The Ashland Blues Society: Origins and Influence

This article was published a year or so ago. I wrote it to document the origins and influence of a regional blues society and the power of one person’s dream.


                                                         THE POWER OF A DREAM


It started with a bad night’s sleep.

As with so many great adventures, the concept for the Ashland Blues Society began in the wee small hours, on a sleepless night in December, 2008. Blues singer/songwriter David Pinsky lay awake, pondering the direction–and oft- bemoaned decline—of the blues in America. As a musician, band leader and former club owner, David had witnessed the cyclical rising and falling of America’s Music for decades, and its fortunes on this particular morning looked dim.

“I woke up in the middle of the night,” David recalls. “I thought, ‘I have to do something to promote the blues in our area. The blues is still alive; we gotta do something about this.’”

To be sure, many individuals and organizations had promoted successful blues and roots events in the State of Jefferson. The Southern Oregon Blues Society (then in its waning days) put on hugely-successful outdoor and indoor events that included Portland’s Jim Mesi, Janiva Magness and a host of local talents. David Pinsky made sure the Jackson County Fair included blues events with such luminaries as Lowell Fulson, Mark Naftalin, Luther Tucker, Ron Thompson, Lloyd Jones and many others. The Siskiyou Blues Society put on a yearly festival at Mount Shasta that attracted national acts, and it was the first blues society on our region to send an act (Broadway Phil & the Shouters) to the International Blues Challenge in 2000. In the Redding area, the Shasta Blues Society (now Jefferson State Blues Society) has had a long-running and notable blues series at Anderson River Park. From the early 80s forward this writer hosted all-ages blues events and shows with Paul DeLay, Curtis Salgado and others.

But on that December morning in 2008, David felt the need for something more: an organization that would promote blues, educate blues audiences and musicians, employ musicians and provide a consistent home for blues events and resources for those interested in participating in the roots musical experience.

So he got busy.

In January of 2009, David printed off 3×5 cards and distributed them at the final Rogue Valley Blues Festival in Ashland. The cards were a call for interested parties to help with the formation of a blues society.

The first meeting was in February of 2009 in the back room of Alex’s Restaurant, and it was here that the nascent organization was christened the Ashland Blues Society. The first board members were David Pinsky, Julia Pinsky, Mark Howard, Susan Howard, Bill Fischer, Mike Ruiz, Nick O’Neill, Terry Erdmann and Bill Gates, owner of the Beacon Hill property which became the venue for subsequent festivals.

The mission statement of the ABS was formulated in February 2009. It reads, in part: Our stated mission is to assist in the preservation of the blues as a part of our cultural heritage and tradition through public awareness and education, and through fostering a supportive environment for blues artists in our community to develop, grow and prosper.

The first Beacon Hill Blues Festival was held on September 20, 2009 and included The Rhythm Kings and Guy Puma’s Main Street Blues Band with Mark Howard on Harmonica and the much-loved recently-departed Mark Cunningham on bass. There was also a blues jam band made up of ABS board members that later morphed into the still-active Blues Society Band. The festival was attended by 150 people and deemed a success.

The 2010 Beacon Hill Festival included the Main Street Blues Band, the Rhythm Kings, Broadway Phil and the Shouters and Pete Herzog. The audience size grew significantly and led the ABS board to expand the size and scope of the festival. Beginning with the third Beacon Hill Blues Festival, out of town acts were brought in.

Past president Mark Howard recalls, “It went like this: the third Beacon Hill Blues Festival starred Lloyd Jones, with Pete Herzog, the Rhythm Kings and Broadway Phil and the Shouters opening; Beacon Hill Blues Festival #4 starred Curtis Salgado, and opened with Doug Warner & the Night Train Express, the Rogue Valley Blues All-Stars, featuring David Pinsky, Gary Davis, Roger Volz, Dave Mathieu, Brent Norton, Gary Halliburton and ‘Broadway’ Phil Newton. It also featured a four-harp blowoff with Phil, David, Doug Warner and Mark Howard; the fifth Beacon Hill Blues Festival co-starred Kevin Selfe and Karen Lovely and their bands, and featured David and Phil with the Rogue Valley Blues All-Stars, and a harmonica blowoff. My memory isn’t that good, but I designed all the posters and they’re now hanging behind my desk. The fifth festival was the last one I attended, and for which I designed the poster.”

