can blues survive the virus?

As the coronavirus ravages the United States (and other countries), one has to wonder what will happen to the live music scene, including the blues, after the danger has subsided. Right now, there is little or no demand for such performers, but the question remains whether the previous demand will bounce back. The only real comparison we have is the great Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19, which killed some 675,000 persons in the United States and about 50 million worldwide. Demand for live music shows did bounce back quickly in those days (1919), but that was before radio and television provided home entertainment via the air waves. Radio had been invented then, but was confiscated by the U.S. military during WWI. Television was not available commercially until after WWII.

So, will live blues performers, for example, be able to bounce back this time? We now have the Internet, but not every singer or player is wired enough to take advantage of this new medium. Players jumping from live gig to gig will be especially hard hit. If bars and other venues stay closed for months, what will happen to live entertainment? Will continuous stay-at-home restrictions destroy the industry?

“The situation has decimated live music. Shows cancelled everywhere and for everyone. And for once we’re all in the same boat. We as self-employed people, are powerless and really the last on the list of economic priorities. Sadly, that’s just the nature of the beast. It’s a case of buying bread or going to a gig. One can only hope that some have followed the old saying ‘putting something away for a rainy day’ that will help some of us to cope until we’re able to work again,” says singer and actress Ruby Turner in the Blues Matters online journal. “Once the initial shock of this now crippling pandemic virus has sunk in, we now have to deal with the fact we’re out of work for the foreseeable future. Everything cancelled or postponed. Sadly, there’s nothing we can do but try to be optimistic in the hope work can be rescheduled when this crisis ends.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the only threat to the continued existence of blues music, however. Some problems are as built in as a blue note. “As the blues is not mainstream, blues artists record with boutique recording studios and have little budget to promote their work. The opportunities to perform live are also fewer today with blues fans more geographically dispersed,” opines a 2015 article in the Wall Street International magazine called “Blues in the Digital Age.”

In the golden age of the blues during the 1920s, live shows were in high demand since going out to a live show or listening to a blues recording on a Victrola (a wind-up phonograph) were the only ways to enjoy the music. Not so now as there are many other genres and sub-genres of music competing for the public’s ear over a virtual plethora of media.

Traditional blues, as we know it, died a slow death after the great stock market crash of 1929, but enjoyed a surprise revival in the 1950s and 1960s with the rise of blues-based rock and roll, especially after the British Invasion. “For blues fans, those decisions [to listen or not] are greatly influenced by the music of the masters. Recordings of B.B. King, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters continue to be heard everywhere. The guitar challenges of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix are still the standards by which guitarists are measured,” claims the Wall Street International article. “But local radio is no longer what the listener turns to when they want some blues, with the exception of some local blues programs. Today specialized digital radios provide blues music 24 hours a day through the Internet. The result seems to be that the blues fan has become a fan of the blues as a whole rather than of specific blues artists.”

What will happen to the blues in the near or distant future is anybody’s guess. Singers of bands that profited from the fusion of the blues and rock may have some hints, however. “The blues is like a planet. It’s an enormous topic. You can’t ignore the impact that it has had and continues to have on the whole musical culture. It’s a tree that everyone is swinging from. Without it, I don’t know where I would be. It’s indelible and indispensable,” explained rocker Tom Waits.

Perhaps the best closing argument of all is by the late Chicago bassist and songwriter Willie Dixon who once said: “Blues is the roots and the other music is the fruits. It’s better keeping the roots alive, because it means better fruits from now on. The blues are the roots of all American music. As long as American music survives, so will the blues.”

And like a tree that’s planted by the water, the blues will not be moved. But let’s just hope the blues doesn’t die, again.

The Influenza Blues (1919)