ESSAYS

________________________________________

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Noir & Blue

You could say the blues are the Black noir, if it wasn't redundant and didn't have things ass-backwards. The blues came first, in the rural south of the United States. Born in slavery and racial oppression, the blues and its related forms have been the African-American's means to express the pain and celebrate survival. Gospel has a lock on the romantic, transcendent side of the Black experience (praise Jesus that He will raise me up from my daily toil) but the blues are all about how to keep on keepin’ on.

Noir as a literary genre developed from the coincidence of mass literacy and the shared experiences of modern warfare. Not only did poorer Whites find reason to be disillusioned with institutional authorities, they had become a market for books about their own experiences.

About the same period, the blues hit the mean, gritty streets of America. The Viet Nam War put large numbers of Blacks on the front lines and literacy was sufficiently widespread to support a popular Black press, featuring authors such as Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines. Whites saw some of these ideas in Blaxploitation films, which had their own musical representation. Outside of a few genre buffs however, this literary movement largely stayed within the Black community.

But the blues survived, thrived, diversified and crossed over, giving musical expression to themes found in noir. It is almost impossible to read or watch noir fiction without hearing a blues line, jazz riff, maybe a punk anthem waft between the lines like the smell of barbecue. Authors invoke the music deliberately as shorthand, the way film directors play it to set up scenes.

Here’s a few samples of themes common to noir and the blues. If you’ve got more, e-mail them to info@murderoutthere.com.

ALIENATION AND DISPLACEMENT
Blues-
Harry Thacker Burleigh's Motherless Child, though considered a gospel standard, manages to avoid the uplifting narrative that implies the possibility of transcendence (lyrics.)
Noir-
Johnathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn. Boys rescued from a New York orphanage find that their new family is not the grand criminal institution they imagined.

WORKING CLASS
Blues-
Stormy Monday by T-Bone Walker describes the week for the average working joe; five days of getting by with two days to celebrate life and repent (lyrics.) Work Song applies the chants of rural slaves to the prison chain gang (lyrics.)
Noir-
George V. Higgins' Friends of Eddie Coyle defines life for the stiff working his mob connections. Detectives, even cops with some power, are working men.

POLITICS FROM THE BOTTOM UP
Blues-
Paul Butterfield sang Born in Chicago, watching his buddies go down (lyrics.)
Noir-
Cops and politicians are corrupt. Through the Walter Mosely series, Easy Rawlins is often coerced by white cops to do their work in the black community, where white authority is not trusted. James Ellroy's work-a-day detectives are at the bottom of a corrupt and racist power structure.

THE MEAN STREETS (CRIME and DANGER)
Blues-
Stagger Lee shot Billy DeLyon in St. Louis (lyrics.)
Noir-
There is such a thing as "country noir" and many noir themes are transposed from the Western, but as Chandler said: "Down these mean streets a man must go…" Although similar themes and atmospherics appear in many forms of expression, noir is a comic sub-genre of crime fiction.

SEX FOR SALE
Blues-
Elmore James told that girl get out there and Shake Your Money Maker (lyrics.)
Noir-
Long before Iceberg Slim wrote openly about his life as a Pimp, Chandler sold the Colonel’s daughter to the local pornographer for cheap thrills (The Big Sleep.) Marlowe couldn’t do much about it but take her home and try to clean up the mess, knowing it was likely to happen again. Like the Sopranos' strippers, the sex is loveless and obsessive.

SPEAKING OF OBSESSION
Blues-
Screamin' Jay Hawkins put a spell on us, and we are his (lyrics.)
Noir-
The obsession may be sex, drugs, fame, power, wealth or obsession itself, a rare sculpture of a falcon with its history traced back to Malta. Usually it is what Hitchock called the McGuffin, setting in motion a story that reveals the depths of human corruption.

HUMOUR
Blues-
Ray Charles discovers life ain't what it seems, tells his woman I Got News for You (lyrics.)
Noir-
From Chandler's metaphors ("It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window,"--Farewell, My Lovely) to Elmore Leonard's off-beat criminals, humour has been used to thumb the nose at authority ("I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it." -- The Big Sleep), or just to survive on the mean streets.

EXISTENTIALISM
Blues-
Nina Simone sang Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood to no avail. A crew of English rockers made it a hit (lyrics.)
Noir-
"Forget it Jake. It’s Chinatown." Any attempt to make things better will only make them worse.

IDENTITY AND POWER
Blues-
Otis Redding wanted Respect (lyrics) as the man in the house, but it was Aretha Franklin who got it, turning the tune into a feminist anthem (lyrics.)
Noir-
Hammett’s Continental Op had no name. He was his job.

WAR
Blues-
Jimi Hendrix' Star Spangled Banner expresses the anger of being cannon fodder for the white man's war. Wealthy whites can get draft deferments by enrolling for college or university, then joining the National Guard, leaving blacks to fill the lower ranks in Viet Nam.
Noir-
As cannon fodder in two world wars, everyday GI Joes had stark evidence that their fate was in the hands of superiors that ranged from the incompetent to the confused to the heroic. Either way, the officers got the honours and Joe Average had to make his own way when the war ended. They wanted stories that reflected that, and they got them. Hammett rebeled from his past as a Pinkerton strikebreaker to give us Red Harvest. Marlowe was hired by the Colonel to sort out his corrupted children. But whose unquestioned values and status had corrupted them? Spillane no longer trusted civil authority in I the Jury.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post a Comment

Return to murderoutthere.com.

_______________________________________