Readers of Public Seminar will know that in the past couple of years I have become a regular and indeed somewhat relentless contributor of political essays on the dangers of Trumpism and the challenges to liberal democracy. I have greatly enjoyed working with the PS staff, and have been especially happy to collaborate with Jeffrey Goldfarb on our new vertical format, “Liberal Democracy in Question.”
I am also an avid reader of Claire Potter’s terrific column “Purple Wednesday,” and I am excited about Jeffrey’s new column, “Grey Friday.”
And so when Jeffrey and Claire invited me to join them with my own regular column, I jumped at the chance. And thus “Blue Monday” was born.
Each of these colors carries a certain symbolic valence.
For me “blue” is perfect because it happens to be my favorite color, but also because I “moonlight” as a blues and jazz pianist, and indeed my band, the Postmodern Jazz Quartet, plays a lot of the “hard bop,” blues-inflected jazz made famous in the 1950s and 1960s by Blue Note records. This column is thus a wonderful opportunity for me to “stretch out,” as it were, and to link my political interests and my musical passions.
The blues is a musical form that fits my way of thinking about politics.
Almost always proceeding from a simple basic structure — typically 12 bars of music, but sometimes 16 or 24 or 32 — it allows incredible room for variation (in tempo, meter, and mood), improvisation, creativity, and freedom of expression.
A distinctively “American” art form that emerged from the travails of the African-American experience, it is a hybrid and universal form of music, with global appeal (as is jazz more generally), incorporating African and Latin polyrhythms, European notation and instrumentation, and the unique feel and sonority of “Negro spirituals,” gospel, and “work shouts.”
The blues can be slow or fast. It can be laid back or propulsive, mournful or sassy, romantic or simply angry. And above all, the blues is a music of empowerment.
Duke Ellington was a master of the blues, and one of my favorite quotations, emblazoned on my office wall, is his comment: “I merely took the energy it takes to pout, and I wrote some blues.”
The quote itself is brilliantly understated and perhaps even ironic. Fans of Ellington know that few of his compositions, and none of his arrangements, were “mere” or simple expressions of emotion. At the same time, it expresses a profound truth about the blues that is also a truth about all forms of creativity, including political creativity: it emerges from the felt experiences, and often the frustrations, of experience, and it transfigures such experience into something new and hopefully “better” or at least more meaningful. Indeed, it is not a stretch to say that the blues, as it emerged from the distinctive injustices and tribulations of the African-American experience of slavery, liberation, Jim Crow, and civil rights, is a form of transvaluation of the experience of oppression into an experience of freedom. What better metaphor for a regular column about politics by someone who considers himself some kind of “left liberal?”
All the same, in this regular Monday column the blues will serve not simply as a metaphor for politics, but as a form of actual musicality that will occasion and indeed inspire my reflections. In other words, I intend to link each column to a particular blues recording, and to integrate some discussion of the music with the political theme in focus.
“Blue Monday” is actually the name of a pretty famous blues rock tune recorded by Fats Domino (it was also covered by Bob Seger in the soundtrack to one of my favorite films, Patrick Swayze’s cult classic Road House[don’t ask, at least not now]). And perhaps I will say more about this tune at some later date.
But for this inaugural “Blue Monday” column, I’d like to comment on a less-than-famous tune: “Monday Morning Blues,” written by yours truly, and recorded in 2004 by the band in which I played at the time, called Code Blue, on a CD entitled Code Blue Featuring Bobbie Lancaster (which, surprise, featured the excellent vocalist Bobbie Lancaster!).
The tune is about what “Monday morning” means for most people in our society: the start of the work week. A twelve-bar minor blues, its lyrics somewhat laboriously recount the travails of a female office worker going about her long work day, intermittently checking her watch and noting that “the clock hand hardly turned” and repeating that she was “tired and weary.” The tune ends with her finally leaving work, only to arrive home exhausted, to fall asleep and then repeat the same sequence again the following day.
When I wrote that tune I was not, strictly speaking, “thinking about politics.” I had an idea for a minor blues tune, and I decided to tell the story of a woman office worker (because a particular woman office worker friend of mine had shared with me some of her stories). It was obvious to me that this particular blues tune was in a way “about alienation” in a capitalist society. And it is true that, like many blues tunes, and especially those with lyrics, it does tell a story of “travail” — a useful term that means “ordeal” in general, but also work.
The particular story could be seen as “demoralizing.” There is something Sisyphean about the way the protagonist goes through her hard day, expending all of her energies, only to be back in exactly the same place again the next day, to again expend all of her energies. Ad infinitum? Perhaps “the weekend” — not referenced — signifies something else. But indeed for most workers in our world who experience “weekend” — many do not, and those that do have the labor movement to thank — it probably signifies not any kind of break in the endless cycle, but a brief respite to recharge oneself so that the cycle can be endlessly repeated.
At the same time, there is another, more hopeful way to think about this story, one linked to Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus (Camus is another of my passions), which is a story of the recalcitrance of our world and the precariousness of our efforts, but also a story of defiant refusal to submit to our condition, and of the empowerment, and sometimes even the joy, that comes from this refusal. In this sense, the “Myth of Sisyphus” anticipates Camus’s classic philosophical essay, The Rebel. Together, these pieces help us to think about the ethics and politics of resistance. In our time there is much injustice to resist. Indeed, in the U.S. an anonymous and vague collective subject, “The Resistance,” has emerged in response to the rhetorical outrages, and political dangers, enacted daily by Donald Trump with the support of his Republican enablers.
As Camus’s political writings make clear, resistance is always fragile, always in danger of failing, through lack of power or overreaching or some combination. To act with integrity as an individual is a hard thing to do, especially in dark times. To join with others politically, in ways that can simultaneously be ethically affirming and strategically effective, multiplies the challenge exponentially. Those of us who are committed to liberal and democratic values face enormous challenges. The world as currently organized is not hospitable to these values. And, in the face of global warming and imminent ecological catastrophe, we have reason to wonder what will become of our very world itself.
All the same, Duke Ellington’s words express a profound truth: with the energy it takes to pout, we can instead write some blues. And play some blues. And dance. And shout. And argue. Together. And do what we can to make our world a better place.
Welcome to Blue Monday.