The Blues are sad songs. No one wants that. And yet The Blues persist. There is little reason to believe that The Blues is going away. Even when the current pop music is thumping and protesteth its cheerfulness too much, The Blues continue to hold a steady fanbase.
I was sitting in one of my favorite hole-in-the-wall guitar shops last year and a touring jazz guitarist came in. We started playing some blues together, trading twelve-bar turnarounds. I am proficient, but nothing particularly exciting. Blues in E, though, is something that I can keep up with. He was a phenom that supported himself playing gypsy jazz in clubs all over the world. We never got beyond first names. After a long jam session, he told some stories about different big names that he had played with. He smiled as he told of middle of tour slumps. The grind would get to them and they would be having a hard time remembering why they had become musicians. That is when they would pick a key and play the blues together.
“It is one thing to impress people with what you can do on a fretboard,” he said as we got philosophical on the guitar showroom floor. “It is another to connect with them. With the blues there’s a human connection. That’s why I got into music.”
Then they could finish the tour.
The blues has proven itself to be a medium of connection. Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers is an excellent San Francisco blues band with an handful of great albums and a top notch series of singles. They are a blues band that is living proof that one beautiful woman on stage can make up for any number of less than attractive gentleman around her. Especially when she has pipes like Nicki Bluhm.
Though it seems like you should say that they are born our of time, the truth is, they aren’t. Because life is hard. No matter the decade, life is filled with the blues like sparks fly upwards. And when you are sad, and you sing with other people who are sad, you find yourself, if not happy, at least glad that you are sad together.
But the other reason Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers are worth the time is that their lyrics are top notch. One of their songs, Kill You to Call, is a wonderful breakup song. It starts like any good breakup song.
I never knew, heartbreak would be…
now I’m alone. Most of the time I feel free.
Then the night falls,
you’re not there to comfort me.
And I don’t want you back
’cause I know we’re all wrong
and I don’t need to see you cryin’,
but it’s hard being alone.
But then the next verse comes along and, guess what, this is not your average break up song.
Time after time I’ve asked you to change
into the man you wanted to be, or so you said.
Then your dreams became mine,
and I held on for a long, long time.
Oh snap! This is one of those poetic insights that should be written in the clouds. Women rarely simply fall in love with the man in front of them. Women fall in love with this man and the man that he could become–with a man and his dreams. A good woman inspires a man to become what she believes he can become. But this guy was not interested in going through what it was going to take to become what he wanted to be. He was unwilling to face down the death that would lead him there.
That, though, is what it takes. For any man to meet his potential he has to die. He has to die to laziness, die to taking the easy road, die to the distractions that vie for his attentions. Die to other possibilities, since every door is a choice of not-other-doors.
Her ex-man was unwilling to tackle what it took to become the man that he claimed he wanted to be. She continued to love his dreams. She continued to believe that he could become the man that he said he wanted to become. But he quit believing. She continued to hold on to his dream when he had given up. But when she realized that she loved who she believed he could become, not who he was actually becoming, the relationship ended. She needed to leave.
This is a sad, a profoundly sad story. But also a penetratingly insightful story. Because this problem is usually completely invisible to most couples. A married couple trying to work through surface conflict with this frustration brimming underneath will be perpetually unsatisfied. If either spouse’s hopes and dreams have shifted, or been given up on without discussion, then that crack in the foundation will make every bump and jostle feel like a near fatal earthquake.
Invisible hopes, expectations, and disappointments are the seeping fissures through which the life of a relationship begins to dribble. But those cracks can also be the place through which grace can enter. Every gate out is also a gate in, but only when acknowledged and communicated. When a disappointment is communicated and the response is love and grace–and repentance if it is necessary–then the disappointment can be transformed from a wedge keeping two people apart into a ramp drawing them together.
Sin, disappointment, and unmet expectations make relationships hard. The Blues continue. They are sung and they are lived. They draw people together when life’s pain threatens to push people apart. When life is hard, try The Blues. Start with this Spotify playlist. Sadness joined with sadness, though it does not always alleviate the sadness, can transform it into a point of contact. A point of fellowship. A point of understanding in a world that is so often pushing us apart.