With the current State of the Union speech, I thought it was time to deliver a State of the Blues post. Realise that this only represents Central Iowa, but I assume it is probably true through out most of the upper Midwest. The reality is that the Blues is hurting. Perhaps the fact that Des Moines was named the richest city in the US, means we no longer have the blues. However, as one of the many poor people in Des Moines, I can tell you that, that is BS. We have had some rough years in the blues. The KBA Award winning blues bar, Blues on Grand closed, KBA Award winning DJ Andre Mosqueda retired from KGGO, and the number of bands playing the blues and only the blues you could count on one hand. Perhaps the near death of the Central Iowa Blues Society, and the stagnation of the Iowa Blues Hall of Fame also played a part, perhaps it was the economy, or the dearth of "National Acts" calling themselves blues, that really were playing mediorce classic rock,or Jazz crooners with a blues twinge pretending to be jump blues bands. Whatever the reason for the decline and there are many, we must look to what we can do, and not lament what we have lost.
I think everything starts locally. Local blues bands are what really creates a scene. It is impossible to build a scene on national acts (some of which are marginally blues) who might come through town once a month, and expect to have a local scene. The guys who are in the trenches are the guys who keep the music alive. We must realize that the blues is older than anyone alive today. It began after the Civil War, in a time we historian like to call reconstruction. It has risen and fallen with the times. Its first big break was with WC Handy when he started to write down the music on sheet music. Then in the early 20s it was the Female Blues singers, the in the late 20s, and 30s, it was the country bluesmen. In the 40s it was jump blues, 50s Chicago blues, 60s blues revival with both British and American bands covering old blues tunes, While the 70s were a downtime, Soul, Funk, and Disco, were homes for many a blues performer. The 80s brought the blues brothers, and Stevie Ray, and the 90s saw the blues societies all over the country at their height. So the question is how do you fix it. I think if you look at all the births, and deaths of the blues, it all starts local. Local bars, and local musicians playing the music in a honest fashion. Second, we need to look to the Southern blues performers for inspiration. I have said this before, but the best blues right now is being made and performed in the South. Younger musicians, who play in a style reminiscent of ZZ Hill, Little Milton, Denise Lasalle, and Clarence Carter, or what I would call the Malaco sound, are playing some great blues. There are some older cats, like Latimore, still out there, and a lot of musicians too numerous to mention, but that I plan on highlighting on the blog this year. All from the south.
So what positives in Des Moines can we count on? First, Tom, at the Hull Ave, wants to dedicate his bar to the blues. This will help, having a bar to call home of the blues. As musicians we also need to realize that we are rebuilding, and we might need to take a pay cut. I know how much money goes through the till in each place I play, and I know how much we can make. Right now we need to lower our sites until people start coming back in the door and drinking drinks. Second, we need to find a home for the Hall of Fame other than the website. I think we have an answer to that, but it is in the works, more later if it happens. Third, the Blues Society has new leadership, and they have reached out to players in away that makes me think that change could happen. This is good for everyone. Fourth, having a jam session dedicated to only the blues. The only one that I am aware of is the Sunday night Jam at the Hull Ave. The number of local players coming out has continued to grow, and it is good for the local scene to have a place to hear and play the blues. Fifth I personally think it is time to retire the Blues Challenge. It has not helped the local scene, in pits band against band, and player against player. Too many hard feelings have happened due to the challenge. There are better ways to send a band to Memphis than making artist compete against artists. Finally blues on the radio is still going on in Des Moines, while we lost Andre on KGGO, I heard today that he will be back on KFMG! Bob Dorr is still on IPR, and there are multiple DJs, on KFMG that play the blues.
Things may look bad, but we have a small group of people trying to keep the blues alive, and in the long run that is what is needed to build the blues back up to where it was 10 years ago. We need to remember that we have been here before. in the early 90s things were very much like they are now including pay. So with some hard work, and building local we can turn the ship around.