'Smokestack lightning'

One of the benefits of living in Kansas City, Mo. is the Saturday Night Fish Fry, a music program on local public radio you can hear every Saturday night from 8 to midnight. The host, Chuck Haddix, serves up vintage and current blues, soul, jumpin' jive, zydeco, funk, doo-wop, four-handed boogie woogie piano, Mardi Gras mambos, gospel, R&B ballads, and Cajun stomps, along with notable barbecue recipes and lively chat about the local music scene and domino games in summer backyards. In our house the Fish Fry is welcome background music, but over the years I notice it's also become, for me, an kind of ongoing prayer, though of the "noisy contemplation" variety.

Do these names ring a bell? Pinetop Perkins, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vincent, Muddy Waters, Slim Harpo, Professor Longhair, Etta James, Ma Rainey, Peetie Wheatstraw? They're all stellar lights in the genre known as the blues, which is largely the music of black America a few generations ago, what 60 years ago used to be called "race music." It's the fertile seedbed of rock 'n' roll and has become the quintessential music of American working folks.

The blues express everyday experience in a mixture of slang, poetry and journalistic matter-of-factness, reporting the daily drudgery, longings, dangers, fevered dreams, hardships and fleshly pleasures of life. With origins in cottonfields, brothels, and tarpaper bucket-of-blood juke joints down south, blues presents the ups and down of ordinary life and elevates them, I think, to the level of highest art.

And the Fish Fry serves all that up every week. One moment you're on the sunny side of every street, as when Beausoleil, a Cajun band, plays "Jolie Blonde." Here is more celebration of delight and joy in life than in a dozen chorused Odes to Joy put together, as accordion and fiddle weave under and above the happy-it's-Saturday-night-finally voices. The insistent rhythm makes you not only glad you have a body, but you can't resist showing that gratitude by getting up and moving in ways you seldom do when you're, say, at work.

Next song on the playlist, you're on the down and dirty side of life, wallowing in the old Via Negativa of the Catholic mystics. When B.B. King sings "The Thrill is Gone," you hear an aching but soaringly lyrical lament for all romantic love that's ever slid off the fulsome edge of delight into disillusionment and betrayal.

In the words of writer Walter Mosley: "The blues is all about getting so close to pain that it's like a friend, like somebody you love."

It's worth noting that much of this music comes from the underbelly of society, from the oppressed, the marginalized, the folks who do the hard, sweaty work, people who come up short from paycheck to paycheck, with calloused hands and grime down in the creases -- in fact, the kind of people Jesus liked to hang with.

These blues people did the extraordinary. They made guitars wail like haunted banshees, sing like pumped-up linnets, weaving around melodies with chiming arabesques, intricate harmonies or daring dissonances. Their harmonicas were as expressive as symphony orchestras. Bluesmen and women take ordinary life, exalt it to the heights of art. Blues makes poetry out of the slang and grit of everyday speech. Blues finds grace, like heaped slabs of tangy, zesty barbecue, in the seediest back alleys and most unlikely corners of life.

My favorite blues guy is Howlin' Wolf. His voice dark with menace, his songs punctuated with spine-chilling howls and moans. Wolf wove, with almost supernatural ferocity, fever dreams out of the syncopated bounce, tortured chords, and unrelenting bass of the blues. Sam Phillips, who "discovered" Wolf (and Elvis) said: "He sang with his damned soul, and this is where the soul never dies." Listen to one of his great classics like "Smokestack Lightnin'" and hear an art form torn down to the ground then built back up before your very ears. Wolf sounded like the hounds of hell were on his raggedy tail, but his music lifts me with its honest, highly original and artful presentations of life's twists, turns, stabs and pratfalls, its plentiful humor and abundant tragedies.

We need that lift. The Fish Fry always reminds me that without music life would be much less bearable, or even navigable. "You need music," claimed the late Jerry Garcia. "I don't know why; it's probably one of those Joseph Campbell questions, why we need ritual. We need magic, bliss, power, myth, celebration and religion in our lives, and music is a good way to encapsulate a lot of it."

I remember, too, that contemplative living doesn't have to be always quiet. Every Saturday night this music helps me see that indeed God is not much like a king or lord. God is more like the grass that pushs up through slabs of concrete, more like the hard, aching but sustaining beauty to be heard in the lively laments of the poor. God's life in us is more like good music, like jumpin' jive, like blues.

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