Tribute: Joan Armatrading, Into the Blues

By Daniel Garrett

Joan Armatrading, Into the Blues
Written and Produced by Joan Armatrading
429 Records/SLG (Savoy Label Group), 2007

Does it matter when a mature musician decides to explore a musical genre, such as the blues, that has become somewhat neglected?  On the album Into the Blues, Joan Armatrading’s song “A Woman in Love” is about the power of love, its ability to calm, to correct; and the blues notes in the song do not forbid rhythmic propulsion or Armatrading’s distinctively contemplative—austere, open, and pleasantly thoughtful—vocal tones.  It is possible to hear a difference in her sound and yet it is a difference that does not obscure Joan Armatrading’s temperament or the nature of her much-loved gifts (it is simply a new accent, a new tonal color).  The first three songs of Armatrading’s collection Into the Blues—“A Woman in Love,” “Play the Blues,” and “Into the Blues”—introduce the blues as both a sound and a subject.  “Play the Blues” is about the seductive appeal of a far from classically handsome blues musician (he wears ordinary clothes, has handle-bar ears, and yellow teeth) someone whose appeal—whose music—is such that “I’d take off all my clothes for you, baby, when you sing the blues.”  The musician described fills the narrator with such contentment that she says “I’m happy every day.”  Armatrading’s voice in “Play the Blues” sounds very similar to the way it does on her song “Love and Affection.”  The song “Into the Blues” has the kind of musical introduction that B.B. King would recognize with a smile.  In the song, Armatrading sings, “Blues are here to make you glad that your life has taken a different path.”  That may be true.  It is certainly one of the more sensitive lines in a song that attempts to affirm the blues but does so by slighting other forms of music: not only does the singer’s “baby” not like rock and roll, hip hop, or pop but, “Dance might be real cool, and country’s just for fools.  Baroque is just for the old, for the tired and the restless souls.”  Yet, Armatrading’s high-voiced singing of the refrain noting her baby’s dedication to the blue softens the content of the words, softens the dismissal of other music.  “Are you a mannish boy, just like the mighty Mud?” Armatrading asks at one point, an allusion to the esteemed blues musician Muddy Waters.  Joan Armatrading’s Into the Blues is a significant footnote to the blues tradition, and it does not suffer in comparison with recognized contemporary blues musicians such as Keb Mo and Eric Bibb.

Joan Armatrading’s Into the Blues is a good album, a fact that does not ensure that it will get the broad public attention it deserves.  There is good music being produced by adults of varying ages for adults:  Patti Austin (Avant Gershwin), George Benson and Al Jarreau (Givin’ It Up), Eric Bibb (Diamond Days), Bloc Party (A Weekend in the City), Harry Connick Jr (Oh My NOLA), Randy Crawford and Joe Sample (Feeling Good), the Dears (Gang of Losers), Michael Franti (Yell Fire!), Ben Harper (Both Sides of the Gun), Leela James (A Change is Gonna Come), Modest Mouse (We Were Dead…), Sinead O’Connor (Theology), Yoko Ono (Yes, I’m a Witch), Joshua Redman (Back East), Sky (Mind How You Go), Carly Simon (Into White), Streisand (Live in Concert 2006), Bebo Valdes (Bebo), Lucinda Williams (West), Cassandra Wilson (Thunderbird), Lizz Wright (Dreaming Wide Awake), and Neil Young (Living with War).   However, the recordings likely to be celebrated are those produced by people younger than thirty-five working in the genres of rock or rap.  Neglect should not be the case for Armatrading: she is unique, the kind of musician who has contributed a rare sound and sense—and the same could be said for very different musicians of the last twenty, thirty, or forty years, such as A.R. Kane, Anthony Braxton, Don Byron, Betty Carter, Tracy Chapman, Michael Franti, Jeffrey Gaines, Ben Harper, Nona Hendryx, Garland Jeffreys, Ephraim Lewis, Living Colour, David McAlmont, Meshell Ndegeocello, P.M. Dawn, Diana Ross, Sade, Seal, Matthew Shipp, Sly and the Family Stone, Donna Summer, A Tribe Called Quest, Luther Vandross, Dionne Warwick, and Cassandra Wilson.

