What is present in blues lyrics
Emotions, both positive and negative, are frequently featured. These are often set in a narrative context of antecedent, perceived cause and of consequences including coping or action. Negative emotion - the blues - is often given an additional title denoting its putative cause: empty bed blues, lonesome blues, down-and-out blues and the long-way-from-home blues. These feelings are regarded as natural and understandable, not pathological, even when very intense.
The antecedent causes of these feelings relate to common social circumstances - relationships, money/employment, sickness - and to more detailed causal explanations including superstition and black magic.
Many blues songs are about courtship, sexual relationships and sexual gratification. This seems a permitted topic, which may be related to the context of music performance, in particular dances for couples. The degree of sexual explicitness, both directly and through allegorical images, contrasts with the prudishness of contemporaneous US (white) cinema. Prostitution is often casually mentioned as a fact of life. Apart from a pragmatic approach to sexual gratification, blues lyrics refer to many aspects of sexual relationships: teenage bliss (often most apparent in more commercial recordings); loneliness, separation and loss; jealousy. Domestic violence is occasionally referred to, as are violent thoughts29 and actual murder, including women killing their partners.30,31
Another common theme, related to the performance context, is partying, dancing, music, clubs, and generally having a good time.
Money issues are frequently covered either as a primary subject or as backdrop. Lack of money is intimately linked to unemployment. Presence of money is celebrated through consumerism - often a car; sometimes jewellery is mentioned.
Reference to crime and the penal system is normal in prison work songs, but it crops up in blues, often linked to violent thoughts and actions. Non-violent crime is rarely referred to although robbery has been the subject of at least one
Disease and death both feature as recorded misfortunes reasonably often. Of individual diseases, tuberculosis is commonly mentioned.33,34 Dying is sometimes referred to, more often it is the news of the death of a loved one.35,36
There is little reference to mental illness. John Lee Hooker's 'Going Mad' and 'Madman' are references to intense love.37,38 There is equally little reference to healthcare and consultations. Oden sings in 'Goin' Down Slow':
don't send no doctor - doctor can't do no good, it's my fault - never done the things I should.39
Smith refers to spa treatment in 'Hot Springs Blues', which seems improbably luxurious.40
There were two issues that could appear as either a cause or a result of the blues - travel and substance abuse.
Migration was very common and, like the Promised Land for Old Testament Jews, stood as a symbol for emancipation - employment at better rates, greater economic independence, and freedom from the monopolistic serfdom of the sharecropper system. Nevertheless it involved uprooting from local communities and their social support, as well as a harsher climate. 'Going back down South - where the weather suits my clothes', sings Buddy Guy, himself originally from Louisiana.41 Many musicians had a touring lifestyle. The ability to get free long-distance transport by illegally riding freight trains allowed some people to move around as 'hobos'. The structures of the US as a federation of states with different laws encouraged people in trouble to move to a different jurisdiction.
Dealing with emotional problems through substance abuse - and the problems this can cause - is a common theme. Niles quotes an early blues song in which morphine is used to commit suicide.42 The blues era saw wide variations in drugs of choice and in legality. In 1900, morphine could be bought over the counter and cocaine was a key constituent of Coca-Cola®. By 1920 there was prohibition and a violent swing against intoxicants (narcotics). This facilitated profitable illegal operations, which continue to this day. Alcohol has been the main drug of choice in the US for blacks and whites, and numerous lyrics refer to it. Cannabis is infrequently referred to, as are harder drugs including opiates and cocaine.
One can compare the themes of blues songs with the complaints of people who come to hospital after taking an overdose in the UK. People who have taken overdoses are often relatively powerless and socially deprived, but they do not complain of inability to vote, a Labour government, capitalism, or a high unemployment rate. They do complain of personal adversity (e.g. loss of job, loss of partner, debt, money worries, health worries) and the emotional consequences of such issues. Even in patients who had been admitted to hospital, 89% identified this kind of problem as the reason for first contact with mental health services as opposed to 11% giving mental illness as a reason.43