Talkin' Blues with the Professor

University of Washington professor Larry Starr is bringing a lot of people together. Bessy Smith, Shelby Lynne, Bob Dylan, George Gershwin, Louis Armstrong and Aaron Copeland will all have a place in his classroom this spring, as will all Seattleites who want to learn something about America's greatest art form through an extensive series of lessons call Blues for Hard Times. The series features ten radio documentaries produced by, and aired on KEXP, as well as five weeks of courses on the blues being hosted by Seattle Arts & Lectures and being taught by Starr, who will be borrowing material from a similar ten-week course he is teaching to students at the UW's School of Music.

Starr received his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley in the late '60s, a time when the study of musicology was first moving away from the idea that the academy and the vulgarities of pop culture shall not meet. Since then, things have changed pretty radically and Starr is a part of an area of academic study that is viewed as almost intrinsic to the liberal arts; the study of American pop culture. "In fact," Starr said when I sat with him to talk about his Blues for Hard Times. "What I tend to tell my students is 'don’t let academics ruin popular culture for you.' That danger is now on the other side."



When you’re teaching somebody about the importance of music and culture what is the bedrock primary lesson, what’s the first thing somebody needs to learn in one of your classes?

When you offer a course for the blues, you have an enthused audience to begin with because people have elected to take this. So, you don’t have to begin with a defense of the blues. In both classes I am teaching, I want to take as broad-based an approach to the blues as possible to say that, aspects of the blues are all over, and I’m going to treat the blues as, first of all, a linguistic phenomenon. What does it mean when people say "I have the blues"? What’s the roots of the word? The blues have been connected with certain kinds of poetic forms, and phraseology, and so forth, and then of course it’s also a musical form. Both of these have become very very loose. In other words, one can talk about a blues feeling for a song that doesn’t really, in the technical sense, have a blues form at all, and that’s okay. There has also been the pervasive influence of the blues into other forms of music, into pop-music of all sorts. A Gershwin pop-tune like “The Man I Love,” for example, is not literally a blues in any way. And yet, if Gershwin had not heard blues music and related African-American idioms he would not have written that song the way he did.

And then going to the concert hall to boot. Aaron Copland was blues influenced; he even wrote a set of pieces called “Four Piano Blues.” They’re not very well known. They’re very good pieces, but they’re not literally "blues," in any sense, and they’re purely instrumental pieces, but again they show the pervasiveness of how the blues is a feeling, a collection of musical and sometimes verbal idioms that gets dispensed into the culture at large ... and then becomes inextricable from the culture at large; it becomes an ongoing part of what it means to speak with an American voice. 


What is it that is so American about the blues?

The blues have their roots in slave songs, field hollers, jail songs and so forth so they came out of the distinctively African-American community. As the blues matured from a musical point-of-view, it came into contact with Western music, Western harmony, Western musical forms, are what we call blues is generally a very creative collision of those two things. African-derived scale inflections, melodic inflections, against a rather Western-oriented harmony and rhythmic structure.  That collision could have only been created in this country because of our unique history with African-Americans. 


Is there one blues song that’s sort of the Rosetta Stone of the form?

It has to be “St. Louis Blues” by Bessie Smith and Louie Armstrong from 1925.  You can illustrate so many things with it.  “St. Louie Blues” is a blues song, in the sense that it uses 12-bar blues, but that is only one element of a rather complex multi-section structure. So it’s really a pop-song. The man who wrote the song, W.C. Handy, called himself the "Father of the Blues" -- of course, he was nothing of the sort, any more than Paul Whiteman was the King of Jazz, or Elvis Presley was the King of Rock 'n' Roll.  They were swinging titles that could have been assumed by many other people, but what W.C. Handy did when composing “St. Louis Blues” was take the rural blues that he had heard and alight it with a more complex pop-song form to make it more accessible, which, of course, he was enormously successful in doing that. 

When Bessie Smith and Louie Armstrong come and record it, they bring to it both vocal and instrumental traditions that on the one hand go way back in to black sources, but on the other hand represent the most contemporary forms of local blues and jazz. So it’s a recording that can swing so many ways, you could talk about it for several hours…


Do you feel like the blues has particular importance during times of hardship, like right no? Or that moments like this act as transformative to the blues form?

