You make certain assumptions when you send your kids off to school: that they will be safe, that they will have fun, that they will learn to read, that they will come to understand basic arithmetic. It might be a lot to ask of some kids, and of some schools, but how else are they going to pass those standardized tests?
There should be one more assumption when you hand your kids over to the education machine, and it may be the most important lesson they will ever learn. Kids—especially U.S. kids—must have a working knowledge of the blues.
This is important. The blues is the single most significant contribution the United States has made to the world—artistic or otherwise. It’s the foundation for nearly every pop song you’ve ever heard, and its roots are entwined with nearly every genre you listen to. It’s in the books you read, the sermons you listen to, the movies you watch and the food you eat. The blues is a state of mind, a coping mechanism, a wail, a cry, a celebration, a wedding and a war. It’s country, hip-hop, rock, jazz, reggae and it’s even EDM. It’s down-home and all around the world.
The blues has been in our bones for centuries, building our cultural DNA out of tears, smiles, sweat, sex, pain and joy. It’s all in there. We are the blues.
Consider me a crotchety old man, but I think we’re losing touch with the blues. It’s still there—an ingredient as essential and ubiquitous as butter in baking—but our palates have grown too accustomed to the flavor, and we’re too far removed from how it’s made.
So I propose a curriculum of songs to develop an enlightened citizenry:
‘Come On In My Kitchen’
by Robert Johnson
This is obligatory. Perhaps the single most influential American musician playing what would become—along with all of his other recorded songs—a blues standard. Not only is he the quintessential Delta blues musician, he’s also a myth, a legend and a hero with a mysterious story. Kids love mysteries, and Robert Johnson is like a “Scooby-Doo” episode with a guitar.
‘Smokestack Lightnin’ ’
by Howlin’ Wolf
Wolf sang the blues with the power of 100 steam locomotives, and his singular voice was the envy of every rock ’n’ roll singer who came after him. Blues doesn’t get much simpler than this, but it’s a performance that lives in the details, and something no one has ever come close to replicating. Blues isn’t always sad. Sometimes, it’s a punch in the gut.
‘Tell Mama’ by Etta James
Blues isn’t always simple, either, and it isn’t just for men picking dusty guitar strings down at the crossroads. Etta James was a blues superstar who made the turn into R&B look easy, and proved that blues is at the heart of pretty much all great pop music.
‘Blues In The Night’
by Louis Armstrong
and Oscar Peterson
Most of the music you listen to has roots in the blues, and that includes jazz, which grew alongside the blues in the Mississippi Delta. Armstrong was the most legendary American jazz man, and he was steeped in the blues from the beginning. His songs are all peppered with blues runs, and his vocals epitomize the form. Peterson is one of the all-time great jazz pianists, but it was the blues that tempted him away from classical music as a kid.
‘Plastic Factory’ by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band
Let’s get weird. As musically unhinged as Beefheart could be, he insisted he was a blues man, making blues music. And he was. This song has traditional blues elements, structure and lyrics. But it’s a little off-kilter, and a good reminder that blues could be, and maybe should be, weird. The blues is a feeling, not a recipe, and Beefheart is proof of how revolutionary the genre can be.
And one more thing: Blues music is everywhere! Go see it live, and take your kids. And for the love of God, go see our own hometown legend Gaye Adegbalola to get a true blues education.