I'd like to welcome Alliance members to the August book club discussion of Deep Blues.  As a general structure I'll suggest we focus on Chapters 1 (Introduction) and 2 (The Genesis of the Blues) during this week, Chapters 3 and 4 during the 2nd week, Chapter 5 during the 3rd week, Chapter 6 during the 4th week, and Chapters 7 & 8 during the last week of the month.  Naturally, this will be a loose guideline and everyone is free to ask questions and offer reflections that don't necessarily fit into the chapter structure outlined above. 

The primary focus of the book is the interaction between psyche and the music of the blues. The music itself is about hearing and resonating with the pain, suffering, joy, or sadness in the voice of the blues singer. The understanding of the blues comes through the direct experience of the music rather than through the intellect. 

The word “blues” is derived from the term “blue devils” which referred to contrary spirits that hung around and created sadness.  I believe it is the capacity of the blues to speak at an archetypal level about universally felt experiences that give power to the blues for both the performer and the audience. 

Understanding the blues is similar to a perspective about images offered by Carl Jung - "Image and meaning are identical . . . the pattern needs no interpretation: it portrays its own meaning."  In light of this, my aim is to let the musicians speak for themselves as much as possible.  To facilitate our experience and discussion I plan to include links to audiovisual excerpts of blues performances to highlight the material being discussed. 

To kick off our discussion I'll offer a video, recorded in 1966, of Chicago blues great Howlin Wolf (aka Chester Burnett) who offers his definition of the blues followed by a performance of How Many More Years.  Howlin Wolf was a large, intimidating character who stood 6'6" tall, weighed nearly 300 pounds, with a deep growling voice. 


After viewing the Howlin Wolf video, I'd suggest we begin with our reactions to the Wolf's comments and offer some of our own personal experiences with blues music. 

I appreciate your participation in this discussion group and look forward to hearing your comments about blues music and the book Deep Blues during the coming month.

Warm Welcome,

Mark Winborn


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  • My thoughts about the issue of naming, catharisis, and emotional vocabulary all revolve around several central premises from Jung's Analytical Psychology.  The first premise central to this discussion is Jung's notion of psychic reality where he suggests that the events/actions/feelings etc which take place intrapsychically - on the planes of psychological and spiritual process - are just as "real" and relevant as events occuring in our outer world, waking life.  Another idea is his notion of the tendency of the psyche to "personify" (represent in human form) aspects of psychological process (e.g. anima, shadow, various complexes, etc.) so that we have an opportunity to interact with and develop a dialogue/interaction with these parts of our psyches.  Finally, Jung emphasized the importance of externalizing these inner figures in a creative fashion - through painting, poetry, dance, movement, sculpting, etc. - as a means of deepening our sense of our own psychic reality and moving the dialogue with the unconscious into physical form/space.  I believe the blues serves the same purpose that is outlined in these three ideas from Jung that I have just outlined.  The blues gives reality, gravity, nuance, and form to emotional experiences that might pass by too quickly or are prematurely dispensed with (i.e. passed into shadow).  We could say that the blues is often an active engagement with our shadow.  In regards to emotional vocabulary, I think the more time we spend in engagement with particular emotions the more nuanced our experience of that emotion becomes.  Also, just as in the fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin the naming of certain emotions permits us a degree of influence to shape them without having to repressively control them. 

  • Interesting juxtaposition.  I hadn't heard that observation by Bly but I can see his point in terms of the focus/concerns/feelings/ideas being expressed through Rock n' Roll.  In watching retrospective interviews with some of prominent figures of Rock 'n Roll from the 60's and 70's I've noticed a recurrent theme - they frequently say "We thought the music would change the world."  So there is an idealism and sense of rebellion that the music carried for them (let's loosely say "The Woodstock Generation").  Music was not just performance - but in many cases was seen as a particular form of social activism. 

    There is a level at which I resonate in agreement with your statement about the blues being created by initiated men - particularly those blues man and women who played the music from it origins in the late 1800's perhaps through the 1960's or 70's.  They were initiated by the hardships of life - poverty, sharecropping, life on a chain gang, and racism. So we might ask "what kind of initiation?"  I believe it is an initiation into the survival and ultimately triumph of the human spirit - i.e. the capacity to cope with tremendous hardship and loss with a sense of creativity and play (expressed through music) intact.  I don't think it's an initiation into some deeper spiritual awareness (as in the Eleusinian Mysteries) but into an attitude towards life that celebrates human fortitude in the face of hardship. However, I also believe it is important to be careful not to fall into idealizing the life of these individuals - lives that have often been marked by addiction, violence, and ruptured relationships.  I think there is also a difference between the men and women who lived through these difficult experiences and certain contemporary performers of the blues who merely adopt the persona appearance of the bluesman for the purposes of their "act."


