JESSE R. STEINBERG is an assistant professor of philosophy and the director of the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford. He has been a visiting professor at Victoria University in New Zealand, at the University of California at Riverside, and at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He has published a number of articles on topics including philosophy of mind, metaphysics, philosophy of religion, and ethics.

ABROL FAIRWEATHER is an instructor at San Francisco State University and the University of San Fransisco. He has published in the area of virtue epistemology and sustains interests in philosophy of mind, metaphysics, and philosophy of language. He has contributed to popular culture volumes on Facebook and Dexter. The guitar, vocals, and lyrics of Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt are major influences.


FRITZ ALLHOFF is an associate professor in the philosophy department at Western Michigan University, as well as a senior research fellow at the Australian National University’s Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics. In addition to editing the Philosophy for Everyone series, he is also the volume editor or co-editor for several titles, including Wine & Philosophy (Wiley-Blackwell, 2007), Whiskey & Philosophy (with Marcus P. Adams, Wiley, 2009), and Food & Philosophy (with Dave Monroe, Wiley-Blackwell, 2007). His academic research interests engage various facets of applied ethics, ethical theory, and the history and philosophy of science.


Series editor: Fritz Allhoff

Not so much a subject matter, philosophy is a way of thinking. Thinking not just about the Big Questions, but about little ones too. This series invites everyone to ponder things they care about, big or small, significant, serious… or just curious.

Running & Philosophy: A Marathon for the Mind
Edited by Michael W. Austin

Wine & Philosophy: A Symposium on Thinking and Drinking
Edited by Fritz Allhoff

Food & Philosophy: Eat, Think and Be Merry
Edited by Fritz Allhoff and Dave Monroe

Beer & Philosophy: The Unexamined Beer Isn’t Worth Drinking
Edited by Steven D. Hales

Whiskey & Philosophy: A Small Batch of Spirited Ideas
Edited by Fritz Allhoff and Marcus P. Adams

College Sex – Philosophy for Everyone: Philosophers With Benefits
Edited by Michael Bruce and Robert M. Stewart

Cycling – Philosophy for Everyone: A Philosophical Tour de Force
Edited by Jesús Ilundáin-Agurruza and Michael W. Austin

Climbing – Philosophy for Everyone: Because It’s There
Edited by Stephen E. Schmid

Hunting – Philosophy for Everyone: In Search of the Wild Life
Edited by Nathan Kowalsky

Christmas – Philosophy for Everyone: Better Than a Lump of Coal
Edited by Scott C. Lowe

Cannabis – Philosophy for Everyone: What Were We Just Talking About?
Edited by Dale Jacquette

Porn – Philosophy for Everyone: How to Think With Kink
Edited by Dave Monroe

Serial Killers – Philosophy for Everyone: Being and Killing
Edited by S. Waller

Dating – Philosophy for Everyone: Flirting With Big Ideas
Edited by Kristie Miller and Marlene Clark

Gardening – Philosophy for Everyone: Cultivating Wisdom
Edited by Dan O’Brien

Motherhood – Philosophy for Everyone: The Birth of Wisdom
Edited by Sheila Lintott

Fatherhood – Philosophy for Everyone: The Dao of Daddy
Edited by Lon S. Nease and Michael W. Austin

Coffee – Philosophy for Everyone: Grounds for Debate
Edited by Scott F. Parker and Michael W. Austin

Fashion – Philosophy for Everyone: Thinking with Style
Edited by Jessica Wolfendale and Jeanette Kennett

Yoga – Philosophy for Everyone: Bending Mind and Body
Edited by Liz Stillwaggon Swan

Blues – Philosophy for Everyone: Thinking Deep About Feeling Low
Edited by Jesse R. Steinberg and Abrol Fairweather

Forthcoming books in the series:

Sailing – Philosophy for Everyone: A Place of Perpetual Undulation
Edited by Patrick Goold

Tattoos – Philosophy for Everyone: I Ink, Therefore I Am
Edited by Rob Arp


This book is dedicated to the folks that have produced the greatest
music on Earth. Thank you!



The blues is an art of ambiguity, an assertion of the irrepressibly human over all circumstances, whether created by others, or by one’s own human failing.

