Learnin' the Blues
PORT TOWNSEND, WA— It appeared that each of the 230 attendees at this year’s Port Townsend Acoustic Blues Festival carried at least one portable electronic device.
The event, in its 24th year, falls somewhere in between a music festival and summer camp. Participants sit in classes all week polishing their skills on banjo, bass, guitar, harmonica, mandolin, piano and ukulele from 30 instructors who have spent their lives in the blues trenches. Every night this continued into late night casual jams where theory became practice.
Participation didn’t require an audition or a skill level, you only need to show up with an instrument, or just voice, and soak in the sounds along with paying $570 tuition and an additional $595 for room and board. And a desire to help pass the blues tradition from one generation to the next.
The content and the purpose were always the same, to leave the classroom a better player than when you walked in. Which is where devices—phones, cameras, tablets and recorders— are essential. Video or audio helps people to learn a song more thoroughly than from a written document or fleeting contact with someone who is sitting next to you. It provides a richer learning experience than the laborious “tablature” process, where each of six lines represent a string with a number indicating which fret on which the note is played.
“Film and recording are definitely better than tablature, which is a horrible way to learn the music," said instructor Elijah Wald. "You learn much more by watching films of people."
Wald discouraged students from using their devices during class, instead offering a full performance of the song later where he allowed audio and video capture. Shoot a picture and he would admonish “you don’t have to document this right now.”
Guy Davis, a faculty member, has mixed feelings about the technology but acknowledged it has allowed him to hear songs and performances that he would not otherwise.
“I’m after the magic in the song which is more than the dead things that are shown in tablature,” he said. “You can never mistake the tab for a song, the magic is something that you can’t print on a page.”
Despite its learning advantage Davis calls the technology “cold and indifferent, that leaves no seeds that I can plant in the ground.”
Some, like guitarist Steve James, just favor the old fashioned way.
“I tell people to put those things down and play their guitars,” James said.
“This whole multitasking thing can be detrimental, and people remember more stuff than they give themselves credit for.”
I attended the last six blues festivals as a reporter, providing spot news and always wishing I could stay a little longer. Now between jobs I decided to do just that, developing the guitar skills on which I had never concentrated properly after losing patience with my limited dedication and ability. Put another way, I wasn’t willing to put in the work and now had the time to do so.
In class, I could barely keep up. As soon as I learned to change between two new chords everyone else had moved well ahead. It was reminiscent of my sporadic visits to church in another lifetime where I didn’t really listen to the sermon but use the words as path to boarding a different thought train. So my four devices helped me to remember what evaporated as soon as I walked out of class.
People approach summer camp differently, some seek to learn a little bit about ceramics, beading and tennis while others spend the whole summer becoming the best swimmer possible. That was more my path, rather than learn to play a new instrument poorly it seemed wiser to develop my already limited skills.
On the second day I joined Davis' "Guitar and Rack Harp" class where he sketched out a song and got everyone playing together, then centering on each student to examine their technique. Wald had a different process. He demonstrated a section of the song we would play repeatedly as he turned his laser lights on one person at a time. We would then string the parts together and it would sound pretty good. Each song had a gentle fingerpicking part which the class played out of sync, providing a shimmering, pastoral effect.
I walked out of Wald’s class with a music-induced contact high, excitedly making my way to a picnic table to practice the new song. But the shimmering had disappeared and my fingers wouldn't cooperate. Watching the shaky video helped me remember the song to the point where I could play it almost all the way through. And there is that practice thing, again.
The classes taught the specific techniques of Lonnie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mississippi John Hurt and Reverend Gary Davis with input from modern artists including guitarists James, Wald and Davis along with Phil Wiggins, Lightnin’ Wells and Rich DelGrasso respectively on harmonica, ukulele and mandolin. Also present was multi-instrumentalist Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, 27, the festival’s artistic director. He is massive, dressed in multicolors and often wears a yarmulke fashioned by “little grandmothers from Kenya.” He is not completely blind as he moves without a cane, and has recognized me from one year to the next. But the description is also part of the tradition, and Jerron “Deteriorating Vision” Paxton doesn’t have quite the same ring.
Everyone participated in the daily back porch jams where upwards of 40 people would hunch together and pass around the solo baton with equanimity and respect. While parameters existed there was no right or wrong way to hop in and out of the twelve bars.
At the end of one class Wald reminded us of the importance of going with the flow.
“The soloist is always right,” he said. “Even if every one of you is playing something correctly and the soloist is doing something different you need to follow them instead of the what is on paper.”
Davis said he first learned about the blues when he was attending a summer camp in Vermont run by John Seeger, the older brother of folksinger Pete Seeger. He “didn’t know the blues came from black people” at the time, after a while he discovered the lyrics echoed traditional stories told by his grandmother.
“I feel like I never know enough but there are people who come to me thinking they can learn what I have to tell them,” he said.
“Part of me feels like an imposter while the other part feels like I'm a valuable cog in the wheel."
Video: Guy Davis plays "Little Red Rooster," live in the classroom.