Carolyn Studer and I met last year when I visited Los Angeles. There could not have been a better hostess. She took me to the Getty Museum, where we had lunch at a rooftop cafe. The Getty is a stunning building, and the architecture’s crisp white study of geometrics in sandstone against the bright blue California sky appealed to my sense of order. The lunch with Carolyn, however, appeased my need for connection. We chatted with the illusion of long-time friendship, an incredible gift to my introverted self. We admired the art in the gallery, and even laughed at some. She has a fierce desire for social justice, and a sense of humour that is sometimes surprisingly wicked. There are so many facets to this gem. Today, she introduces us to her love of music and the impact of the blues on, well, the blues.
“We invented the blues; Europeans invented psychoanalysis. You invent what you need.” —interview with Albert Murray in American Heritage, September 1996
The blues, according to jazz historian, Albert Murray, is the music of an “upward striving people.”
The blues, which came out of slavery, was a way to deal with depression.
The writer, Kurt Vonnegut, a big fan of the blues and jazz (and a friend of Albert Murray’s), said that Murray told him that during the era of slavery in this country…the suicide rate per capita among slave owners was much higher than the suicide rate among slaves.
Murray told Vonnegut he thought this was because slaves had a way of dealing with depression, which their white owners did not.
The blues idiom, he said, “affirms an individual’s basic humanity and higher aspirations in spite of the fact that human existence is so often mostly a low-down dirty shame.”
The blues is a strategy for living with, and triumphing over, difficult conditions.
The blues takes away the blues, as Murray explained it.
In the 1980s, when I was living in Marin County, California, I went to a blues festival in San Francisco one Sunday afternoon with my friends, Deanna and Jeff. We stayed all day on the grassy hillside overlooking the Bay, the white sails on the water, dancing in the sun, and swaying to the music of Etta James, Johnny Winter, and Otis Rush.
All music has the capacity to reduce human suffering and help us to deal with adversity, but the blues, in particular, and the jazz which came from it, has always moved me, as it has so many people throughout the world.
“I been in the blues all my life. I’m still delivering ’cause I got a long memory. “
The blues — and the jazz that came from it — played a big part in the civil rights movement.
“Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music,” Martin Luther King said at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1964. “It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down. And now, Jazz is exported to the world. For in the particular struggle of the Negro in America there is something akin to the universal struggle of modern man. Everyone has the Blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith.”
A few weeks ago, we lost one of the best blues players who ever lived, B.B. King. All of us feel loss anytime an artist who has touched us and moved us dies, but I felt the loss of BB King, acutely.
I never saw him play live, but his music was always there when I needed it, a sustaining force. And I greatly admired him.
On the day he died, I told a friend it was tough to imagine living in a world without B.B. King in it.
He said, “Carolyn, B.B. King is immortal.”
That’s true, I realized.
B.B. King’s courage and spirit will live on.
No matter how bad it gets, as Vonnegut noted, we still have the music, “the specific remedy for world wide depression, the gift of the blues.
Carolyn Studer is an ordained minister, a music teacher, and a writer who lives in Los Angeles, California. She writes about ecofeminism, racial equality, and faith and
spirituality on her blog, CarolynStuder.com