Trauma and the Blues
“The blues tells a story. Every line of the blues has a meaning.” -- John Lee Hooker
Very true Mr. Hooker, very true.
The blues are songs of the soul in pain, but its' own singing the pain flows out easing up the spirit that is within.
A recent article, “Blues and Emotional Trauma” by Dr. Robert Stolorow, author and founding member of the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Los Angeles takes loving analysis of the blues and tells how this music helps us to see the universality of our internal and external pain.
The blues is a dialogue, a narrative of emotional trauma that is shared between the musicians and listeners. That moment of sharing can healing for not only the one singing but for those who are witnessing as well. This may be seem like a simple concept, one that those who can connect with the blues needs no real explanation.
But why not? This article is not an attempt to explain the existence of the blues, but to ponder this question “How does the blues put us in touch with the universally traumatizing aspects of the human condition?”
Stolorow looks to the magic of the words and essence of the music as being the quality that makes the blues so powerful for many. Music therapy has long been a part helping people heal from the pain in life. The blues has been doing this very thing but outside of the confines of the therapeutic experience for generations, it is no wonder that the two, therapy and the blues are being drawn together here.
Stolorow has written extensively about emotional trauma and its impact on us as individuals and most importantly, as a collective. In a 2010 post on Huffington Post, Stolorow described our era as the “Age of Trauma”. Why? Because “...the tranquilizing illusions of our everyday world seem in our time to be severely threatened from all sides”. That threat takes the form of global warming, crime, impending financial crises, and global terrorism. That seems pretty bleak and definitely anxiety inducing but his argument is that we must not avoid acknowledging the anxiety.
Anxiety and pain is part of life and it is best shared in a way that allows us to collectively respond to it all.
“Emotional pain is not pathology—it is inherent to the human condition”
Rather than avoiding we should find ways to be in it as a way of healing from emotional pain.
The blues tells stories of that pain that is all too common like a broken heart or the deep hurt of racism (YouTube clip).
That song, “I Wonder When I'll Be Called A Man” by Big Bill Broonzy echoed a shared consciousness of the pain that African American men felt everyday of their lives for decades and generations. Was Broonzy helping to heal the pain? More likely his song was a way for him and for others to understand and make it through the pain.
There is an aspect of the words that pull so many of us in to the pain that singer is telling us about. Stolorow points to how the blues speaks not only to the blues singers and musicians but to our existence in that the songs touch on our day to day experiences of loss, ending, joy, anxiety – the existential givens.
The music and rhythm of the blues reaches inside a person into the somatic or broken heart pain, that we feel when we knee deep in the givens of life, such as death and loss. Our bodies feel the pain that is being played and the best blues players can create a song that recreates the body pain.
Stolorow goes into a discussion on the musical characteristics of the blues, “Contradiction and irony are built into the structure of both the music and the lyrics of the blues, just as they are built into the structure of our existence.” The music of the blues sways back and forth and around the notes in a way that
They play more than just the A note, they bend and dance around the note, stretching and plucking it out and A note that is intentionally not in pitch—much like life is, not in perfect pitch.
Stolorow's article is homage and age old art of working through the pain. It is good that he honors blue's roots that were grown deep in the African American experience of slavery, racism, social and economic violence.
What is key is that the blues do sing universal messages of working through traumas. That is what makes all of it so timeless, and why so many of us can sit and nod our heads in rhythm to the blues singer on stage. We all have to deal with the blues at some point in our lives, and it is best to do that together.
Stolorow sums up his article with, “If we can help one another bear the darkness rather than evade it, perhaps one day we will be able to see the light—as finite human beings, finitely bonded to one another.”
-- Makenna Berry