Blues jams were part of the ABS culture from Day One. Beginning as a musical get-together after membership meetings, the very first blues jam was held at Alex’s on March 3, 2009, with subsequent get-togethers at the Stillwater and the Avalon.

The board then decided they needed a regular venue and moved the jams to the Ashland Community Center, where they resided for a year or so. Every other week, David Pinsky held a blues class, where people were invited to bring their instruments and study a different blues legend each time: Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Willie Dixon, etc. The classes allowed the musicians to delve more deeply into an individual artist’s style and learn the facets of the music, both broadening and deepening the knowledge base among Rogue Valley musicians and blues aficionados.

David Pinsky was ABS president for the first two years, then moved to the events coordinator position following the election of blues harpist Mark Howard. Mark had the idea of moving the jams to the legendary Phoenix rib joint, Roscoe’s, which had been opened in 2007 by Will and Nikola Moore.

Mark Howard comments, “The jams at the Community Center were a lot of fun for players, but never drew much of an audience. I had drinks one night with Karen Lovely and picked her brain. She declared that blues lovers wanted to eat and drink while they were being entertained, something the Community Center didn’t offer. So I set out looking for a food and drink venue, and when I spoke with Nikola [Moore] at Roscoe’s she loved the idea and a deal was struck.”

The first ABS jam was held at this much-loved restaurant and blues club in December of 2010, with the Ashland Blues Society members hosting. The jams thrived there until Roscoe’s was forced to close in March of 2013. No more buttermilk pie. No more barbecue. No more sassy good times with friends and family.

Interviewed for this article, Nikola spoke for all of us when she said, of Roscoe’s closing, “It left a hole in my heart.”

After a brief sojourn at Howiee’s on Front Street in Medford, the jams moved to the Little Brown Jug in Talent in the summer of 2013.

Host bands over the years include The Rhythm Kings, Duke Street, the Muscadine Blues Band, Mercy, the Main Street Blues Band, The Rogue Suspects, The Randalz, Soul’d Out, Leonard Griffie, Broadway Phil & the Shouters, The Roadsters, The Blues Dusters, The Blues Society, The Teri Cote Band, Dan Day and many others.  

The Ashland Blues Society has seen many changes. Several years ago David Pinsky and others stepped out of the organization and Bill Gates formed a new board. Festivals and jams continued successfully, but entropy took its toll and by summer of 2016 the ABS was on the ropes. There was no festival and the jams stopped.

Enter board member Linda Huffman.

“I took over as President last summer when everyone resigned due to health and personal situations,” Linda says. “The Society was near-broke but the response of people that wanted to see the jams reinstated spurred me to try to see what could be done. One person offered to match funds if we raised $250.00. We did that easily.”

Next came the task of getting the jams going.

Linda says, “It took some time to reorganize the board and get the jams started again. We tried to find a location that could allow minors on the premises.” The ABS search for a venue finally located The Grape Street Bar & Grill in Medford.

Linda is happy with the new venue. “We wanted a place that was large enough and could have minors. There wasn’t anything in the Ashland area that would work, so the jams moved to Medford.” The inaugural post-hiatus ABS jam was on December 13, 2016, “and we’ve been holding them on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month since then.”

Linda was next able to get a grant for $2,500.00 from the Fred W. Fields fund of the Oregon Community Foundation to put in savings for the next festival. “I was told about the grant two weeks before the deadline, and I had no paperwork to submit. Believe me, in the future there will be better record-keeping. We are also working to get corporate sponsors for the festival. We’d like to grow it to a weekend event.”

Linda anticipates that proceeds and donations from events will also be used to help sponsor acts that compete regionally and then enter the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. “Plus, you have to pay the bands that host the jams. You can’t ask them to play for peanuts.” The proceeds from the festival will go toward more events and help bring in talent to the area, offer benefits to members and “keep the music going.”

The ABS believes in reaching out to the younger people in our area with the blues message. One idea is to participate in the Blues in the Schools program, however finding the personnel to commit to fulfilling the specific requirements of this worthy project is a challenge. Reaching out to college students is also a desired goal.

