Why Do the Blues Make Us Feel So Good?

This paper was originally presented at the International Conference on the Blues, Delta State University, Cleveland MS, October 6, 2014

1. Introduction

That is Joe Williams with the Count Basie Orchestra, and I’ll be returning to that wonderful recording later in this paper. Williams sings “Everyday I have the blues,” and “Nobody loves me, nobody seems to care”, yet he doesn’t sound depressed, and we listeners are thrilled and uplifted. Why is that? Why have men and women, for over 100 years, been impelled to sing—and deeply pleased to listen to—the blues?

I’ve seen that the answer is in the philosophy Aesthetic Realism, founded by the 20th century critic and poet Eli Siegel. Aesthetic Realism explains “the deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.” The blues shows how deep that desire is, because, in the blues, people have taken some of their saddest feelings and shown, even these can be given form, even these can make for beauty.

Eli Siegel lectured on all the arts and sciences, and wrote as early as 1925 about jazz as having beauty continuous with beauty anywhere. In one lecture, he said:

“The blues style represents . . . a saying of things that are very painful, deep and poignant, with a feeling of ease. In the very best blues the pain changes, because of the music, into something light.”

That lightness and ease come to be because the musical form given to those feelings—in both the organization of the words and the notes—shows the world has a structure that is logical and sensible, and makes for a good time! Mr. Siegel explained, in this central principle of Aesthetic Realism,

“All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

At its best, the blues is a oneness of pain and pleasure, defeat and exaltation, sadness and joy. This is what I’ll be showing.

2. Something New Happened!

One of the new things the blues brought to music is what has been called “blues tonality”, and writers have pointed to opposites in this tonal quality. Frank Tirro, in Jazz: A History, describes it as “the simultaneous use of major and minor.” And Hugues Panassié, in The Real Jazz, writes, “the major includes in its sphere the minor mode from which it borrows its melancholy and sorrow.” This is technical, but it arose from and meets a deep hope in the human self—in our selves: the hope to make sense of the world as having darkness, sadness, pain, and the world as having sunlight, joy, pleasure. That’s one reason Joe Williams’ singing “Everyday I Have the Blues” gets us: We feel joy and sadness at once, as the band plays in a predominantly major key, while he sings in the minor.

Bessie SmithAnother fine instance of that oneness of pain and pleasure is Bessie Smith’s 1928 recording of “Thinking Blues.” As you’ll hear, there is a wail in her voice, but there is also triumph and joy. For instance, as she sings the words “ever” and “thousand,” there is agony in her sliding blue notes, yet there is lightness, too; her voice rises on those words, giving them a lift. And as she sustains the word “old” at the start of the second verse, she sounds, strong, assertive, but there is a beautiful trembling in her vibrato. Throughout, Bessie Smith’s voice is deep and bright, rich and piercing. As she sings, we feel the painful and the pleasing don’t have to fight; they can go together beautifully. Listen to this exerpt:

The blues points to a critical question for every person: What do we do with our sadness, pain, and disappointment? Do we use them to see more meaning in things and people? Do we use them to be kinder? Or do we use them to feel the whole world is bad, and to retreat from or lash out at other people? This, Aesthetic Realism explains, is the central fight in the mind of every person between the desire to like and respect the world, and the desire for contempt, which Eli Siegel defined as the “disposition in every person to think we will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world.” Contempt is as ordinary as a son not giving full attention to his mother, thinking, “I know what she’s going to say.” But it is the cause of all unkindness, including racism and economic injustice, which so many African-American blues artists suffered from, and people suffer from right now. But no one can like themselves for having contempt.

Years ago, while I could act cheerful and make people laugh, I often felt very low. I hoped to make it as a jazz pianist, but I felt I never got the breaks. I hoped for love, but I felt, Why doesn’t someone appreciate me? And while I’d call myself names, essentially I blamed the world for my unhappiness. What I didn’t know and was to learn from Aesthetic Realism is that I had a hope to be displeased, and to feel distinguished in my misery, deeper and more sensitive than other people, and too good for the world. This was contempt, and it was the reason I didn’t like myself and often felt depressed.

The blues as musical form is against depression, even as the lyrics may describe that depressed feeling. This is explained greatly in a paper titled “Feeling Bad, Good Will, and the Blues” by Ellen Reiss, who is the Chairman of Education at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City, and with whom I’m honored to study in professional classes. For instance, Ms. Reiss shows that in the AAB line structure of traditional blues is an answer to two of the biggest complaints people have. She writes:

“the boring and the uncomfortable become technical opposites in blues. The classical blues stanza says the way the world is repetitious and then suddenly pokes at you is beautiful.”

As an example, here are the great opening lines of the St. Louis Blues:

I hate to see that evenin’ sun go down,
Hate to see that evenin’ sun go down,
’Cause then I know my man has done left town

And about the meaning of the blue notes Ellen Reiss explains:

“Every depressed person hates the world that bumps into her on the street, the world and its people that keep coming at her at distasteful angles. Yet an essential in the technique of the blues is good will for the bump and the distasteful angle. …[The] blue note, … an awry sound when one doesn’t expect it, says that the jarring is your friend.”

