On Sunday the bluesman Buddy Guy received Kennedy Center honors, touted as the nation’s highest official recognition for excellence in the arts. He richly deserved it. A formidable singer and guitar player, the leading standard bearer for Chicago blues since the death of Muddy Waters in 1983, Guy has been an exemplary elder statesman of American popular music. At the age of 76, when other icons subside into fuzzy-bunny schtick, Guy’s making some of the best music of his career. If anything, he’s even better than he was 20 years ago, more willing to look deep into a song and his own craft to find the elements of tension and release that give the blues its lasting power, less willing to settle for playing yet another heroic guitar solo.
The Kennedy Center’s citation emphasized Guy’s “tremendous influence on virtually everyone who’s picked up an electric guitar in the last half century, including Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Slash, ZZ Top, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and John Mayer.” Guy really has been a seminal figure, but this emphasis on his importance as an influence has a bittersweet quality. It’s part of a general consigning of the blues to emeritus status, venerated but gently sidelined.
Commercially, the blues has for half a century been a junior partner to rock and soul and other genres that grew from it and now command far bigger audiences. Because it’s now assumed that the blues can’t compete in the marketplace and has primarily retrospective value as the source of other music and as a repository of African American cultural history, it’s increasingly treated like an endangered species. Cultural institutions like the Kennedy Center, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Experience Music Project, PBS, and the tourism authorities of blues-themed destinations like Chicago and the Mississippi Delta set out to preserve it under glass.
Such serious, respectful attention to the blues as a foundational American tradition is overdue, but it’s not a formula for a living popular genre to grow and change. Over the past generation or two, the blues has found it difficult to recruit new listeners and practitioners who will not only honor its traditions but also mess with them to make fresh blues sounds and feelings.
This story of the ascension and demotion of the blues to the status of roots music was implicitly retold at this year’s Kennedy Center event, where Guy’s fellow honorees included the surviving members of Led Zeppelin. As straight blues players, Jimmy Page and company weren’t very interesting. Their galumphing, noodling take on “I Can’t Quit You, Baby,” for instance, had nothing to say that Guy’s Chicago contemporary Otis Rush hadn’t already said much better. But as revolutionary blues-rockers, they extracted the pentatonic riffs and hooks from blues songs and built them up into titanic crunching grooves that they overlaid with soaring airs taken from other traditions: Orientalist fantasy, druidic mumbo jumbo, pulp psychedelia, all sorts of folk music. Whatever you think of Led Zeppelin’s promethean bombast, its blues-derived crunch still rules without peer.
The story of the rise and fall of the blues can also be seen in “Muddy Waters and the Rolling Stones Live,” filmed at the Checkerboard Lounge on the South Side of Chicago in 1981. Long circulated in bootleg form, the footage has been recently remastered and assembled into a documentary that appeared on PBS last week. Muddy Waters turns in a masterly late-career performance, relaxed and potent. The Stones are pretty mediocre as straight blues players, but they project a great deal of raffish star power.
Buddy Guy owned the Checkerboard back then, and he makes a cameo appearance, which yields a moment to ponder. He’s thrilled to have the rock stars in his club and to see it packed with their fans, and his excitement brims over into wild guitar playing. Keith Richards and Ron Wood follow along dutifully. Despite the cigarettes pasted in their jaded mugs, they look for all the world like schoolboys, earnest acolytes. But at the time they and other rock stars were also keeping Guy’s club and career alive. Guy financed the Checkerboard, which always lost money, by touring with the Stones and other famous admirers who had learned from him. Artistically, Guy was the maestro, the source; commercially, the rock stars were the important figures and Guy the junior partner.
Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.’’