Another challenge to the ABS is finding interested volunteers to fill board positions and do volunteer jobs such as working at the blues festival, handling publicity, logistics, etc., but Linda is optimistic. The tide seems to be running in the ABS’s direction again: jams are well-attended, former members are coming back to help and the enthusiasm is there.

With 2017 comes the fantastic news that the ABS is going to have a blues festival at Grizzly Peak Winery on the last Sunday in June. Details will be forthcoming, however the return of the blues festival marks a real change in fortunes for the State of Jefferson and the Rogue Valley in particular.

Over the years ABS board members have included, in addition to those already mentioned, Marsha Carrino, Robert Ogle, Phil Newton, Erin Koltner, Bruce Dunn, Peggy Dunn and Gary Roberts. Current board members are Red Ohmer, Lloyd Lawton, Linda Huffman, Linda LaCasse, Katherine Keys and Bob Crowly.

Linda is happy with the board and with the direction the Society is taking. She acknowledges the task is a formidable one, and has had some doubts over the past few months, but she is determined to galvanize the Ashland Blues Society into a successful iteration of David Pinsky’s original vision on that sleepless winter morning over eight years ago.

“I couldn’t just sit back and watch it fade away,” she says. And we are glad she feels that way.

Persons interested in volunteering for the Ashland Blues Society events, or for being considered for the ABS board are encouraged to contact Linda Huffman at (530) 262 5270.


Information on Terrane, a new novel due out fall of 2018

Below is the author’s information for Unsolicited Press, which is publishing my novel, Terrane, in the fall of 2018. A sample chapter to be posted here soon.


Book Title:  Terrane


Author: Philip Newton


Genre:  Literary Fiction


140-Character Synopsis:


Near death, Allen Wrangell rediscovers his lost love, only to face the possibility that she and the conflicts he faces with her are the hallucinations of a dying mind.


 250-Word Summary of Collection:


Allen Wrangell is a terminally-ill, geology-obsessed loner who makes his way to an isolated mountain town to reconnect with Liz, a long-lost love. Allen takes a room at a bed and breakfast run by the enigmatic Maria and soon finds himself embroiled in a conflict with her abusive, alcoholic boyfriend. The drama is complicated by Allen’s growing suspicion that Liz, Maria–even Allen himself—might not really exist.


As Allen’s relationship with Maria deepens, he’s troubled by the knowledge that any new love is destined to be short-lived. Perspective and sanity are maintained to some degree when Allen meets Ted, the town’s mysterious bartender, who provides a safe refuge in his bar. Ted accepts Allen without judgment and through their conversations the fear and havoc of Allen’s haunted experience are made more manageable.


The conflict comes to a head when Allen is pummeled and jailed on apparently false charges by Maria’s boyfriend. Visited for the last time by Liz, it becomes clear to Allen that she is a mere phantom, and that he might in fact be completely delusional. Bailed out by Ted, Allen is recovering in the back of Ted’s bar when he finds Maria at his door. They make a decision to free themselves from the earthquake-doomed town and seek refuge farther up in the mountains, there to face whatever may come. In a nod to the story’s ambiguous reality, the last sentence of Terrane reads, as Allen and Maria approach their mountain refuge, They were almost there.




Author Q&A

If you could cook dinner for any author, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you make?  

I’d like to cook a hamburger for John Steinbeck, served with alcohol.


What scares you the most about the writing process? How do you combat your fears?

Writing is terror. It has to be. That’s how it commands our attention. To engage emptiness and wrestle something out of it requires some muscle. It also requires humility and a willingness to not shy away from the fear and nakedness. The only way to overcome the terror of the word is to write the word, to invite it in, then follow it to the places it goes. When you do, you are free for a short season.


Who is your biggest literary crush, author or character? 

Carson McCullers


What books are on your nightstand?

Deep Blues; Lord of the Rings; Pablo Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair.


Where do you get your ideas? What inspires you?

