My recent performance at the illustrious Femmes en Blues III in Montreal taught me some grand lessons for which I will be eternally grateful! I’ll share them with you in the hopes that you won’t make the same mistakes I made.
First I have to begin by making a terrible admission to you:
I never really liked the blues.
It’s boring. Standard. Repetitive.
The music I chose for the event was selected admittedly haphazardly. Every song to me, up to thAT point, sounded like one of only four songs which represented to blues in my head. Each song only differed by changing lyrics and cadence so I paid little regard to any of the real complexity of the songs. I threw the general choices out to my Facebook friends and followers and a few good suggestions came back. I had to pick four in total, so for the final two remaining, I really had no idea what to choose. I looked mainly for what sounded like ”standard blues” to me – like”Ball and Chain” by Janis (everyone “expected me” to do a Janis) and “Hound Dog” (easy…right?) originally by Big Mama Thornton, and crucified later by Elvis.
The F.E.B. festival is created by some very talented and professional women. An all female band, we only had one rehearsal prior to the show and everyone was expected to learn their songs on their own. I went into the rehearsal thinking (there was my FIRST mistake!) that I could “wing” these songs./ They’re just blues after all. I was so very very wrong on so many levels.
I came home after getting my ass kicked in rehearsal, and sat down to do some real work. When I began to learn Big Mama’s “Hound Dog”, I realized I was faced with a song that was intuitively complex. I had paid no mind to the intricate and off set patterns of vocal and guitar entry and exit. I had sung everything in a 4×4 (my entire life??), but then later realized that most of the earlier foundation blues was extremely complex because it had not followed what we established later in the 50;s and 60s as a very predictable pattern of music. I discovered we have dumbed down our music over time! Sadly we have often have lost the real passionate feel of the intuitive offset patterned blues. As I was learning this lesson, my fingers accidentally touched a YouTube video for “Ball and Chain”, the last concert given by Big Mama Thornton in 1984.
In the video, we see a very old Mama. She puts out her cigarette, sits down, looks carefully at the audience as though she is sitting at a table about to tell a frank and frightening tale. It looked so intimate, except that she was looking out at a sea of thousands of faces. She announces she is going to do a tune “in my own way”, and so begins “Ball and Chain”. A rebuke to Janis Joplin’s interpretation of her music in the 60′s. I had a rough history with this song. Firstly, many people because of my rough voice and my big red hair, feel Janis when I sing, so I almost feel a pressure of doing her songs, although I don’t relate to her as an artist or singer at all. I was at first doing Ball and Chain, which I had plucked quickly and mindlessly off the internet. I listened to the beginning, it sounded like a standard three chord blues and I just threw it into the mix, only later taking the time to really listen to the whole thing and discovered that in actuality it was Janis screaming a horrendous lament for 8 minutes and seven seconds. Recorded live just a few months before Janis overdosed, it was truly an anthem of misery. I couldn’t do it.
I quickly got in touch with the organiser of the event, apologising for pulling a song after the deadline, but I explained there was just NO WAY I could do this song. I remembered this as I watched Big Mama Thornton focus her eyes, clearly in the past, and tell some man how she felt about his “hanging around her neck – like a ball and chain”…wow. I was blown off my chair. Her face twisted, her eyes rolled back in her head and her wide smile shone like a diamond in the blue light of the stage. It was magical. This was a level of blues so honest and so completely visceral it entirely changed her appearance. She became at once beautiful and awesome…bigger than life. I watched her eyes transform, and I saw her energy move the band through the ins and outs of the story. My heart-felt full, my eyes had tears and I realized that at that moment…I GOT the blues. I felt it, I knew it…and I was humbled. How could I have taken such a vastly important song as ‘Hound Dog” (which contrary to Elvis’s meek interpretation is not at all about a dog at all), and sung it with such a lack of respect! I could clearly feel Big Mama beside me, poke me with her elbow and say “girl…if you is gonna sing my songs, you better do ‘em right!”. “Yes Ma’am”, I replied silently and reverently. Oh boy. That night being called up on stage to perform my songs at The Femmes en Blues, I was not surprised by the feeling of calm and companionship I felt with this wise elder. She had stayed with me the whole week I diligently learned my songs. I stepped up to the plate alright…but not alone. Nothing that is as fabulous as what happened that night could ever be done alone. Only grace, and the help of a friendly guiding hand, can bring you to this kind of experience. Here’s to hoping you all get the blues!