That’s interesting, I can’t answer the latter question. It would be interesting to see if there are specific kinds of blues-related songs that have come out of, what shall we call it, The Depression of 2008? That I can’t answer; the hindsight of history will tell you that. I think that the blues is always there because it is the music of people who lived through harder times most of us can imagine; not just economic hard times, but racial hard times, personal hard times, everything. The life of a roaming blues musician of the South was nothing to envy; he generally didn’t know when he got into a town where and if he would sleep that night, where he would play, what he would get to eat, or anything like that. Let alone if there would be even a public to listen to you. So, I guess that model of survival in the face of the most uncertain and sometimes arduous circumstances can be very helpful to people who themselves are experiencing some kind of hardship.

On the other hand, the blues is not only for hard times because the survival aspect of it; it’s the other side. These people are literally singing their way out of unhappiness very often. Which is true of art of course. It can be cathartic, if you deal with the unhappiness in artistic ways. Somehow you can make it seem less intense, somehow you’re mastering an aspect of it by turning it into something that’s artistic. 




Do you see any interesting blues artists out there right now?

Well, I hear the blues everywhere. I’m taking more of a historical point of view, but I don’t know if you know the name Otis Taylor, for example, he’s an older man but he has come back to music and he’s done a series of albums. He does what he calls “trance blues,” which is somehow a meeting of what we might call trance music -- which is long droning music, minimalism, and so forth -- with blues elements; it’s at its best, very very interesting.   

Also, there is a white southern singer named Shelby Lynne; there are more blues in her than just about any other singer anywhere in the country-slash-pop realm that I can think of. So, from two different sides of the ledger, I hear the blues remaining alive both in name and in spirit all over, but I can’t say personally that I am immersed or knowledgeable about the contemporary blues scene. It’s hard enough to keep up with all the reissues.


Who is your favorite artist?

[Starr takes a deep breath] Oh my goodness, that’s hard. Well, you know, I’m going to give standard answers; Bessie Smith and Robert Johnson in terms of city blues and country blues are just masters of the form. 

This may surprise you, but one of the things I am going to try to indoctrinate a little bit in both my blues classes is that I think the great white blues man is Bob Dylan, who has used blues forms literally and figuratively throughout his career. Very very blues influenced. It’s amazing the number of Dylan songs that are a literal blues form, 12-bar blues and so forth. I think he brought a kind of fresh literary sensibility that reinvigorated the blues for another generation. People don’t think of Dylan as a blues artist but I think that’s a mistake.

If you look at the two critical sixties albums, Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, I could just reel off a number of blues songs on them. On “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is not a blues in form, but it’s a blues in spirit. “She Belongs to Me” is a literal blues, “On The Road Again” is a literal blues, “Outlaw Blues” is a literal blues in name and in form. Even a song as complex as “Desolation Row” is using a 12-bar blues chord structure. So, I mean, both that whole period, Dylan’s electric period is incredibly formed by blues and Highway 61 is the highway that goes up from the Mississippi Delta up to the urban North.  It’s the route that the blues traveled. It’s not an accident that it’s called Highway 61 Revisited.


How do you comunicate the soul of music when you’re teaching the history of it?

I build my own personal enjoyment and passion into the lesson. I try not to create an artificial sort of dry academic distance from the subject, but to get very very involved in it. I don’t try to hide my prejudices one way or the other. I will let students know what I am really, really fond or think something is terrific. I think the most important thing to model to students -- and that includes dedicated musicians as well as people who are coming to a music course for the first time -- is a sense that music can be deeply meaningful transformative to people. If you take that passion out if it, you take out of it the reason you came into it to begin with. 


I am sure that the day-course you are doing for the students of music is quite a bit more intensive than the evening course for Arts & Lectures; what do you cut out?

I’m going to have to give much fewer examples of each type, because the Arts & Lecture course is much shorter. It’s five Wednesday evenings I think each class is an hour and a half; I meet the blues course 3 hours a week for ten weeks.

What I will also cut out by necessity is any technical musical studies, because I can’t assume that anyone knows that. I will assume the people in the music major course, of course, are musically literate or understand core structures and so forth but that is not necessary for people to appreciate blues or music of any sort. But also it’s necessary to understand that non-musicians hear that, the same as musicians do, they just can’t give the names.

A great principle I have in teaching is never talk down to non-music majors because they hear just as well as we do, they just don’t have that technical training.


To sign up for the Blues for Hard Times course, which starts Wednesday, March 31, click here. To listen to the accompanying KEXP documentaries, go here.