 The last three novels I wrote were taken directly from dreams. Conversations and glances between people who have strong feelings for each other start the wheels turning. The weather, particularly the change from one season to the next, always moves me to write. Geological features and geology in general inspire awe and meditation on the great motion of time. Observing animals, rivers, cloud formations, stars and planets, the passage of sun and moon, all these serve to draw me out of my ego and into something larger. Other writers inspire me, of course, but I prefer my voices to work their way up out of the soil.


Favorite punctuation mark? Why?  

The semicolon. I probably overuse it, but I love a writing implement that accomplishes multiple tasks, adding clarity while at the same time aiding sentence flow. The semicolon bends the whole idea of what it means to be a punctuation mark. It is not so much a mark as a smudge. A ghost.


What book were you supposed to read in high school, but never did?

The Pilgrim’s Progress.


What inanimate object would you thank in your acknowledgements?

My harmonica.


Why do you write? The first 5 words that come to mind. Go.

I write or I explode.


If you could write an inspirational quote on the mirrors of aspiring writers, what would you write?

Forget your voice. Ignore your voice. Escape it. You are a room for other voices, a receiver and a transit point. A radiator. A refuge. Begin to listen to those other voices. They will make you fearless, happy and free.


Author’s Real Name:  Philip Newton

Website (if applicable):  


 Title of Work:     Terrane


Author Bio:

Philip Newton is an author, poet and musician living in Oregon. His poems, articles and essays have recently appeared in Ink in Thirds, Here Comes Everyone, Coal Magazine, Ibis Head Review, Scriblerus Journal and others. His original music has been recorded on multiple studio albums and receives airplay worldwide. He is represented by Natalie Galustian at DHH Literary in London, UK.

Excerpt from A Fast and Beautiful Life

A Fast and beautiful life is a recently-completed non-fiction book, based on my 30-plus years in the investigative field. Here is a sample chapter


Chapter Four

I’m From the Government and I’m here to Help



In over thirty years of doing adult protective services investigations, I have been asked for my state ID badge about four times. That’s it.

Here’s how it goes:

  1. I show up at a door, unannounced.
  2. I tell them I’m from Adult Protective Services.
  3. I ask to come in.
  4. They let me.

Then I take all their stuff. No. But really. They let me in. Of the four people who asked me for my ID, one was a mentally ill woman on heavy doses of antipsychotics. Two were perps. I can’t remember who the fourth one was, but he or she was probably a perp, also. They tend to be more careful, plus, consider this: showing up at someone’s house and telling them you are from the gummint is something they might think up and they’re on the alert for that stuff. Beats working.

And what if they should ask for my ID? I have three of them, all with my picture on them. They sit gathering dust and grime in my state-issued black field folder. One ID was done at the state Department of Motor Vehicles. One was made in-house, using a digital camera and a color printer. One is my door pass. They all look official, gold-embossed here and there, with a state seal and stuff like that. Want one? Sixty dollar printer and a “clear rigid plastic vertical badge holder, pack of fifty, $25.00.” You’re in. Too lazy to make one yourself? Hundreds of on-line companies will do it for you.

Then, when you are asked every 8.25 years for that ID, you have, like, fifty of them. You can be either from the state government, a Fed, a meter reader, an NGO representative, or pick the beneficial organization of your choice. You can be from the Program for Senior Protection, the Office of Joy, the Division of Actuarial Accountability, the Census Bureau, Homeland Security, the Department of Redundancy Department, the Overseas Inland Organization for Crippled Pagan Veteran Orphans.

Where I live, if it’s guns and God, you are in. On a slow day at the office I doodled a mockup of a card, with the Savior toting an assault rifle. I named him GI Jesus. His motto was, “Kill ‘em all, let Dad sort ‘em out.” You’re only limited by your imagination.

But the absolute best way to get in that door, should your victim prove wary or stubborn, is to utter this phrase: “Hi. I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

Say it with a smile and a firm handshake. By the time they’re done laughing, you’re on the couch, photo album open, life story pouring out.

I’ll be candid. I’m a perp. More precisely, if I were a perp, I’d be a good one, one of the best. I’d be rich, and not contemplating a bleak retirement, with an inadequate pension (buy this book, in the name of all that is holy, please buy it); I’d be in the Perp Hall of Fame.