(Ralph Ellison)

The blues is a form of magic. Yes, magic, not just music. It is incredibly simple, usually involving somewhere between one and five chords; usually in 4/4 time; with verses rarely more than sixteen bars long; and often with only two lines of words, often one repeated, in a verse. Yet the blues is infused with a subtlety and power of emotion that transcend even the listener’s ability to understand the meaning of the words. The passion, the humor, the sorrow, the joy all seem to communicate on a subliminal, non-intellectual level that defies explanation.

Amazingly, the blues, a music that has won a worldwide audience, was created by an incredibly isolated group of people, an almost-invisible and often despised minority population with little interaction with the white majority in their unchosen home country. They were dragged in chains from their homes in Africa and deposited in a strange land under the control of owners who often literally worked them to death, enforced illiteracy, divided their families and original tribes, and often even banned them from owning musical instruments. Even after the legal end of slavery, the sharecropping system made it virtually impossible for African-Americans to emerge from dire poverty, to own land, or to create a future for their children. In their own country, they were (and still often are) the ultimate ‘other.’ All this in the ‘land of the free.’

How did these isolated, oppressed, often illiterate people manage to create a music that has reached beyond their own culture to find an audience among not only the white majority in the United States but also among people around the world? What is it about this music that can inspire fans and musicians in Argentina, China, India, Russia, and Singapore to adopt the blues as their favorite music? What is it about the blues that has fueled mainstream rock and pop music? And what is the ‘inside’ of the blues, the part that audiences have such a hard time understanding, even when they can identify and enjoy the structures and sounds of the ‘outside’ of blues?

For almost 300 years, African-Americans’ choices for brief relief from endless work and poverty were found either on Saturday night or Sunday morning. If they chose the church (the religion of their captors, which they transformed into something very much their own), then the ultimate brighter future was found after death, in the arms of Jesus, as so often expressed in song. If they chose Saturday night in the country juke joint or city blues bar, then the songs were secular and spoke, as does all blues, in literal terms about everyday life. Often these songs were of the disappointments of living, especially the failure of love to survive, either because of the cruelty of the beloved or the foibles of the singer, and, by extension, the members of his or her audience: ‘It’s my own fault, babe, treat me the way you want to do’ (from ‘It’s My Own Fault’ by John Lee Hooker). Sometimes they were about the positive attributes of the singer and again, by extension, the members of his or her audience. These were the attributes to which poor people could relate – primarily that of being a good lover, which could be suggested by the blues artist’s singing and playing ability, or the audience members’ dancing ability. And sometimes the songs were nothing but a release, a rhythmic excuse to party, to forget the hopelessness of daily life and just whoop and holler and try as hard as possible to attract a sexual/romantic partner. But, under any circumstances, the songs and the spirit of the songs were about reality, not the glories of the life in heaven to come. No wonder the preachers declared that the blues was ‘the devil’s music.’ Not only did the blues imply that the here and now were more important than the afterlife, but also those who spent their meager income on Saturday night had nothing for the collection plate on Sunday morning!

The continuing power of the blues is rooted in how strongly the music and the creators of the music (by which I mean not only the blues musicians but also the culture that created and nurtured them) had to fight for an iota of joy and a sense of community in the face of overwhelming odds – to be someone and not ‘the other.’ Even now, when the conditions that created the blues, at least those specific to the rural South, have almost disappeared, the power of the music that those conditions engendered lives on. Imagine a prize fighter who has built himself up to a level of incredible strength for the fight of his life. Even if the fight happened years before, the power of those muscles is still there. Thus, the power of the blues lives on.

Explaining the emotional, spiritual effect of the blues is almost impossible. Even defining the blues is a challenge. But here’s what we can perhaps agree on: The blues is a folk music form that was created primarily by African-Americans, probably evolving out of unaccompanied work songs. It generally involves both singing and playing instruments. It often has twelve bars and three chords arranged in a I-IV-I-V-VI-I structure. It usually contains flatted thirds and sevenths, the so-called ‘blue notes.’ Its lyrics speak of secular rather than religious or spiritual matters, though it shares many structures and vocal techniques with gospel music. Most blues has a strong, danceable rhythmic pulse. (Note that the inclusion of the long, flashy guitar solo is something that mostly happened after white fans adopted the blues. For black people, the blues was always first about words and groove.)

Okay, so we now have a vague but functional historical and musical definition. But then there’s that other quality, the emotional/psychological one that’s generally called ‘tension and release.’ How does that work, the part that ‘hurts so good’? Some psychologists say that the chord movement from V to I is somehow soothing to people on an elemental level. But there is that same chord movement in plenty of other types of music that don’t create the tension and release of the blues.

