by Sam Buntz
“The Blues” is short for “Blue Devils” – you might already know this, but it’s important. It indicates that we’re not talking about devils associated with devious passions, with energy in action. Those would be red. We’re talking about devils of inertia, devils that put you down in a hole.
Of course, “The Blues” as a style of music deals with lust, anger, attachment—and all the other canonical sins—but it doesn’t (typically) come from a place of commission, but from the place you’re in before or after engaging in such violations of the Karmic Law, or after someone else has done you wrong. You’ve been abandoned by your girl—you’re going to kill your girl: that’s the kind of thing American bluesmen are always singing about (if not blues-women). (Obviously, this isn’t very P.C., and it would be a caricature to suggest that meditating on shooting your woman is central to the Blues—though it’s definitely a part of the tradition.) The Blues resides in the space between these plot beats: it’s not in the moment of the deed, but in the fever before or the fever after. It comes from that spiral of self-gnawing-on-self—a mood of depression, interior darkness. Like that American bluesman, T.S. Eliot, once wrote, “Between the motion / And the act / Falls the Shadow.”
But, here’s the thing: The Blues is itself a struggle with these feelings, not their glorification. It’s not about wallowing in pain—it’s about an active engagement with it, an attempt to appropriate the energy it’s wasting and plug it into something creative. It calls energy out of inertia, wrestles with that painful and unproductive stasis—that Dark Spirit of the Earth, with its gnarled fibers swirling in the bloodstream. If you take something that’s been moving in a circle, running down the cosmic drain, and suddenly get it to move straight, up and out of its circle—or to, at least, make the attempt—that’s the kind of feeling authentic blues delivers. It gets your soul out of the whirlpool fit.
In Spain, the same notion exists, except, rather than identifying it with “blue devils”, the Spanish poetic tradition identifies it with “duende”, another folkloric creature. The great Spanish Bluesman, Federico Garcia Lorca, wrote a classic essay on the role of duende in his country’s literature—and in the literature of the world, as a whole. Lorca explains: “Years ago, an eighty year old woman came first in a dance contest in Jerez de la Frontera, against lovely women and girls with liquid waists, merely by raising her arms, throwing back her head, and stamping with her foot on the floor: but in that crowd of muses and angels with lovely forms and smiles, who could earn the prize but her moribund duende sweeping the earth with its wings made of rusty knives?”
The old Spanish lady’s duende-filled foot-stamping was probably pretty close, in feeling, to the a cappella blues songs of Son House. With only his voice and handclapping, Son House manages to take his auditors more deeply into the meaning of the blues than many artists who use a full band. And the blue devils and duende are still around. For example, you can easily detect their presence in Frank Ocean’s R&B tracks, and in the straight-up rock of Jack White.
The blue devils and the duende don’t exist merely to possess and prod their victims—they exist to provoke a struggle, like Jacob wrestling with the Angel of Death at the riverside to win the name “Israel”. There is no progression without the opposition of some dark double, no flower that hasn’t first marshaled its form through the earth’s inner obscurities. Keeping this in mind, it’s interesting that so many bluesmen and blues-women have swung back and forth between singing the Blues and singing Gospel (like Son House or Reverend Gary Davis). Rather than seeming to be contradictory, the two styles become complementary, part of one discipline, one process. The bluesman brings the darkness of the self’s longings into direct contact with the light of a higher revelation—and he continually forces them together until they comprehend one another. Lorca himself claimed that the duende guarded the deepest secret of spirituality: “the subtle link that joins the five senses to what is core to the living flesh, the living cloud, the living ocean of love liberated from time.”