Because I think like one. I act like one. I got them greasy perp moves down. I smile that winning smile. I laugh at weak jokes. I am amazed at their grandchildren’s SAT scores. When asked to guess, I underestimate their age and am shocked—shocked—to discover they are 87 years old. I flirt. I flatter. I am genuinely interested in their Bingo strategies. I care.

I do. I do care. Not about Bingo, or their son-in-law’s sales figures (fucking perp). I care about that person I am conning. In that moment, on that couch, they are the most important person in the world to me. I nod my head. I look them in the eye. I coax, cajole, laugh with those who laugh, weep with those who mourn.

When all else fails, I use my kill-shot.

“You know, Mrs. Kresge, I don’t work for the government.”

“You don’t?” (Moment of trepidation. Instant of fear, millisecond of who did I just let in my house and why is he sitting on my couch.)

“Nope. I don’t work for the state. The state pays my salary. Right now, the person I’m working for is you.”

“It is?”

“Yes. You are my boss. I am your employee. Tell me what you want.”

“Oh!” Flood of relief. Release of oxytocin. Forging of human bonds which even death will not sunder. They are mine, and I am theirs. Hook sunk. Game over. The old one-two. Works every time.

The best part about this con is that it is not a con. It’s true, the genuine article. At that moment, that man or woman beside me on the couch is the most important person in the world to me. They are my task, my charge, my mission. Because they have been exploited, or neglected, or abused. They are failing to thrive. They are at risk. They often have no one to bail them out or, more commonly, their support system is unaware of the straits into which the victim has sailed.

The chances are I am their chance, maybe their last best or only chance, to get their shit straight and I’m not going to allow them to stop me.

That’s right. I won’t let the victim not let me help them. Because while it is true that some victims want and ask for help, in my experience most are reluctant to receive it, especially if that help comes from the gummint. That reluctance increases with the age of the victim, and doubles down in rural, conservative areas such as the one where I work. The perp comes later. Job #1 is to win over the victim, and that I do, with great consistency, because I act like I give a shit, because in fact I do give a shit.

My task is to con the victim into not being a victim. An anti-con, if you will. But the methods and mindset are close. Too damned close for comfort.

Sometimes I scare myself.


The theme of fraud runs throughout this book. Those ridiculous agency and organization names I listed above are not greatly-exaggerated parodies of the genuine false article. (See what a hall of mirrors it is you’ve stumbled into? Only in Perpland can there be authentic counterfeits. Relax. Adjust. There are new rules now and others are in control here. It’s going to be all right.) Sometimes that fraud comes in the mail. Sometimes it’s a phone call. Most commonly it comes from someone near and dear to the victim. But every act of perpetration is a lie. A distortion. a bending of things, just enough, to confuse, bewilder and dominate the victim. Whether it’s a lotto scam, a letter from a Nigerian prince (there are no Nigerian princes), a heartwrenching email, a promise of undying love or a vow to provide good and faithful care for life, it matters not at all: every perp is a liar and every act of abuse and exploitation is a brutal, soulless breach of trust.

In the Land of the Lie, the first person the victim learns to mistrust is himself. His senses. Her instincts. Her own sanity. The fact that so many victims have some form of diminished capacity exacerbates the problem. They are the proverbial fish in the barrel. But even if he is of sound mind, the victim can be pummeled into submission and broken down by the many tools in the perpetrator’s toolkit, all of which are displayed in this book. Handy gadgets already listed–flattery, cajolery, gas-lighting, flirtation, etc.—are all essential. But the top of the tray, the Swiss army knife of perpetration is doubt.

Doubt. Doubt your friends. Doubt your family members (the good ones). Doubt valid helping professions such as doctors, police, adult protective services. Doubt your lawyer, your preacher, your realtor, your dog. Don’t trust any of them.

Finally, doubt yourself. Your own eyes, ears—your nose most especially, disregard that stench—your sense of up or down. Dismasted, rudderless and adrift, you are taken in tow by the only person willing, so often, to devote seemingly endless time to you: that filthy suck who wants your money.

And so you become, day by day, hour by hour, word by disorienting word, the perp’s main ally. You defend him. You make excuses for her. You stand in the way of all who will harm them or bring them to justice, and in so doing you create the biggest obstacle to helping you: You.

