Saturday, March 13, 2010

A field hand's thoughts about the blues when its too wet to plow

Stepping away from my laptop and headphones after almost 4 years, I suddenly feel a lot like Rip Van Winkle being forced to wake up from a long, pleasant dream.

Although my profession was rated as one of the most in demand when I racked up a mountain of student loan debt earning a landscape architecture degree in 2003, today I find LA’s working as cashiers in Trader Joes, collecting unemployment waiting for things to improve, or in my case, bent over in a nursery field alongside Mexican farm hands to be able to buy another tank of heating oil to get Patty and I through to spring. For the first time in my life I fully understand the phrases, “cold as a three dog night” and “ain’t no shame in an honest day’s work.”

One thing about picking and hauling 8 hours a day-- it certainly gives you a lot of time to listen to those around you, redefine hardship, and gain a new perspective on life. Robert Johnson once sang, “I’ve got stones in my pass’way and my road seems dark at night; the pains in my heart have taken my appetite.” If he were around today, I doubt he’d be singing about his Tapas being cold, his Kindle battery being as low as the equity of his stock portfolio or being trapped in the Frequent Flyer’s lounge waiting for his connecting flight to another big blues event.

As Patty, who’s been driving 10 hours back to NY on her weekends off to care for her sick brother recently said, “Nobody under the age of 45 should be allowed to sing the blues.” Of course, she also sends me off to work in the morning saying, “The Lord loves a working man, don't trust whitey”, which is a whole ‘nuther discussion.

Anyway, I’ve come to realize I’ve been blessed over the last few years. When I started DJ’ing 4 years ago I had no idea how people would react to the blues that had been moving me for 15+ years. Nobody was playing anything like it on this coast and it was very different from the 2 dozen “standards” people were posting on their set lists and online discussion boards. Heck, I wasn’t a self-identifying “blues dancer” so I had no idea HOW people would want to move to what I was playing, I only hoped they would. Thankfully, I had the good fortune to be sharing music I loved in a musical vacuum that wanted to be filled.

Over the years, I met a whole slew of wonderful people who welcomed and supported me, which in turn inspired me to most enjoy moments when I could put on my “the Great Facilitator Hat” or be a mentor to others. I’ve greatly enjoyed helping weave the fabric of dance on the east coast and introduce organizers, musicians and DJ’s to each other for a common goal.

Yet, I still have to laugh a little when I hear discussions about “the integrity of the dance” or “being true to the blues aesthetic.” My response has always been, “I’m an old man dancing with a girl young enough to be my daughter, and who weighs half as much as I do-- nobody gives a rat’s ass about my aesthetic. I just try to clearly and respectfully communicate something I hear in the music and listen to what my partner is saying back.

In any case, it appears, due to economic realities, my wonderful luxury of spending countless hours a day searching for music, putting people in touch to help foster new and upcoming organizers, DJ’s and events, is a thing of the past.

So, I will share one final tidbit of advice that I’ve learned since stepping away from my headphones and laptop--

The blues isn't about aesthetics or learning footwork, finding that partner who’ll help you win a competition, flying in someone you don't know to teach a workshop just to get on his radar and maybe invited to his big event, or stealing a DJ gig away from that guy you hate so you’ll be the one amongst the “in crowd”, or even just about labeling yourself a “blues dancer.” That's why there's a "disconnect" between today's contemporary "dancers" and those who worked hard at other things and danced in those rare moments when they could.

The blues is a celebration that after 6 days laboring for another man’s gain and listening to him tell you how fast to move and how high to jump, you can gussy up, ask a woman to dance, and move to music in any way you choose to, just for the pure joy of it.

The blues is about struggling to not give up… and winning.

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