Often tension is created in the blues by things happening late: The voice will start a verse a beat after the instruments begin it. If there is drummer, he or she will generally be playing the snare drum on the second and fourth beats of a 4/4 measure, but will create tension by not playing squarely on the beat but intentionally a nanosecond behind. Singers and instrumentalists will intentionally hit a note that is below the ‘correct’ pitch (if you were writing out the parts on sheet music) and bend their note or voice up to the correct pitch, creating tension by entering ‘wrong’ and release by finally being ‘right.’ The longer it takes to get to the ‘right’ pitch, the more the tension and the greater the release. Listen to Albert King’s guitar or Muddy Waters’ slide to hear this technique done to perfection. These techniques are almost unknown in European classical music. They are all about Africa, where moving pitches are considered very much ‘correct.’ All these things speak to how the blues creates musical tension and release. But still, this doesn’t speak to how the blues works on us – that ‘healing feeling.’ That’s the eternal, wonderful magic of this music.

The blues certainly wasn’t created as a self-conscious ‘art form’ and most blues musicians, past and present, would describe themselves as entertainers, not ‘artists.’ The blues existed for decades as folk music, passed from person to person, before it was first recorded in 1921. But, in the country juke joints of Mississippi or the South and West Side black clubs of Chicago where I first got my blues education, the idea of discussing, dissecting, and analyzing the blues would have been laughed at. It was party and dance music, music for people who had literally picked cotton until their hands were raw or chopped animal carcasses in a slaughterhouse or cleaned houses (as Koko Taylor told me, ‘I spent many hours on my knees, and I wasn’t praying … I was scrubbing rich folks’ floors’ – from the blues standard ‘Five Long Years,’ originally cut and recorded by Eddie Boyd) or worked in a mill, ‘trucking steel like a slave.’ It was music to celebrate their mutual roots, to hear someone else singing the story of their lives, their loves, and their losses, so they didn’t feel so alone in their struggles. These people had almost everything in common. When I spent a Sunday afternoon at Florence’s Lounge on Chicago’s South Side, listening to Hound Dog Taylor, I was one of the few people in the bar who hadn’t been born in the South, who hadn’t labored in the blazing sun, who hadn’t come north with a few dollars in a pocket or purse, no education, and the hopes of finding a labor job and having a better life.

There’s a joke that says ‘all blues starts “woke up this morning.”’ Yes, that’s a cliché of the blues. But for the people at Florence’s this meant more than ‘I opened my eyes in bed as the sun came up.’ It meant that they were bonded by the mutual experience of ‘I woke up this morning knowing that in half an hour I’ll be pushing a massive plow behind a farting mule or bending over to hoe weeds, and I’ll be doing that until it’s too dark to see. And tomorrow and the next day and the next day, I’ll do it again, until, most likely, I work until I die, broke, just like my parents and grandparents.’ That was the shared subtext, the other information hiding in those simple lyrics.

As one essay in this book points out, the blues is no longer a popular music for most African-Americans. Even when I came to Chicago in 1970, when there were forty or fifty clubs in the black ghetto that regularly presented blues bands, younger blacks dismissed the blues as old-time, Southern music, and often used dismissive descriptions such as ‘Uncle Tom music’ or ‘slavery time music.’ Older blacks with roots in the South were often blues fans, but, even during the commercial heyday of the blues, from the 1920s through the early 1960s, many blacks preferred other forms of music, from jazz to gospel to vocal groups and even to white pop and country music. The blues was (and is) seen in the black community as blue collar music, music for the uneducated, the hard-drinking, the occasionally violent patrons of lower-class bars. The white parallel would be hillbilly music, the poor, moonshine-drinking, toothless, embarrassing cousin of commercial country music. Even though black people have defined the blues much more broadly than whites, and have included artists such as Dinah Washington, Louis Jordan, Sam Cooke, Johnnie Taylor, Otis Redding, and other black pop and soul singers under the mantle of the blues, blues was never the only popular music in the black community, and it has been decades since it was among the most popular. Meanwhile, audiences that know little of the culture that generated the blues have adopted and adapted the blues, morphing it into British blues and hard arena rock, and even injecting the structures of blues into punk rock.

