Friday, May 25, 2012

The Sound of my Childhood

Dear John,

I'm better, the dog is psychotic. He's having separation anxiety to the point that he doesn't want to go outside. He doesn't mind me going to work, but he seems terrified of what I'll do when his back is turned. Poor creature. He'll get lots of cuddling this weekend. 

I've been pondering all day: Why is it that when you're sad, listening to Delta Blues makes you feel so much better? Part of it is the lyrics - you know that pain is part of life and you're not alone. And the songs are about plain, ordinary people leading working-class lives. But that's true of other music too. Hank Williams, Sr. leaps to mind. It's more than that. 

I know it's partly a cultural thing for me. The voice and vocabulary of the Delta is what I grew up with, and nobody up here talks like that. There's something comforting for me in hearing the dialect of my childhood. (And no, it's not a foreign language! I'll never forget having to translate Leadbelly line-by-line for you. I hadn't dreamed that he'd be hard for anybody to understand.) It was also part of the music of my childhood. My parents didn't like it - they listened to Big Band music and the Boston Pops. But growing up where I did, Blues was endemic. You couldn't not hear it.

There's something organic in the music itself. The 12-beat measure, the breaking of every beat into a triplet, is as close as you can get to the rhythm of the heartbeat. It's the first rhythm we hear in the womb; it's our mother's heartbeat and our own. It's part of our biology. Even if I couldn't understand the words - you know, if Leadbelly really did have an accent - I'd listen just for the music.

Yesterday I changed out Robert Johnson for Muddy Waters in the car. It feels good to listen to a deep, rich voice sing molasses. There's a rootedness about it. It means continuity for me. It makes me feel like I have a place in the world: somewhere I came from and somewhere I am, but no thoughts about where I'm going. 

Well, better minds than mine have asked the same question. I just know Delta Blues always feels good. There's a rightness about it. You were always so nice to me, learning to understand how it works and coming to like it. That's no small thing for a white guy from Ohio, and I always appreciated it. I'm sorry you never got to hear Robert Johnson. You'd love him.

And I love you, and Jethro is way past wanting to go to bed. So I have to say goodnight. Sleep good!
Joan.

PS - Remember how much of a shock Led Zeppelin caused with the Lemon Song in the 70s? Well, that line is from a song Robert Johnson wrote in the 30s - Traveling Riverside Blues.  Love you!


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