As Walt Kelly wrote in the great comic strip, Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

It is no small wonder, then, that when I knock on your door my first and foremost mission is to overwhelm you. To get around you. To overcome you. My job is to make you my ally, to become a partner in your own protection. It’s a tough, often unfair process. I try every tool in my own toolbox to dismantle the devices and booby-traps implanted by the perp in its quest to degrade you, terrorize you, milk you for the goodies, because in order to help you I have to finagle a way for you to be willing to help yourself. It’s a brutal battle and I don’t fight fair.


A final word on this devious subject: when I tell people I’m from the government and I’m here to help, it’s understood that this is a joke. That’s why I say it, because the perp’s (and therefore an anti-perp’s) first job is to yuk ‘em up, get them laughing, loose and relaxed. It makes the job so much easier. Failing humor, a lesser tool is terror, and it’s a harmful one, the forceps, the howitzer, the wrecking ball of protective services, to be only used at great need. It also seldom works. Old folks didn’t get old by being sissies. The disabled and the infirm already know more terror than you can possibly conjure. This population is tough. In some ways what accounts for their existence against the odds of time, misfortune disease and poor living also makes them that much harder to help. A victim can be a dogged foe when wracked by a pitiless disease of doubt and fear.

So a bit of a laugh at my expense, and especially at the expense of my employer, is a marvelous tonic. The legendary movie director Billy Wilder said, “If you’re going to tell people the truth, be funny, or they’ll kill you.”  Damn, that’s true. What’s also true is that, by the time I have gained the trust of the victim and we begin a strategy for self-help and we’re on the couch cooking up our counter-assault, I really am working for the victim, and no one else. It is imperative that the victim understands that we, and whomever we trust enough to bring onboard, are a team. It’s us against the world, and that means the gummint, too.

Governments don’t help people. Governments screw people over and take their stuff. Governments make stupid laws, randomly enforced, designed to make faceless bureaucrats wet their desk chairs and Wall Street parasites wriggle with ecstasy. Governments are only as good as we make them and we only need them because people are naturally selfish, stupid and predatory and in fact it’s a damned miracle we have anything like good governance at all, and we seldom actually do, although somehow it seems almost good enough. So there is a God, because humans are too often venal and shortsighted to think beyond their next meal or sexual adventure to do something like build a decent civil order. Even when we do create something like a sensible rule of law it is at best exquisitely imperfect, and inclined to hit everything with the blunt end of the shovel.

Really. Have any of those great white edifices in DC ever done a stroke of work? Of course not.

So of course it is not the government that helps anyone. It’s you. It’s me. If we choose to do it, and if we are able. And the people we are trying to help understand that more acutely than anyone. In the end, when we stand together on the burning barricades of that person’s life, smashing perps, sounding the call for allies, redeeming with blood sweat and tears the victims’  stolen dignity, treasure and hope, they need to know that we will go through hell, high water and the state legislature if need be to regain what is rightfully theirs.

So screw the gummint, the bosses, the bureaucracy, the desk monkeys and that poor old mule they rode in on.

It’s you and me against the world, Ma.