Since the blues emerged from the Southern juke joints and Northern bars into the mainstream of American and world music, it has become more of a form of entertainment and less of a shared community folk music. When I sit in white blues clubs and primarily white festival audiences, rarely do I see fans stand up and holler, or wave their arms over their heads when the lyrics hit that familiar spot, the way the fans showed their appreciation in the black clubs. They may love the music but will generally wait until the end of the song to applaud or whistle their approval. The bluesmen and blueswomen present the music to the audience and the audience receives their presentation – the sharing of mutual experience isn’t there, even though the audience can still feel the tension and release. Does the blues work the same way on an audience of middle- and upper-class ‘blues cruisers’ as it did on an audience of black Southern sharecroppers or urban factory laborers? Of course not. But does that make its emotional impact less legitimate, or just different? Can audiences around the world, audiences that didn’t grow up in the blues culture, still feel the primal blues urge to survive the pain of real life by sharing it, and to glory in the joy of simply being alive, as the creators of the blues intended? I believe so.

With this book, we have a series of reflections, ruminations, and dissections of the blues as both a form of music and as a cultural force. Certainly these can give us some insight into the blues. But for a truer insight than any of these authors, myself included, can give, I urge you to dive into the very, very deep and endlessly invigorating well of blues music itself. Buy some blues recordings (I could suggest a good label if I weren’t so modest). Attend some live performances by blues artists, white or black, who have some sense of the tradition. Immerse yourself in this wonderful, invigorating, life-affirming music. It won’t hurt… or, if it does, it will be the kind of hurt that ‘hurts so good.’


Ralph Ellison, ‘Remembering Jimmy,’ Saturday Review XLI (July 12, 1950), p. 37.



An Introduction to Blues – Philosophy for Everyone

The blues is deep. Philosophy is deep. Combined, they are doubly deep. However, you may be wondering whether these seemingly different enterprises really have any strong connection to one another. Is philosophy bluesy? Is the blues philosophical? A glance at the dominant figures in the history of each clearly reveals strikingly different colors – black and white, respectively. Moreover, blues and philosophy seem to focus on very different topics. Blues lyrics talk about women, whiskey, suffering, death, and the devil. The feel of the music is loose, gritty, raunchy, and rolling. Philosophy lacks a musical tone or tempo and avoids all mention of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll unless absolutely necessary. The feel of philosophy is tight, logical, and prim and proper. So the connection between blues and philosophy is not as apparent as that between Muddy Waters and McKinley Morganfield, or, as an example that philosophers are fond of, between Clark Kent and Superman. Blues and philosophy are definitely not one and the same. Yet the essays in this book make the case that there is a lot of connective tissue. These connections have to do with a shared approach and response to the many profound and enduring questions of human nature, knowledge, and existence.

Let’s start our exploration of the relationship between the blues and philosophy by examining the blues. Blues songs typically have a strong back-beat and a characteristic pulsating rhythm. The blues typically involves a three-line AAB verse form. It often has characteristic ‘blue notes,’ which are slight drops of pitch on the third, seventh, and sometimes the fifth tone of the relevant scale. But this barely begins to plumb the depths of the blues. The people and their lives tell us more.

It’s hard to pin down our favorite list of blues legends. We love Sam Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bessie Smith, Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, Howlin’ Wolf, B. B. King, Albert King, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, and both artists that went by the name Sonny Boy Williamson. Not only did these figures produce fantastic music, but their lives are fascinating and provide a lens into what the blues is really all about.

If you like guitar, you definitely love Lightnin’ Hopkins. In addition to being one the most gifted musicians and performers, he recorded albums in seven decades (from the twenties to the eighties); spent time on a work camp for an unknown crime; wrote an amazing number of songs about whiskey and women; and has been cited as the key inspiration and idol of Eric Clapton, Jimmie Page, and Keith Richards. And in all of his music there is a wicked wink and a knowing smile underneath.

Son House was the classic fallen preacher of the blues and one of the founders of the Delta blues. In the words of Michael Bloomfield, ‘Son House is the blues.’ Son House gave up preaching for the blues and led a life of binge drinking that included fifteen years of hard labor for taking another man’s life, supposedly in self-defense. Son House is not considered a great guitarist, but his voice and the content of his lyrics are powerful and intensely fierce. Religion is a common theme in his music, giving us the great contradiction of the whiskey-filled hard life of a blues preacher.

Howlin’ Wolf is the great figure of the Chicago blues. He was a big, big man. It was said that the way he got the crowd worked up and his raw power on stage scared away all the white record company execs that had been interested in signing him and his band. At the same time, he was a savvy and caring business manager who paid his band when they were not gigging.

