, I saw Chuck Berry at a sparsely attended concert in Kansas City, Missouri. I only had tickets to the first show, but when I ran backstage after the curtain came down and accosted Chuck who was putting away his guitar, he had the grace to invite this over-eager white kid to "stick around for the second show." In the audience that night was a friend of mine named Barry Shank. On Monday, we exchanged stories about the concert, and shortly thereafter, I loaned him a copy of "Chuck Berry's Golden Decade," a greatest hits album. 

Cut to my twenty-year high school reunion in 1992. Barry came up to me at one point and told me that, until he saw that album, he had no idea that music had any kind of history. But because I loaned him that record, he became interested in the subject, and is now a professor of music history in the Department of Comparative Studies at Ohio State University. He has also authored several books and many articles on the subject.

Just as the practice of meditation is passed from warm hand to warm hand, so too is the dharma of the blues. And on it goes.

Let the Good Times Roll,

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