We heard that in both the Joe Williams and Bessie Smith recordings: those mournful, painful, harmonically contradictory blue notes become part of a stirring composition. Aesthetic Realism defines good will as “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful.” And Ellen Reiss shows in this paper that the blues is good will because it arises from the desire to give honest form to one’s complaints, one’s pain—literally to make music out of them!—and to give honest pleasure to other people. This is thrilling—tremendous both as music criticism and as the understanding of every person!

3. The Blues Idea Is Elsewhere, Too

The influence of the blues on Popular music of the last 100 years shows how important the blues way of bringing together sadness and pleasure, minor and major is. One great example is “Can’t Buy Me Love,” by Paul McCartney, recorded by the Beatles in 1964. There are important differences between this song and the classical blues form, including the presence of a chorus. But the verse is essentially the traditional 12-bar form, and we can hear in it that combination of minor melody and major harmony: in the first four measures of the verse (see below), McCartney sings in C minor (note the Eb and Bb in the melody), while the chord underneath is C dominant 7.from "Can't Buy Me Love" by the Beatles: opening melodic phrase of verse 1

Here is the introduction and the first verse:

As you heard, the song begins with that 6-bar introduction, based on the 8-bar chorus that comes later. A wonderful thing about this is, while different from traditional blues, it too puts together major and minor. On the words “Can’t buy me love”, McCartney rises on a bright C major triad. By itself it sounds triumphant. from "Can't Buy Me Love" by the Beatles: introduction

But he harmonizes the word “love” with an E minor chord. And when he repeats those words, the same C major triad is harmonized with an A minor chord. In fact, until the very end of the chorus, we don’t know what key we’re in—major or minor. McCartney has found a new way to put together sadness and joy—new, but utterly in keeping with the blues tradition.

By looking throughout the history of music, we can see how deep is the desire in humanity to relate pain and pleasure, the somber and the celebratory. A surprising example, which I’ve studied with my high school chorus is NY, is the motet “Ave Verum Corpus,” by the English Renaissance composer William Byrd. The piece begins in G minor but ends in G major, and throughout we find major and minor 3rds, 6ths and 7ths. And in the last phrase, on the words “miserere mei”—“have mercy on me”—we find major and minor actually overlapping. The altos and tenors begin, in G minor. from "Ave Verum Corpus" by William Byrd

On the first syllable of “mei”, the basses join, and the three voices sing a perfect D major triad. But, while the tenors and altos hold the major 3rd and 5th (F# and A), the basses move to an F natural. It’s the blues effect in 17th century style! Here is the concluding phrase, with its rich interweaving and interpenetration of major and minor, sweetness and pain.

4. The Blues Is Sadness and Energy

In a lecture titled Poetry and Cheerfulness, Eli Siegel said:

“One of the important things about art is that it can take something sad and sincerely put it into a swift rhythm.”

That’s what we hear in “Everyday I Have the Blues,” to which I return now. Michael Palmer, who has written importantly on music and musicians of the Big Band Era and is a colleague of mine at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City, writes about this recording:

“The Basie band and Joe Williams take that feeling so many people are prone to, of ‘having the blues,’ and give it a form, an energy and liveliness that definitely contradicts the very mood of what is being said.”

Count Basie at the pianoWe hear that energy from the very start, as Basie introduces the piece on piano. Twice he plays a descending scale in the left hand. But this sinking bass line is accompanied by staccato, syncopated right hand chords, giving it, as Mr. Palmer writes, a “critical edge.” Then the band comes in with that blues oneness of minor melody and major harmony, and powerful brass hits punctuate and energize the saxophone melody.

The Count Basie Orchestra

A little lJoe Williams, blues singer (1)ater, Joe Williams enters with those mournful words, but his tone is rich and full. Usually, when a person feels “blue” or depressed, they feel nothing matters, nothing is worth getting excited about. Williams’ singing and the Basie Band’s playing criticize delightfully that state of mind.

This music is very different from how I was when I began studying Aesthetic Realism at 24. My teachers, consultants on the faculty of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, asked me: “Have you ever felt despondent, or restricted, stuck?” I said I had, and they asked “Have you also felt impelled, energetic?”

AS: Yes, I have.
Consultants: Have you felt like two different people? …In jazz, when things are going well, are there both energy and …something restricted? Are these the same opposites that may not work well in your ordinary life?

I had never seen that relation before! Learning how energy and restraint can be one in music has taught me have to have these increasingly one in my life. Listen to how Williams repeats the verse “Nobody loves me/Nobody seems to care”: he is terrifically energetic while, at the same time, he has the restraint that is exactitude: his pitch and rhythm are impeccable!


The song concludes very surprisingly: on the 5th measure of the final verse he sings a high, and amazingly long “oo”—all the way through the end of the verse. That “oo” has sweetness and wonder. This is not a man using his complaints to be bitter about the world!

Joe Williams, blues singer (2)Joe Williams, blues singer (3)

5. Conclusion

I have looked at some of the ways the blues, because it makes a one of opposites, is beautiful—moves us, thrills us and meets our deep hope to put opposites together. I conclude with this, which comments importantly on the meaning and value of the blues, from a lecture titled “How Musical Can Sadness Be?—or, Grief, Anger, Hope”, by Eli Siegel:

“The most cheerful fact in man’s history is that the presentation of sadness in art, the drama, poetry, could please people, and this meant that grief was closer to happiness than people surmised. There are quite a few people listening with satisfaction to music that is sad, and also, tragedy has been enjoyed. The meaning of this is the most hopeful thing in the world.”