It’s strange fact that so many white British teenagers have found such appeal in music made half a century or more ago by black Americans. The blues appeals to so many people, very few of whom will have had direct experience of the subject matter.
Being unfamiliar with what you are singing about is not especially unusual in any form of music, to be fair. Elton John was never actually an astronaut, yet Rocket Man is a great tune. Elvis Presley was never a Roustabout, despite claiming to be one in the song “I’m A (you guessed it) Roustabout”. And Elvis Costello really did want to go to Chelsea, especially on the last day of the 1986 season when Liverpool sealed the title at Stamford Bridge.
So let’s look at the main reasons it makes no sense that the blues should appeal to British teenagers before we examine the reasons why, in fact, it does…
- “I woke up this morning”? Not much chance of that – as a teenager I seldom woke up in the morning, particularly at weekends, let alone to find that my baby had left me.
- A Surprising Lack Of Soothsaying Gypsy Women: Despite what the newspapers would have us believe, the UK is far from awash with migrant travelling folk, especially those with second sight. As far as I can ascertain, no gypsy women spoke to my mother before I was born to tell her she would have a “boy child” who would be a “son of a gun”. I think my mother would have been quite horrified at the thought, and there may have resulted some sort of “Five Go Mad In Dorset” style scene involving a call to the council and the gypsy woman being moved on.
- “Dust My Broom”: You should have seen my bedroom… The idea of “dusting my broom” was entirely unfamiliar in the age of a) the vacuum cleaner and b) a suitably house proud mother.
- Born Under A Bad Sign: To me, his just conjures up images of a rickety wooden sign waiting to fall upon a helpless infant. That seldom happens in the UK. What else could it mean? Beware Humpback Bridge? Of all the British blues guitarists, perhaps only Keith Richards could claim he was born under a bad sign. There’s one outside his place of birth simply saying “Dartford”.*
- A strong lack of supply of appropriately named people: You seldom bump into Brits with nicknames such as “Rattlesnake”, “Nighthawk”, “Buddy”, “Blind” or “Big Joe”. Except maybe at Line-Dancing Clubs, and it’s not The Blues you hear at those places. It’s despair.
- Poor blues related facilities at Cross-Roads. Generally speaking, the only thing you see at British crossroad junctions is traffic lights. And teenagers in tracksuits and hooded jumpers.
- Songs called “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl”. It may have happened in the seventies amongst some of our DJ community, but they’ve cracked right down on that sort of thing.
- Few “Crossfire Hurricanes”. Actually, it has been getting a bit breezy recently, but if anyone describes a British person’s mother as a two-bit bearded hag, they’re likely to get themselves into a lot of trouble, regardless of how accurate this may be.
- Unfamiliar romantic references to railroad tracks and freight trains: Whilst the trains in the UK are a constant source of “the blues” it’s usually at their sky high prices and appalling service. And terrible sandwiches. The nearest you find to romance on a British train is a discarded copy of Fifty Shades of Grey.
- A lack of little red roosters: Britain is over-run with foxes with at least three per garden in some counties, mainly due to the ban on hunting. As a result, most of the roosters have been eaten, and chickens have had to be housed in large protective barns. Recent research reveals that only six percent of people born in the last thirty years in the UK have ever seen a chicken except on TV.**
But the blues gave him a way in: “You didn’t have to be fast or clever to play R&B guitar blues. You had to be prepared to really listen, and ultimately really feel the music. This seemed less absurd for a young middle class white boy in 1963 than it does today…I loved emulating Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker and Hubert Sumlin, Howlin’ Wolf’s guitarist.”
You only have to look at bands like The Strypes to see that this holds true just as much today as it did fifty years ago…
*Just kidding, people of Dartford.
** This is, of course, an utter lie. It’s eight percent.