The other day I listened to a bunch of songs by a Finnish singer-songwriter, Jukka Karjalainen. He had written them in honor of an old friend of his, called Lännen-Jukka. Now, over here, Lännen this and Lännen that means, it’s from America and it’s somewhat finer or bigger or more glamorous.
Not these songs. Karjalainen sings them as if he were drunk, with a hoarse voice and only his banjo as accompaniment. His mentor, Lännen-Jukka, went to America in the last wave of Finnish immigrants in 1920, and learned to play the banjo when his friend died in the mines and Jukka took it when he went on the road.
The songs are blues or roots at its best. They tell of Christmas eve in a cardboard shack in Chicago, 1925, and of having two concurrent girlfriends, and the sadness of leaving once more to go see the sights of the world. Jukka befriended Willie Brown and Charlie Patton, two giants of the true old skool blues, who left behind records.
When the Depression set in, Lännen-Jukka returned to Finland, and in doing so gained his moniker, inevitably. He settled down to live his life, and when the 16-year-old aspiring musician namesake of his heard of him, and went to see him, it must have been magical for the youngster. This guy had been there. He had seen the likes of Son House and Robert Johnson, and nearly shit his pants en route to a gig in a speeding car driven by Charlie Patton.
Now, I don’t play the blues. I make attempts at writing. What got me thinking was, Jukka, Willie and Charlie needed only themselves, a guitar and some moonshine to throw a gig. They’d create a song using the structure of blues to tell their audience of the momentous hangover they had in the morning, or what it was like to be orphaned and abandoned, and why the ladies present should be interested in the musicians. The blues men were all individuals, with recognizable styles and voices, as well as themes, and yet, the blues is a collective effort that grows organically from little bits inserted by the musicians.
Us writers, we sit in our respective nooks hacking at the keyboard, for the most part trying to hone and polish the piece to perfection before going public with it. Unlike the blues guys, who’d trade fours and try to outwit the other singer, and in doing so create something together. When this thought hit me, for some time I was so envious of the blues brothers. Surely the enrichment they can offer each other, while building on the corpus of the blues, must feel like a real rush when they hit upon just the right lyrics to address tonight’s audience.
But then I realized that YZW is our blues. Even if we can’t hop off the Southern & Santa Fe cattle car when we see a bunch of hobos we might know, the band of brothers and sisters is right here, ready to take on our ideas and offer the next four bars, and invent variations on our themes we ourselves would never come across. And they will give us new tunes and chords, and all we have to do is listen.
I doubt it is possible even to live the hobo life in the 21st century, and I for one am way too fond of creature comforts to even think of doing something like that. But to listen to that music, and to let the thoughts flow with it, makes one very happy and proud to have found this virtual collective. It was simply spellbinding to watch Daisy’s video of postcards, with its roots music that hit the jackpot with me, given what I’d just heard.
We are the blues. No need for envy.