It’s a gorgeous July 4th weekend here in Portland, and I’ve got the blues. That’s right. I’ve been down at Waterfront Park attending the annual Blues Festival (which explains why this post is a bit late!) I won’t say the city shuts down for this event, but it’s something pretty close to that. Thousands of people gather in the center of town to hear great blues performed by masters of the craft on a half dozen outdoor stages strung along the Willamette River. You can come by land or by water. There are always dozens of boats moored in the river for a free listen. Not that the gig is expensive. Sponsored by the Oregon Food Bank, you can get in for ten bucks or just three cans of food. Really.
It’s all about the music with headliners like Charlie Musselwhite, Lil’ Ed and the Blue Imperials, and Boz Skaggs, but there’s also local beers and wines, ethnic food, album and poster art, and even a massage tent. People bring in elaborate meals, too (we devoured a cream peach pie after nibbling on skewers of melon, prosciutto, and mozzarella). And the people—rockers, inked up hipsters in ironic fedoras, old hippies, families with little kids dancing to the music, straight couples, gay couples, young professionals, older retired people. They were all out in force.
I’m not a publicist for the Waterfront Blues Festival so why am I telling you this? I guess it’s because I had a kind of epiphany yesterday as I sat there on the grass taking in the cobalt blue sky, the river, the boats, and the throng of happy people who had gathered for one reason—intense love of a musical genre. But wait a minute. The Blues, you might argue, is at core an articulation of human suffering.
Why would this music unite people and make them so happy and peaceful?
The answer, I think, is complicated. At the very center, the Blues is about the indomitability of the human spirit. Born of the slavery experience, where there was very little, it would seem, to sing about, a courageous message comes through—no matters how bad things are or what you do or say to me, if I can sing about it, then I will come out okay, even stronger. Singing about your troubles is a way of confronting them, and that’s a good thing for everyone.
There’s defiance and rebellion in the music, too. The lyrics and the music say this is my language, my credo, don’t dismiss me because I’m not at the top of your economic food chain. I will persevere no matter what. As the middle class erodes, there’s a certain resonance here. There’s a style, too, that comes through. No light shows, glittery costumes, and other gimmicks. Just straight ahead music delivered with authenticity. Authenticity. Now that’s something in short supply these days.
As I sat there listening to the music I had this crazy thought. Maybe the blues is the answer. How about a blues festival held in Washington, on the Potomac somewhere? Invite the House, the Senate, the Supreme Court, and the President and his cabinet. Let the music flow along with some good food and drink. If I’m organizing this, I would end the concert with the incomparable Charlie Musselwhite and his band. After listening to him play his harmonica, all things seem possible.
When it’s over, we tell the politicians—now cut the gridlock. Go back and get the people’s work done.
It just might work!