B. B. King is probably the hardest-working blues artist of all time. He has famously gigged for hundreds of days each year, well into his golden years. B. B. still plays far more shows than many younger musicians and does it all with the same twinkle in his eye, bravado, and mellow voice, along with the ever-present piercing wails emanating from his guitar, Lucille. Borrowing from greats such as T-Bone Walker, he introduced an amazing style of guitar solo based on string bending and heart-wrenching vibrato that has influenced virtually every modern electric blues guitarist.

Let’s now see how philosophical the blues is by looking at some ideas found in some of the legends of philosophy such as Plato and Descartes. Imagine a suffering, worried soul in difficult circumstances internally and externally striving to understand itself and find a better way. The blues and philosophy both have a lot to say about this soul, and thus a lot to say to each other. Blues souls and souls studied by philosophy come together in many ways. Lightnin’ Hopkins thoroughly embodies this image. You can feel the forlorn, suffering vibe in the slow, wandering riffs of ‘Down Baby,’ and the lyrics of ‘Gin Bottle Blues’ and ‘Thinkin’ and Worryin’’ beautifully express the spiritual turmoil caused by excesses of booze and women, respectively. But, in his famous ‘Mojo Hand,’ Lightnin’ is clearly on top of this trouble. It’s that mojo hand that you gotta find when you got the blues. Lightnin’ went to Louisiana to get his. And you just might find an expression of yours in his music.

Think about Plato. In Book IX of his masterpiece The Republic, written over 2300 years ago, Plato presents the striking image of the human soul composed of three elements engaged in a primordial, distinctively human struggle within itself – man’s inner struggle. According to Plato, the biggest part of the soul is a many-headed beast: appetite, urge, and craving. It is the impulsive, desiring part of the self that occupies this bottom part of one’s soul. The smallest part the soul is a man on the very top: the rational element (nous in Greek). This part is the executive, decision-making part of the self. In the middle is spirit (thumos in Greek). This is the part that involves feeling and emotion. Things get interesting when Plato says that reason and desire both aspire to control and take over the middle part. Our emotions will either be in service to our passions or to our reason. Thus is born a fundamental tension that lies at the heart of being human. Inside all of us there is this battle. We usually just call it ‘living.’ Lightnin’s great electric piece ‘Lonesome Dog’ is all about the dog in his back yard that howls every time his baby is gone. We don’t think that dog has four legs. Rather, the ‘dog’ is that bottom part of the soul Plato is talking about. The blues soul has an essential tension within. It’s that bent note inside of us.

This tension also gives rise in philosophy to accounts of how best to live given the inner struggle among the elements that make us up. This has to do with human flourishing and how one can be fully happy. Plato goes on to say that the well-ordered soul, the virtuous and happy soul, is the harmony that results when reason is large and in charge, controlling and directing the other parts of the self. For Plato, reason creates harmony in the soul and in society. But this is clearly not a blues harmony. Something has gone wrong in the blues. Things are not as they should be – not what a rational mind would propose. It might seem like a blues soul would be disordered one in Plato’s sense. Lightnin’s dog is getting fed. Conditions on the outside are far from fair. But there’s something beautiful in a way not fully described by the rational point of view here. This beauty is expressed by, and even understood through, the music. It’s not a Platonic harmony, it’s a blues harmony. It achieves a different sort of resonance between the parts of the soul, and there is something deep to the way the blues does this.

But this difference between Plato’s philosophical harmony and a blues harmony may not be huge. First, Plato knew that most people do not perfectly achieve or even approximate this ideally harmonious soul. Plato’s teacher, Socrates, went around urging an increasingly decadent Athenian society to examine themselves and their beliefs. He encouraged them to care about the condition of their soul more than about wealth and power. He was killed for this, a point we will return to. There were plenty of differently ordered souls in ancient Athens – and there are still plenty around today. That’s why they needed philosophy – and that’s why we still need it today.

Where we get more disagreement between blues and philosophy is in the therapy, or the solution, to the suffering of conflicted souls. As noted, Plato puts reason large and in charge. The blues, on the other hand, makes suffering into music. It looks it straight in the eye, makes it artistic and beautiful, and transcends it in the process. Though in different ways, philosophy and the blues provide us with a perspective from which to understand the struggling soul and the wisdom to become more. That’s a deep connection.

