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It was Mama Teacake who lighted the black blues flame


Mama Teacake, my grandmother, was in another place, and I was too young to understand where she was.

It was a summer night -- a typically hot and muggy one in Arkansas. And I was 10 or 11. We were at the kitchen table. Mama Teacake sat across from me, her eyes closed, her hand under her chin. On the little boom box atop the microwave, Bobby "Blue" Bland stripped his soul bare. Some cold woman had stomped his heart. "Look at the people," he wailed as the horns echoed his pain. "I know you wonderin' what they doin' / They're just standin' there / Watchin' you make a fool of me."

"Mama Teacake, who's that?" I asked repeatedly.

But she didn't hear me. She wasn't there. She was concentrating as Bobby Bland and his blues transported her. Maybe, in her mind, she was with an old flame who had done her wrong. Perhaps she was revisiting an argument with him in which she said something she later regretted. I can only guess where Mama Teacake was that night.

But I knew from her reaction that the music on the box -- that raw, honest soul-shout, the driving horns and the urgent backbeat -- emanated a profound power. I couldn't go there with the blues at such a young age. And although I haven't exactly been around the block a lot, I have felt the blues. I've cried with it, laughed with it, let it slip under my skin and shimmy down to my soul. The music deals with what's real. As blues man Keb Mo once told me, "You can't come to the blues and be fake. You have to be open."

Last September, Congress proclaimed the year 2003 as the "Year of the Blues." Spearheaded by the Experience Music Project and the Memphis-based Blues Foundation, the Year of the Blues program aims to bring awareness of the art form through various festivals and multimedia projects.

The Baltimore Blues Festival, which starts today and ends Sunday, isn't associated with the YOTB initiative, but it intends to celebrate the blues through performances by Levon Helm, Canned Heat and other artists. Crafts, collectibles, new and rare books and American roots CDs will be available for purchase. And admission is free.

While I commend such festivals, I wonder how they educate. I wonder what kind of awareness they really bring to the blues. Such festivals are heavily attended by whites, so some young blacks may get the impression that the blues is "white folks' music." I have friends (mostly from the East Coast) who make the same stupid comment about rock and jazz: "That's white folks' music."

Personally, I hate to categorize music in such a way. But I also like to give my ancestors their props whenever I can. Sure, whites support the blues and jazz and rock -- and, hey, even hip-hop. Whites have made some substantial contributions to all of those genres.

But it's important for young people -- especially blacks -- to know about the musical foundation laid by African-Americans. It's also important that young folks know that the blues, like other types of music, comes in different flavors. I grew up on soul blues, a sophisticated style that boasts a more polished production. Then there's country blues, urban blues, acoustic blues, electric blues.

The blues, period, is the most basic musical form there is, and its reverberations can be felt in neo-soul (I hear strong strands of it on Jaguar Wright's album Denials, Delusions and Decisions and Erykah Badu's 2000 classic Mama's Gun) hip-hop (Jay-Z has even sampled Bobby Bland) and progressive rock (I hear some of it in the Foo Fighters).

I have always challenged my musically ignorant (black) friends to expose themselves to the sounds that sustained so many of our foremothers and forefathers. I'm glad that YOTB and the Baltimore Blues Festival keep the flame lit. And I guess I need to thank Mama Teacake for playing all those blues records when I was growing up -- Z.Z. Hill, Howlin' Wolf, O.V. Wright, B.B. King, Johnnie Taylor. Although she wasn't aware that I was even in the same room most of the time, I learned from her silence that the blues works on you.

And it'll heal you if you let it.

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