When I Walk out of this World

When I Walk out of this World

The blindness comes in the afternoon

At night when the wheat and eels sleep

It comes in the morning and the walls go deaf

No one hears the ringing of the bells

There are no bells and

there is no one there

No ear, no tongue, nothing to taste

water or salt or cold, ringing air


Blindness comes in the afternoon

When I bow my head

and walk out of this world


Dog growls, rain falls, the sun whirls

into wreckage in the afternoon

Across the walls of sleeping rooms

a frightened captive plunging fire

ignites a carpet of dust

The little ones wait for dinner

but it will not come


There is an orange odor here

Brittle, febrile

Rich as dung

Sharp as a glancing blow

But no one comes to gather it up

There is no arrival

This afternoon there is no letter

and no song at dusk

and no one waits at the dimming gate

We’ve all forgotten


Blindness comes in the afternoon


Without warning

When I bow my head

and walk out of this world


The arc of stars and

that horizon always running away

Planets pulse, ripe and dripping

So much iron and phosphor

So much lemon and wood

There’s feasting tonight

In towns other than this one


Put on your shoes

You don’t want to die like this

with the rats skittering over you


I would go with you

this afternoon

to the place where you get the water

I would sing you a last song

if it were not already too late




Walking Each Other Home


The fall comes quick in September

When the leaves and the rivers go dry

I take night trails  and remember

When you were by my side


The dogs are both out here with me

They’re old and they trip now and then

But they’re happy to be here anyway

Under the moon again


And there’s no need to fear the winter at all

When it gets here you won’t be alone

We can hold each other up

When we stumble and fall

We’re just walking each other home


When we were younger we took all those chances

And some of us took more than a few

Now I don’t spend my time at the dances

I want to stay here with you


The seasons work on your bones

Like the sky, my hair’s turning gray

But together our hearts won’t be weak or alone

I wouldn’t have it any other way


And there’s no need to fear the winter at all

When it gets here you won’t be alone

We can hold each other up

When we stumble and fall

We’re just walking each other home


Where did the Blues Begin?

Where did the Blues Begin?

The blues had to begin somewhere. Or did it? Did blues really have a beginning, or was it a sort of timeless coming together, a weaving and a braiding of different sources, streams and threads, shuttling forward and backward in time?

The blues scale, with the flatted third, fifth and seventh has its roots in west and central Africa, as does the melismatic vocal pitch bending, which could also have had a North African and Middle Eastern influence. Regions in Mali, Senegambia and other West African countries gave us the familiar elements of blues such as the call and response. The melisma (varying of pitch through a long musical syllable–think Aretha Franklin gospel) was important in these regions, as well as in the Middle East, connoting emotional meaning and artistic structure. Some of the percussion and stringed instruments (particularly the banjo) came out of Africa, as did the cultural context for the aforementioned call and response structure of the blues.

When African scales, instruments, vocal techniques and song structure encountered European folk and religious music (particularly that of the Scots-Irish southerners) it also came under Native American influences. Soon a cross-cultural ferment began that led to the basic roots of the blues. It isn’t hard, for instance, to correlate the skipping dotted 8th beat of a Scottish reel or British sea shanty with a dotted 8th blues shuffle, or to equate the insistent 4/4 time signature of Native American drumming with some Delta or hill country trance blues and later expressions in rock, rhythm and blues. Spanish, French and Portuguese influences brought us rumbas, sambas, tangos, zydeco and other styles to stir into the mix.

So we can think of blues as a conversation, a speaking together and an exchange back and forth between continents, cultures, races, religions and artistic styles that continues today. What we now term “Afro-Celtic” began brewing centuries ago when Scots, Irish and West African musicians began checking out what the other guys were up to. Tex-Mex and Latin jazz had their beginnings on our southern borderlands and in Florida and the offshore islands. Delta folk music has at its heart the lament, defiance, fear and restlessness of souls cast onto the shore of a strange land, struggling to stay alive. African-American music was born in sorrow and pain and it rose up to overcome every obstacle placed in front of it.

Even the legend of the devil meeting Robert Johnson at the Crossroads likely had its roots in the African Dahomey deity, Papa Legba, a trickster who stood, not just at the physical crossroads, but at the intersection of this world and the next. What better metaphor for music, that most transformative and transcendental of art forms, ready to transport us to wild, strange and dangerous realms? The crossroads is a fitting metaphor, also, for the crisscrossing musical influences that gave rise to the blues.

African, Latin, British, Moorish, Arab, Native American: throughout all these disparate sources are strung the strong threads of the blues, and its powerful gravity pulls them together into a swirling mix, constantly generating new iterations that fling themselves out again into popular culture.

It is no exaggeration to assert that all modern popular music has its roots somewhere in this amazing sonic generator we call the blues. Where did it begin? The answer will never be known. That is part of the fierce magic of the blues: it has no beginning because it is constantly reinventing itself, growing, shrinking, shaping and reshaping its dimensions. And it is because of this constant reinvention that music we now call the blues will have no end. It is as close as humans will get to the eternal. And that’s plenty close enough.

You can read and hear and see more about blues and roots at my music website. Thanks for reading!