A second connection can be found in the work of moral philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham, who famously thought that what matters morally about any being is whether it can suffer. Blues offers musical and lyrical insight into suffering and misfortune. The music itself is a way of knowing that part of the world. If you could see suffering and worrying from the inside, it would sound like Lightnin’s classic, ‘Last Night.’ It’s a slow, dusty suffering. That song is authentically and deeply dark. Although the medium is different and gives us a unique way of knowing it, the blues is very much about what moral philosophy is about – suffering. So the blues wrestles with the same sort of deep issues plaguing humanity and human nature as philosophy.

Despite this general connection with suffering, we have to appreciate the very specific nature of blues suffering. It’s not just any troubled mind that has the blues. It’s 300 years of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, sharecropping, oppression, poverty, prison camps, and worry. It’s acoustic in the Mississippi Delta and Texas in the early twentieth century. And it’s electric in Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis just a few decades later. It’s black. The blues is very specific suffering. This raises the interesting question of whether blues experience can be authentically had or understood only by people that have a share of this very specific history. Can the general principles of philosophy really penetrate this unique, particular experience? Is the wisdom contained in the blues available to us all? This is one of the great questions raised when thinking about the blues, and it is a question many of our essays address.

One thing is for sure: the blues has been one of the most significant forces in popular culture in the United States, and, in great measure, the world. Whether or not we can all participate in this authentically (you’ll have to read the essays to determine that!), we are all touched by it. It is in us and the way we experience the world. Blues is thus a form of self-understanding for large swaths of humanity. It’s how we got here and the sorts of beings that we are. Blues, like philosophy, is a source of knowledge about very important aspects of human existence.

So far, we have considered what is philosophical about the blues. Let’s finish by considering what is bluesy about philosophy. Does the philosopher have a bluesy sensibility? Existentialists such as Kierkegaard and Camus worry about the absurdity of the human condition, grappling with despair and forlornness as the undercurrent of human experience. Descartes, and every philosopher since he wrote his Meditations On First Philosophy, has a worried mind because a certain evil demon might be out there trying to make him wrong in everything he believes, making the very project of philosophizing futile. The philosopher pursuing knowledge has to make his peace with this devil and realize that the world is not entirely hospitable. Despite the best efforts we can make to be fully rational, there is always failure lurking, and it’s not even our fault.

Socrates might have a bluesy sensibility. As mentioned, he was killed by his fellow Athenians for trying to get them to improve their disordered souls – such a fine aim with such an unjust and unfitting end. We might expect that in his last known conversation, as presented in Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates would have had the blues. But the friends that gathered around him on his last day were amazed to find him in such good spirits, right before his execution. In fine form, Socrates dispelled the commonly held view that there is any reason to fear death. In Socrates’ world, much has gone wrong; it looks like a world full of the blues. But Socrates rises above fear and worry through philosophizing. Lightnin’ doesn’t use modus ponens or modus tollens like philosophers are apt to do, but his music raises him above what is wrong in himself and the world. That’s why he has that smile! Our point is that philosophers like Socrates have a lot more in common with blues artists like Lightnin’ – and vice versa – than you might think.

At bottom the blues is positive, very positive. Not in the way that Disneyland is positive, but more like the way Nietzsche is positive. Despite the dark themes and hard experiences, the blues is empowering and smoothly triumphant. This is a subtle and very important feature of the music and it explains part of its enduring impact. It’s not just about overcoming, it is overcoming. It’s what makes the hard, disordered experience of the world understandable and bearable. But it doesn’t do it by denying that the world is that way. Rather it acknowledges and, in a sense, embraces such hardships. Something has gone wrong, and it’s beautiful and inspiring. The blues creates meaning for real, disharmonious lives in a world gone wrong in all kinds of ways. The universal appeal and cultural impact of the blues shows that it does this particularly well. Since philosophers worry about such issues and wrestle with these features of human existence, the blues and philosophy are, perhaps surprisingly, close kin.


In this part of the introduction we give a brief tour of what will unfold in this volume. In doing so, we will sketch some of the main issues and themes that will be addressed. There are four main parts, with a number of fascinating essays in each.

Part 1 – How Blue is Blue? The Metaphysics of the Blues

The essays in this first section examine the basic question of what the blues really is. To say that the question is basic is by no means to imply that the answer is simple or easy. A number of possible characterizations of the blues have been put forward – that a description of the musical form typically found in most blues music is easy enough to produce; that the blues occupies a nicely defined place in history, preceded by black minstrel music and leading to jazz; that you just know the blues when you hear it, or when you feel it in the music – but none of these easy solutions work.