  • Mark––Terrific that you are familiar with Bill Miller. The CD playing in that western store when I ran into Bill's work was The Red Road.When I asked what the music was, the women staffing the store sniffed and said, "It's that New Age stuff." 

    Not hardly, I thought, listening to whole thing at home. It's a spiritual bazooka. I became Bill's fan, the first time I'd been a fan of anyone/thing. My sophisticated culture prohibits exhibiting much enthusiasm, but I couldn't help it.

    Days after that, a friend and fellow fan sent me a flyer announcing that Bill was leading a retreat in the mountains of Tennessee.

    It would be a small retreat and a chance to have a more intimate exposure to Bill than at his concerts. This was a spiritually loaded time for me, which turned into a whirlwind of synchronicity. I was completing my novel Numenon, which chronicles the clash between a Native shaman and a Silicon Valley billionaire. I'd spent years on the project, writing and doing research. Unfortunately, I didn't know any real life Indians and wanted to make sure I'd gotten things right. I wanted to go to the retreat for many reasons, information gathering among them.

    I found out it was under the auspices of a Protestant denomination. I didn't want to be proselytized, so I contacted the retreat's director, Vicki Collins (of Cherokee descent), to find out how they dealt with people with disparate religious views.

    Vicki and I hit it off like sisters from our first email. Our lives mirrored each other's. The bonding we felt was amazing. Shocking.  And I found that the Gathering was probably the only retreat around where the word God wasn't used. Because Natives have had their religions mangled and torn from them by the majority culture, Vicki and her compatriots were very aware of the need to respect all forms of sacred experience.

    So I went to the retreat and it was more wonderful than I expected. Being with Bill was like having a spiritual hurricane in the room. He gives a talk and then a concert in the evening. He's very powerful and he talks a surprising amount in his concerts. One of my friends, a shaman himself, heard Bill and said, "He's got all the power of all the Nations behind him."

    Bill's early life sounds stereotyped; He was born on a poor reservation, one of a bunch of kids (eight or so?), with an alcoholic, abusive, former Marine dad. Bill had to protect his mother and siblings from his father from an early age. He became an alcoholic, like his father and grandfather. Awful stuff, but look what he did with it.

    I think that Miller demonstrates what you're saying very well, Mark, "Another instance of the capacity of creativity and expression to transform suffering, grief, and pain - giving us the capacity to bear up under the weight." Bill's suffering is personal, familial, tribal, and societal. He talks very frankly about his alcoholism (he's in recovery) and what he's gone through, including racism and every kind of -ism.

    The retreat was a life changing experience for me. I put my novel aside and writing a book on spiritual practice, Stepping Off the Edge. About a third of it takes place at the Gathering. The second year I went to the retreat, Vicki arranged for me to interview Bill. I was very excited, but in the end,  it turned out he didn't have time. That was breaks.

    Except that he called me a few days later, and gave me an interview over the phone. Living with that man must be like living inside a pressure cooker. He called me from a hospital. His daughter has spinal bifida; he was waiting for the medicos to complete tests, so he talked to me about ideas he'd had for the interview. He'd stop and say, "I've got to hang up now. Four doctors just walked into the room." The interview was finally completed, and it's at the end of Stepping. I felt awed.

    I felt awed again the next year when I gifted a bunch of copies of Stepping to the retreat as a fundraiser. Bill and I are signing books and prints here––scroll way down. (He's also an artist.) I got to introduce his talk, another learning experience. I had copious notes and waited to speak, fussing with my nerves and words and how I'd appear to others. I got up and said whatever I did, with little or no impact.

    Bill got up and took over the room. Boom. A blast of energy. No notes, no nerves. He was just brilliant. He talks about whatever is on his mind, some of it personal, some political. Some spiritual.

    So, what is the point of this love fest for Bill Miller? Whatever he's done, it's worked. It's a privilege to know people like him. It's inspired me and so many others. Hes got an energy that covers like a blanket. (Bonnie had a word for that above.)

