Walter Liniger, 2002

A contribution to the 40th Anniversary of the American Folk Blues Festival in Eisenach, Germany, August 2002.

    Over the years the American Folk Blues Festival had been largely responsible for introducing European audiences to the Blues. The musicians mesmerized us not only with their powerful and absorbing sounds and rhythms, but also with their unique attire and language, their cultural heritage. They offered us another look at the concept "America." For many of us the word Blues defines a rather rudimentary form of music. Yet, the English term "Blues" also has entered most European languages (even the French use it) where it describes some sort of feeling, a highly individualized feeling which can only be deciphered by our own internal understanding. Non-translatable.

    Blues musician Buddy Guy's classic song "First Time I Met the Blues" continues with "..I was walking down through the woods." The singer then tells us that the Blues got after him and ran him from tree to tree. Eventually, the singer begs the Blues, not to murder him.1

    In his short story "Mighty Long Time," Sterling Plumpp writes of a young black Mississippian coming of age; the young man wants to learn how to blow the Blues on the harmonica. On the way he will encounter much of what is required to play the Blues, such as experiencing his particular destiny. The young apprentice disappears from sight and sound for a certain amount of time. When he resurfaces he is playing the Blues. He must have met him.2

    In Stomping the Blues, Albert Murray points out that nobody has ever actually seen the Blues. "Nobody ever describes how they actually look. Because they have no image. Thus they do not appear and disappear. They are there because they have already come. Once they have been there they only shift from the foreground to the background, and maybe you forget about them for the time being, but only for the time being. They are also absolutely noiseless at all times. Their movements make no sound whatsoever. And they are evidently voiceless. They are said to speak, but only in the silent language of spirits. So even when they are quoted as if ad verbatim, you know the speaker is paraphrasing, because the accent and tone and even the volume and timbre are always very obvious stylizations of a voice all too obviously his own."3

    It appears that the BLUES AS MUSIC must draw from the well of personal experience, and that its expressive power comes from the inert desire of an individual to translate said experience/s into an audible voice. Due to its function and nature, until recently Blues has been taught and learned mostly through oral tradition: lyrical adaptability and musical control over this voice come from a lived and shared cultural understanding in America.

    I left Switzerland for the United States in 1982 and moved to Mississippi in 1984, my head and heart filled with curiosity, uncertainty and anxiety. What I thought I knew about America was mainly the result of studying its literary and musical voices (recorded music, that is). This had given me a false sense of knowledge. In my culture of academic literacy I had confused the terms "information" and "knowledge." I thought that what I had read and understood through reasoning was knowledge, but in confronting the Blues in America it turned out to be information at best. Knowledge was what one collects through experience, through life. And part of those experiences are my continued struggles with the dance of race - an ongoing process, ritualistic and accommodating at the same time.

    Meeting Delta bluesman James Son Thomas in February of 1985 was not only an encounter with southern legacy, but it soon was to become an awakening to my imagination. For many years I had been listening to the recorded voices of the Blues Land, fascinated with stinging steel strings and vibrating harmonica chords, glued to stories told in song, scraping at the echoing silence for meaning and understanding. Unknowingly, the persona of the bluesman had taken shape, an oscillating figure free in flight, tenaciously triumphant over adversities and fate, a shadow without a body. I longed to be part of his story.

    During our musical partnership (1985-1993) James Son Thomas helped me translate many of my frozen images into real life, where the lines are often blurred, and the unseen rules. Unwaveringly he forced me to rediscover my gut feelings. My fingers were able to follow his, imitating his tonal sequences on the fret board of the guitar; my harmonica went to the places where my voice would not go; my heart walked with him the dusty cotton rows of his life. The more I searched for commonness between our lives, the more I found startling difference. Intellectual insights revealed undeniable historical truths, and surrendering to Thomas' beliefs led to haunting inner turmoil, alien yet familiar at the same time.

