During lockdown I wrote a piece about the blues – my favorite music, my favorite color. Then, after George Floyd’s horrific murder I looked at myself hard. I questioned my whiteness, I thought deeply about what I have and have not seen. I am heartsick and overwhelmed. The thought that keeps running through my head is this: I have received and received from Black culture. What have I given?
On Sunday I re-read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.These sentences jumped out: “And black power births a kind of understanding that illuminates all the galaxies in their truest colors. Even the Dreamers – lost in their great reverie – feel it, for it is Billie they reach for in sadness, and Mobb Deep is what they holler in boldness, and Isley they hum in love, and Dre they yell in revelry, and Aretha is the last sound they hear before dying.”
Exactly. I have felt known and seen and resurrected by this music. I owe a great deal in recompense for the extraordinary gift I have received.
I am learning, I am changing. I am finding ways to give. And I am listening to the music with even more grateful ears. Here is my essay about my love for the blues . . .
It was 1984. I was 21, home from college on spring break, wasting time with my two brothers on the dilapidated brown sofa in the family room, watching MTV in the middle of a bright afternoon. The videos were just background noise until I heard the laid back perfection of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Cold Shot”. Those opening guitar licks took hold of me in an instant.
The overwrought 80’s video production barely registered. It was the sound. Something buried, nameless and dark in me latched onto those notes and would not let go. I didn’t know that my heart had been waiting for a translator that could speak its wordless language, waiting for a way to show me the silted sorrows that dwelt layers down in my soul.
Stevie’s masterful fingers during the guitar solo, his lazy offhanded performance style, the way he laconically sang “won’t give me the time of deeaaahhyy” – I was transfixed by it all. As soon as the video was over I forced my brother to drive me to Tower Records in Westwood Village. My car was at school and I had to have that album immediately. He was irritated but I was relentless. Forty five minutes later we were back with my prize. I spent the rest of my visit home immersed in Texas blues.
Six months later I was a recent college graduate and hopeful new employee freshly arrived in New York City. On a beautiful October afternoon, I turned off of 59th and 5th to walk into Central Park, down the wide tree-lined path that leads to the zoo. Mixed in among the fallen leaves, the caricature artists and the hot dog vendors, there was a blues trio – guitar, bass and drums. I don’t remember if they had an amp. I don’t remember what they played. I just remember the way my body melted, that I had to sit down on the bench, suddenly thirsty as I gulped in air, awash with that same overwhelming sensation.
Ultramarine is a color of power. It vibrates with magisterial and celestial life, demanding to be seen. Cerulean is hopeful and radiant, the sky behind the putti in a Boucher painting. Slate is sturdy and ubiquitous, the quietly complex color of rooftops all over the world. Turquoise is a place – the American southwest, Tibet. It’s a people, a way of life.
None of these colors are what I feel when I hear the music playing. No, my blues are indigo – deep, dank and holy.
Some feelings are so old and deep that no words can meet them. They lie within – unseen, unspoken, unhealed. The blues pours itself into my shadowy lost places, prying open my heart, inviting me to see that I am not and never have been alone.
New York City offered lots of ways to dive into the blues. Buddy Guy came to play a free concert at Central Park’s Summer Stage and I was mesmerized. When B.B. King came for a blues revue at the Beacon Theater in New York City in November 1988, I happened to call just as they opened a second show, so I wound up with two front row center seats. I took an extremely delicious dude from work.
There were great musicians on stage before B.B. that night. Koko Taylor’s raw, guttural voice spoke for generations of women and their raw, busted hearts. But when Coco Montoya, the lead guitar player in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, stepped forward and started his slow blues solo, I was vaporized. His guitar pulled my belly and my heart through the base of my spine and down into his heavy, blissful world. As if I’d just inhaled opium. I closed my eyes, let my head loll back on the seat and my limbs fall as I sank into my indigo.
For five thousand years, people have been making indigo the same way. The spring green Indigofera plants are cut and soaked in water to release enzymes. When oxygen is mixed in, the enzymes ferment and a dark, thick goo begins to form, sinking through the water. Dried and cut into blocks, the finished indigo is a blue so dark it’s nearly black, a color so rich it’s almost tactile. Indigo is vibrant in a chic handmade scarf from Japan, as soft as powder in a dress I found in India and just a memory in my most faded pair of jeans.
The young indigofera plant bears almost no resemblance to the finished indigo dye. There’s no hint of blue in those young plants, which look as fresh and beautiful as a little girl.
I’m not sure when the indigo started to form in my heart. I just know that hearing the blues carries my heart through the deep and messy business of being a woman living in the world.
It’s 2020. I’m in lockdown in San Francisco, avoiding the virus, sequestered-in-place. I find myself listening to the blues. All day. Every day. The only sensation that suits these times is falling into indigo.
Lizz Wright’s opulent, custardy voice singing “Seems I’m Never Tired Lovin’ You” carries me away. The gospel-infused recording begins with a long, unhurried intro. Piano, soft wobbly guitar and organ lull me into deep peace before Lizz sings a word. And that first slow and perfect word, “Darling” contains all the ravishing wisdom, love, voluptuous misery and joy that a woman’s soul can express. When the organ swells and a choir joins her I find myself swaying, awash in exquisite and bittersweet feeling, near tears.
Within her gorgeously layered performance lies a knowing, holy hope – a hope that can be trusted because it has felt every corner of despair. Listening to Lizz Wright, listening to the blues, tells me that the world may be broken now, but it will heal. And so will I.