During the years I was growing up in Maine, it became clear after a time that my musical tastes had more of a broad minded cultural connectivity than most around me. Chocked it up to the way my father, the most heavily musically inclined of my parents, bought me up to understand music itself. Herbie Hancock,Kool & The Gang,The Beatles and Mozart all seemed to fit somehow on the same side. By the time I was in mid adolescence there was a revelation that separated my musical tastes from my father’s. It wasn’t hip-hop or heavy metal-two of the cliched musics producing the widest generation gap in that period. What it came down to is that I flat out couldn’t stand the blues. I was deeply immersed in the music and spirit of funk/soul/jazz-fusion at the time. The blues came off as music of the museum to me-something many of the musical festival goers and DJ’s in the area seemed to obsess on the way one would an antique car. I just didn’t see how it applied to musical and cultural futurism of any sort, and felt it represented subservience to a more depressive past time. Just a couple days ago something occurred that completed my change of that opinion.
I was taking a day trip with my family to the beautifully scenic coastal Maine city of Rockland. It has a wonderful blend of nautical New England life with this rather 60’s/70’s era downtown urban flavor. Every summer the city hosts the largest Blues Festival in the state. Its so enormous that people actually have to reserve a ticket a year in advance. Walking along the streets taking photos, my father pointed out the sign you see in this photo in front of the Trade Winds Motel. As you can see from the photo I took at his request, it tells some of the story of the blues in the state of Maine. But the back,which I also photographed is even more revealing. It spoke about how Mississippi Jimmie Rodgers referenced the Maine city of Portland as “just as sunny as Tennessee” in his “The Brakeman’s Blues”. Although the minstrel shows of George Washington Kemp that came through the state after the civil war didn’t make a huge impact,by the 70’s and 80’s Rockland’s Paul Benjamin began booking blues at local clubs and by 1989,the Maine Blues Society was formed in the city of Portland.
This rich history of the blues in Maine is something of which I had no awareness. I honestly thought that the interest in the music was based purely on the blues nostalgia following the tragic death of Stevie Ray Vaughn. Now I am a native of Maine and lived in the state my entire life. The sociopolitical atmosphere of this area is based deeply in hard physical labor, an early to bed/early to rise mentality with the phrase “you working hard or hardly working?” an extremely common phrase exchanged among a lot of the working class residents of the area of the state I live in. Most of these people simply want to live their lives and be left alone to do so. As Eric Clapton pointed out about the blues idiom, it always seemed to be “just one guy against the world”. Didn’t matter if it was John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters or J.B Lenoir. I have come to realize that a lot of Mainers probably first came to hear the blows because they probably thought of the music as reflecting their own working class struggles and woes. And as the blues began to evolve into a more festive environment such as that in Rockland, many of them learned how to dance their own blues away to this music they heard being played by some of the modern day greats-locally and otherwise, of the blues.
My own appreciation for the blues comes from my broader musical understanding of it. As with reggae, the blues melodic form seems rather limited sometimes when heard in its rawest state. Some of the common elements of the 12 bar chord sequence that defines the blues seemed a bit repetitive musically to me as I was listening to music during my youth more informed by jazz. Honestly I have to credit Quincy Jones as well as my father for helping me to understand how blues was part of the musical connectivity I admired. I used to get very annoyed at how musicians and critics in music documentaries used to sling around the blues as “the backbone of all contemporary music”. I just couldn’t hear it. What I didn’t realize was how through the development of jazz,the blues form was totally and rephrased to accommodate horns and singers. Hence even James Brown’s band,playing jazz with a “raw rhythm attitude” were firmly in the blues lexicon with their funk sound. At any rate, with establishments such as the excellent 4Point’s BBQ and Blues grill in Searsport Maine, the blues is here to stay. And though I still rather prefer the music expanded into other styles, I am a lot more glad than I was before that the blues is here.