My History with the Blues

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I took a music course on the blues during my sophomore year at Brown. It was called The Blues. My friend Chris was enthusiastic about it. For my part, I thought I could already play serious blues for a 19-year-old from Leonia, NJ. It had been covered in my private guitar lessons. I thought to myself, What’s this course really going to show me?

But Chris talked me into it. He said, “This is just gonna be cool. Trust me. Plus, it’s an easy A.” So I went to the first class, and the professor said, “Don’t take this course if you think it’s an easy A.” As we walked home afterward, I said to Chris that maybe this class isn’t so easy.

Chris said, “No, it’s definitely easy.”

“But the professor said that thing.”

“That’s how you know it’s easy. Do you think they say anything like that in Jeff’s engineering courses?”

Jeff was our roommate, who took hard courses. That was enough to convince me. I signed up for The Blues, with 2 dangerous assumptions: 1) I already understood the blues because I could play it to my own satisfaction, and 2) This would be an easy course, and the crucial piece of evidence was that the professor said it would not be an easy course.

Your grade in The Blues was based on 1 midterm and 1 final. That was it. Musical ability was not tested whatsoever; the tests were the old-school kind, which is to say they were tests of knowledge.

The midterm was surprising in the classic nightmarish way: as the professor handed out the exams, the students looked down, shook their heads, and laughed. When I got mine, I saw why. We were all doomed. The first question was “What’s Howling Wolf’s real name?” No one knew that. Was that from class notes? Was that in the reading? No one knew if there even was reading. We just came to class and listened to the professor play blues records and rhapsodize about the meaning of the blues. Sometimes he would demonstrate stuff on an acoustic guitar. He wasn’t that good. We thought the whole class was just a vibe. No one knew what Howling Wolf’s real name was.

The second question was “What year was Bessie Smith born?” I had no idea. I was about to flunk a midterm at an Ivy League school that I had worked really hard to get into. Did that count as having the blues?

Then the midterm had a listening section. The professor played an archival recording of Blind Lemon Jefferson playing a one-string guitar and muttering incoherently. We were supposed to transcribe the lyrics. In the world of impossible tests, this was some next-level shit. I said to myself, “This is what it feels like to fail a test completely.”

I guess not everyone blew off studying, though. When the midterms were handed back, the professor looked at one kid and nodded and said “Good job.” That must have been the kid who knew who Sonny Terry was. I looked at him with awe and resentment.

After that, the rest of the semester was less fun. I frantically took notes on everything in class—wait, could you repeat the date of W. C. Handy’s first transcription of black folk music? It was that, constantly.

I studied for the final, but I had a not-great attitude. It was impossible to get a B, probably. I didn’t have the Honors Student–pride that was usually at my back. The goal was simply not to fail; it was “See if you can crash land and break your own legs so that you’re not instantly killed.” I studied in that spirit. I got a C for the course.

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