    History had taught Son Thomas to be careful when talking to a white person. He did not volunteer past events from his life unless they had already become part of his repertoire, unless they were part of a safe narrative, of folklore so to speak. He lacked the schooling which would have given him use of my vocabulary, albeit already altered through translation. And I in turn did not have felt access to his life's language which he used to express who he was. "Cotton" to me was a product I bought in a store; to him it expressed a way of life, a reminder of shackles, abuse, and the Blues. "Chopping cotton" to me was an activity without memory. For Son Thomas it belonged to the heart of memory. Cultural symbols lose their power in translation.

    I have had the opportunity to experience first-hand the challenges of learning through oral traditions in the South. A Traditional Folk Art Apprenticeship Grant from the Mississippi Arts Commission in 1985 officially initiated my learning process under the guidance of James "Son" Thomas. I approached this apprenticeship in a rather academic manner, seeking validation of existing written and recorded materials. Soon I realized where my emotions and unanswered questions would lead me: my positioning in this learning process remained European, and white.   

    Oral tradition, such as the Blues, requires more than ardent indulgence in its crafted voice. It demands constant attention to unseen undulating forces and silent pauses, control over seductive urges, reconciliation of the past with the present, hope, and surrender to a moral principle. Oral traditions demand "learning in real time." They can never be hurried. Emotional and moral presence is essential in such a process, a process which seems to be directed toward the spiritual development and ethical advancement of the individual (as well as that of the larger community).

    An integral part of learning within the parameters of this tradition is the experience of a shared culture. While imitation lies at the heart of the performance, it is not its all-defining quality. By imitating my teacher I learned many of the obviously needed skills, such as musical chord structures and the understanding of rhythms. Performance, however, also involves invention, which must lead to new creative aspects of future traditions. In order to satisfy this requirement the artist has to be able to draw on the building blocks of personal and communal memory, factual and/or invented; construction of cultural and personal identity seems to happen at this juncture. Such creativity always reveals choices about the recovered memory.

    Through the music's ability to be a reminder of the past and its power to envision a future, an artist places manipulative powers at the core of his/her craft. And from this position of responsibility, the personalized interpretation of oral tradition must reveal the considerable personal efforts of the artist, not only towards giving a truthful account of life but also towards its transcendence. Thus, accurate learning within the framework of oral tradition demands the transformation of real time into knowledge. I am thankful to all of my teachers that they engaged my heart and mind in my ongoing effort to sort out the trials and triumphs of living in two different cultures. After all, if I want to play the Blues, I need to know who the "I" is that haunts this music's poetry.4

    I remember when I first heard the Blues, but I can't remember when I first met them. They seem to have been there all along. Over the years I have discovered many intriguing aspects which accompany my status of being an immigrant: such as being cut off from my native culture and remaining a negotiating observer in my chosen one; the sense of being alienated and alone; the never ending challenges of translating culture and its symbolisms; the discovery of old prejudice and stereotypes through tackling new ones. Pursuing the Blues has forced me to look at my emotional core, a world where shadows play hide-and-seek, a place where time is suspended, where silence is telling me more than a symphonic cacophony of intellectual fancy, a place where I need to mobilize strength to overcome adversities, a place where pain and joy both can be transformed into knowledge. A spiritual place, no doubt. In his short story "Sonny's Blues" the writer James Baldwin sums it up in a few concluding words: "The blues were not about anything very new. The musicians were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in this darkness."5

Walter Liniger
Institute for Southern Studies
University of South Carolina

1 Rec. 3/12/1960, Chicago, IL. Chess 1735
2 Plumpp, Sterling D. "Mighty Long Time," (from Mississippi Writers: Reflections of Childhood and Youth, Vol.1. University Press of Mississippi, 1985.)
3 Murray, Albert. Stomping the Blues. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1976.
4 Liniger, Walter. From Oral Tradition: Learning in Real Time. Unpublished manuscript, 1998.
5 Baldwin, James. "Sonny's Blues," (from The American Tradition in Literature, Vol.2. New York: Random House, 1985).