    Maybe Bill's level of spirit and power reflects his level of suffering and recovery.

    The Gathering Homepage
    • That's quite a powerful story of your interactions with Bill and his influence on your process.  As I read your narrative about Bill's personal history I think of two songs - one by Buddy Guy: Damn Right I've Got The Blues!" and Sam Cooke's I've Got A Right To Sing The Blues."  Bill has certainly paid his dues.

  • Hi Mark, Sandy, Bob--and all. I'm thrilled to have this carry on a bit longer. The discussion and sharing this month has been very rich and it seems like it could go on forever--a bit like blues music itself, in fact! You know how sometimes one song just goes on and on and you never want it to end? Please do whatever works for you, Mark, and if you're willing to field questions and comments on an ongoing basis, that would be great. Just say "when" if you need to.

    On another note, Mark, I LOVE the section on "catharsis and naming" that starts on page 73 of the book. You correlate the importance of naming with fairy tales and shamanistic healing songs as well as with the blues, in which "a good blues lyric is...the distillation of a problem , the naming of a malaise...ritually acted out...an antidote for the malady named." I personally really believe in the power of "naming" and wondered if you could say more about your thoughts on how it works in the blues...

    • Thank you Bonnie or the opportunity - I've just read the introduction so far and draw attention to increasing the emotional vocabulary and link that in to the catharsis of naming!

    • I will be thrilled to have discussion continue, as well. I found out that I had the wrong address up on my Amazon account when I ordered Mark's book. My volume is about to land in Santa Fe NM right now. Unfortunately, I'm in California. Assuming they intercept it, my friends will ship the book here and it will arrive––when it does. 

      I'd like to be able to read some of it while the discussion continues.

  • All of which adds to the mystery, huh? Oppressed people, in most cases the victims of colonialism, intuitively form artistic expressions in technical musical terms that are best capable of expressing the deepest of feelings, and are also capable (in ritual terms) of calling down the spirits into the human body for the purposes of healing.

    Speaking of ritual, here's another idea that I've considered for years: Robert Bly once called Rock n' Roll "the music of uninitiated young men." By that standard I consider Blues to have been created by initiated men. What do you think?

  • I came up, like most of us, through 50s and 60s Rock n' Roll, then became a strictly Blues lover in college. Only later (perhaps as I matured) did I begin to feel similar emotional intensity in other forms of music, first Jazz, and eventually in a whole pattern of "World" musics: Flamenco especially (be sure to read Garcia Lorca on the concept of "Duende" - http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Spanish/LorcaDuende.htm), but also Gypsy music, Andean, Irish and Greek folk music and Klezmer, all of which (to me) carry the same emotional intensity as the Blues. Eventually I realized that all these musical forms were the creations of oppressed people. Later, a musician friend pointed out that all these forms are typically created in minor keys. So here's an uneducated question for Mark: technically, what's the connection between deep feeling and minor keys?

    • Barry - I'll preface this by saying I have no formal musical training but I'll hazard an explanation.  First let me say that the notes of what is known as the blues scale is basically a minor pentatonic scale with the addition of a flatted 5th scale tone thrown in.  So the blues definitely falls into that grouping of genres which rely heavily on minor keys. However, the blues scale can also be described as a simple diatonic scale (as opposed to a full chromatic scale) with the 3rd, 5th and 7th scale tones flatted (lowered 1/2 step).  Here's where it gets technical - each diatonic scale is dominated by one tritone (a musical interval comprised of three whole tones).  So the tritone interval is a note that is three whole notes distant from the tonality of the key of the song.  This tritone interval is widely seen as creating a sense of dissonance in Western music and is nicknamed the diabolus in musica ("the Devil in music") or "the dangerous interval."   Why this particular tone interval strikes such a reaction in us - I can't say.  Although my belief is that the structure of music is archetypal - a universal that pre-exists human invention.  In 1997 a paleontologist uncovered a Neanderthal bone flute dated between 43,ooo up to 82,ooo years old.  The holes drilled in the flute had perfect correspondence to the modern diatonic scale.  Clearly, the creator of the flute had no theoretical idea of musical theory or the relationship between notes but yet heard something that sounded "right" about this configuration as he crafted the instrument.  Neanderthal Flute - Hope my musical layman's explanation helps a little.

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