Blues as raw emotion

Blues Fest musicians talk about what makes their music

Blues Fest musicians talk about what makes their music

June 01, 2006|by JULIE E. GREENE

Passionate, joyful, painful, raw, even humorous - all describe the blues.

The blues does not have to be depressing, but the music isn't blues unless the artist brings some emotional weight or life experiences to it, say several musicians slated to perform at this weekend's 11th annual Western Maryland Blues Fest.

"Blues is an experience. I mean, you know what I mean? You can't play it if you haven't experienced it. When you play blues, your life experience - whether good or bad - comes out in the blues," says Roger Lewis, an original member of The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, which is set to perform Saturday night.

"Some guys, they can play the blues on a technical level - play blues scale and licks, but that's not like playing the blues," Lewis says. "B.B. King played blues because he lived that."


"When I play the blues, it definitely reflects on the things that I've been through in my life. I'm not just playing a bunch of notes. It's feeling," says Lewis, 64, who is among many people still recovering from Hurricane Katrina hitting his two houses in New Orleans.

He's also experienced the deaths of his parents, a son and a best friend who was a saxophone mentor, not to mention growing up in a segregated city.

Sometimes his mind drifts to those memories, and the experiences come out in his playing.

Blues is about telling stories and the unique way the melodies are sung, says Baltimore guitarist Carl Filipiak.

"It's like you're really trying to get your guitar to play what the vocalist is singing. That is what is at the heart of the blues to me," Filipiak says.

Rosie Ledet, who plays the accordion and fronts Rosie Ledet and the Zydeco Playboys, says inspiration comes from talking with girlfriends, reading a book, watching a movie or from her own life.

"I wrote ("Big Brother") for my big brother that got killed in a car accident a few years ago. It's about our life growing up," she says.

Ledet grew up listening to blues, Creole and zydeco music, even in the womb.

"I guess I've been hearing it since I was in my mom's stomach. ... My mom says I was born with the blues and looks like I might die with them too," says Ledet, who lives in Iota, La.

Blues also was the first musical genre that blues-rock-soul singer and songwriter Deb Callahan remembers listening to - when her mother would play Nina Simone's music on the stereo.

"I just thought her voice was so powerful, expressive, so full of emotion," Callahan says. "That's what I remember first. That drew me to other artists.

"It's so expressive I feel like it puts someone's emotional world right out there. It can take people to a very raw place."

The mimicking of wailing, howling, crying and other guttural or primal sounds from the guitar and vocals can take the performer and the listener to a raw emotional place, Callahan says.

"To me blues is really born of suffering and despair, but also how people cope with that," she says. "It's how people cope with that so it incorporates a lot of joy."

Alan Mason, who will play electric guitar for the local band 2Blue Ensemble on Friday, says blues can be therapeutic.

"For me, it's just an expression of getting certain feelings out of your soul, and, when you get done playing, it feels like a big weight is gone. Kind of like an exorcism," says Mason, of Hedgesville, W.Va.

"Some people (are) happy just to have the blues," Ledet says. "Well, you have something.

"Listening to blues when you are depressed makes you feel better that someone has it worse than you do. It lifts my spirits every time I am depressed."

The blues requires feeling, says Brooklyn, N.Y., singer-songwriter Nicole Nelson.

Nelson believes fewer people are performing blues because more people are distracted by modern conveniences such as television, movies and video games.

"We don't actually have to suffer a lot of our pain. We can distract ourselves ... and not deal with things people did in earlier generations," she says.

Unlike many children of the '80s, Nelson didn't watch TV. Her parents did not allow it.

"I could only turn to books and music, and I preferred music and so I let a lot of angst out that way," Nelson says.

"Blues to me is music that's hot and passionate and full of spirit," Nelson says. "I feel like it's OK for certain types of music to be cool - like jazz or pop - but with blues you need that heat for it to come across. You need to be feeling something on that deeper level for it to be blues.

"If you approach blues in a cool way, it's not going to be happening. You have to have that heat underneath it and it has to be raw to be blues."

Western Maryland Blues Fest schedule

Blues Prelude


University Plaza, West Washington Street

11:30 a.m. - Pops Walker

12:30 p.m. - Skyla Burrell Blues Band

Admission is free.

Lotta Blues Show

Friday, June 2

Hagerstown's central parking lot

Budweiser Stage

4:30 p.m. - The Rhythm Kings

5:30 p.m. - 2Blue Ensemble

6:30 p.m. - The Deb Callahan Band

8 p.m. - Joe Bonamassa

Tickets cost $15 in advance and $20 at the gate; free for ages 5 and younger.

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