On Joan Armatrading’s Into the Blues album, in the song “Liza,” about the narrator’s offering friendship to a poor girl from the dangerous part of town, someone she sees some good in (“I see something in you” and “I think you’re kind of cute”).  Armatrading quotes the line “let the good times roll,” adding something old in a new song, the kind of quotation blues songs have done often, turning the blues into a conversation among musicians, into communal discourse.  What is interesting is the variety Armatrading allows in the song’s structure: from a traditional blues beat to a fast spoken line then a rhythm chant, a mix of musical connotations and periods.

In “Secular Songs,” the claim “They’re singing secular songs in the churches” is the first line; and it is a song that says that there is less celebration of the deity in church than there used to be, though the narrator still wants to go to church and pray and hear sermons even if the music is not quite what she expects.  I hear an echo of “Willow” in “Secular Songs,” a composition with no easily discernible blues element: the song is a cross between a light ballad and a conservative hymn.

“My Baby’s Gone (Come Back Baby)” is a lament stating “My baby’s gone away.  Come back baby, come baby,” and with its simple words, and coming near the mid-point of the album as it does, the song is nearly a rest stop.  I imagine it would work as a mostly instrumental “jam” song in concert.  (When Armatrading performed in concert some of the songs from Into the Blues, a writer—Mick Conmy, January 3, 2007—found the song less compelling than her older work, a complaint one often hears regarding established musicians.  Does it occur to critics and music fanatics that in making such a comparison they are comparing current work with all the musician’s best work of the past?  Just as certain songs from the past have stood the test of time, so it is likely that a few—if not more—of the current songs will stand the test of time: and then join the bulk of established material that the singer’s future work will be judged by.)

“D.N.A.” opens with a casual interrogation that threatens to use scientific analysis as confirmation of guilt, rather a surprise in a song about a private affair, about sexual betrayal and suspicion: how one person is changed by new temptations, and the other sees the signs of that change and wonders what it means for her.  The refrain of the song has a dance (even disco) sound, and with that, and the blues notes and rock rhythms.  Armatrading’s song has as much discordant invention as any new music.  (Armatrading has been quoted as saying that she likes Bloc Party, Coldplay, and Robbie Williams; and that when she was younger she admired Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and Led Zeppelin.)  There are, at least, four or five significant changes in the structure of the song “D.N.A.”

The rhythms of “Baby Blue Eyes” remind me of bluegrass music; and in the song, the singer says she loves the imperfections of her mate, and “It ain’t always easy being me.”  It is not a complex theme, but it may be a necessary one.  Armatrading uses her lowest voice for the dense ramble that is “Deep Down,” which has a simple thought: “Deep down, I love you baby.”  The song “There Ain’t A Girl Alive,” about the narcissism of a blonde, long-legged girl, a mirror-driven, mirror-drunk girl, is uptempo rock; and it’s funny to think that the song is one the subject of the song would enjoy dancing to.  “Empty Highway” has a very dramatic, stark sound, a strong effect, as Armatrading has adapted the blues to her own individual, modern, thoughtful sensibility.  The lyrics state, “Sometimes it feels like I’m on an empty highway, and I’m on a road to nowhere” and “And I turn to you to ask, How can I make things better?  And you say it’s gone, it’s gone, it’s over.”  The song has a drama that depends more on the music than on the lyrics.

“Mama Papa” is a seemingly biographical tale, a song that confirms the album Into the Blues as a work of personal exploration:  “I was born on an island, St. Kitts, in a little biddy town, had a mama and a papa, four brothers and a sister.  Mama, papa, told us, ‘Play hard, fight fair, live life, and love the lord.’”  Armatrading recounts the difficulty of immigration to Britain, a large family living on a single wage, and how the love and laughter of the family was a sustaining force.  It is a song with spiritual force.  It is a song that connects yesterday and today, her own family’s struggles with that of others; and it connects the Caribbean, and England’s Birmingham and Alabama’s Birmingham.

The tautly arranged “Something’s Gotta Blow” focuses on tension in mass transit, tension that threatens to erupt as a result of rewards that do not fully compensate efforts, in ordinary life.

Reviews of Into the Blues have appeared in American publications, though not as many as one would expect, especially considering the album, upon release, soared to the top of the Billboard magazine blues chart.  With what has been reported as an accumulation of eighteen gold recordings and ten platinum recordings.  Armatrading has had her successes.  Of course, Joan Armatrading will not be forgotten: she belongs not only to her current admirers, but to history.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader.  Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics.