I would argue Blues is the most important American contribution to the lexicography of music; it added a layer of complexity to Country, and beget Rock and Roll. Born from the hell of slavery and its aftermath, the Blues are weighted with the trauma of poverty and loss or, perhaps more accurately, never-having. It is true sadness seeking song for solace, and when you think of it that way the moniker of “Blues,” gives the music and its origins short shrift. I guess the “Tragic Despairs” or the “Depressions” didn’t have the same ring.
We are a nation of immigrants, a nation of blue blood mixing with the denim-coverall-DNA of the blue collar in a melting pot.* Such a mixed bag, pardon the metaphor swap, is bound to create tension, persecution, as the Haves battle the Have Nots because the beast of social democracy wills it so. This unequal distribution is why Blues came to be and why it remains relevant. The musicians who struggle somewhere in the middle (as so many of us do) and voice this in song continue to interpret this American genre in loving homage. Sometimes, for some people, the Blues just feel right; sometimes we all sing the blues in response to daily traumas, be them little or big.
Enter Hurray for the Riff Raff, the brainchild of a Alynda lee Segarra–a Puerto Rican living in New Orleans by way of the Bronx. This July, the Riff Raff signed to ATO Records which is the New York City label founded by Dave Matthews that was also smart enough to sign the Alabama Shakes. Their album My Dearest Darkest Neighbor, my current obsession, is a little bit country textualized by blues swaddled in a tradition of folky pop. It is as sumptuous as it is spare, and has the simple integrity of a Brumby rocking chair: comforting, sturdy, and American to its core. Two of my favorite tracks are actually covers that offer new perspective on classic songs, such as John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” and the often-tackled traditional folk ballad “Cuckoo.” For a 26-year-old lady to add soul to an icon, and a new angle on a tune that’s been part of the American fabric for over a century is impressive and utterly captivating. This is a woman of import, and a band worth following; here’s looking forward to more to come.
*Except that melting pot metaphor we were spoon fed in school doesn’t really fly because it implies we all simmer into a single identity, that of the American, when in actuality our demographics are more akin to a mixed salad, the collegiately preferred term, where each ethnicity adds to the flavor palette in a recognizably unique way. Cute, right? If only this were as harmonious of an existence as it sounds. The truth is that some ingredients inevitably fall to the bottom and drown in dressing never to be tasted, left behind for disposal. In an overly flippant way, that is what happens to the scores of tired, poor, and huddled masses (to borrow from Emma Lazarus and Lady Liberty) who understand Blues just by being alive.