Bob Dylan famously said that ‘the times they are a-changing.’ In ‘Talkin’ To Myself Again,’ Joel Rudinow shows us that the blues continue to change, which shows that the historical definition will not work; the blues is not just a blip in history. We also see how the great evolution of the blues will challenge our ability to pin down any complete set of features that defines the blues. This leads us to see the blues as a continuing process in the world. Rudinow is part of this process, as he has been a blues musician for years.

You might have heard of ‘throat singing.’ That’s what Ken Ueno does, in addition to being a professor in the Music Department at the University of California, Berkeley. In ‘Reclaiming the Aura,’ Ueno introduces the idea of the ‘aura’ of a piece of music, which goes beyond and may be only loosely connected to the notes. Every piece of music likely has both, and we see classical music as defined by the score – a more tangible, consistent basis via which different orchestras can determining how the same piece of music should be played. However, this is not how it works in the blues. In order to play the same blues song as someone else, you don’t have to be playing the same set of notes. You have to capture the aural aspect of the song. Ueno brings out this distinction with a great example from B. B. King.

In ‘Twelve-Bar Zombies,’ Wade Fox and Richard Greene provide examples of music that is undoubtedly blues but also clearly does not fit the canonical musical form we call the blues. In fact, they argue that there is no set of conditions that all and only blues satisfies. But to say that the blues cannot be defined in the exact way philosophers often aim to define concepts such as ‘truth,’ ‘goodness,’ and ‘beauty’ is not to say that it cannot be understood. Fox and Greene propose that all things that count as blues will bear some ‘family resemblance’ to other things that count as blues. Some set of overlapping features will be shared between them. This way of capturing both what is similar and what is different across the broad range of blues music is a very nice application of the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Jenkins shows a different kind of difficulty in defining the blues in ‘The Blues as Cultural Expression,’ when he introduces the distinction between musical form and cultural expression. Jenkins says that authentic blues is a form of cultural expression. Unlike musical form, cultural expression cannot be achieved by anyone with sufficient training and talent. You have to have the right kind of experience to produce that distinct cultural expression that is the blues. So-called ‘cultural outsiders’ cannot do it. One interesting implication, it would appear, is that white people cannot play the blues, at least not blues-as-cultural-form.

Part 2 – The Sky is Crying: Emotion, Upheaval, and the Blues

The blues is a way of feeling, a way of feeling life, the world, and yourself. As such, it reaches into some of the deepest and most important aspects of human existence. The blues isn’t a happy, shiny feeling. It’s clearly on the darker side of the color spectrum as far as feelings go. This raises the question of why we would want to listen to the blues and why it’s been so popular and influential. If it not only is about feeling low but also brings out those feelings in us when we listen to it, why would we want to play and listen to it? This is complicated. Maybe feeling bad in this sense isn’t all that bad after all. Maybe we all really want and even relish feeling blue in that sense. Conversely, we might think that no one wants such feelings. It might not seem that anyone would want to feel blue. Regardless of the side of this debate on which you stand, such feelings are obviously inevitable. The down feeling in the blues is thus about that down part of life that we cannot avoid. We might not want it, but, given that it’s here, we want to understand it and how to deal with it. How exactly does blues put us in touch with these down feelings and that down part of life?

In ‘The Artistic Transformation of Trauma, Loss, and Adversity in the Blues,’ Alan M. Steinberg, Robert S. Pynoos, and Robert Abramovitz propose the fascinating hypothesis that the structure and function of the blues mirrors the structure and function of psychotherapy. Specifically, they examine therapeutic forms of coping with trauma, loss, and adversity, and find analogous themes in the lyrics, notes, rhythm, and tonality of the blues. They argue that this aspect of the blues constitutes a major reason for its popularity and endurance. Given the inevitability of low-down feelings, the blues represents a universal therapeutic and artistic way of communicating and addressing those feelings. The blues is then a forum and setting for coming to terms with these aspects of harsh emotional life.

The down feelings of the blues might turn out to be a pleasurable experience of a sort – pleasurable in the sense that experiencing beauty is pleasurable. David C. Drake argues for the beauty of the blues in ‘Sadness as Beauty,’ saying that not just the musical talent exhibited but also the sadness itself is beautiful. Looking at theories of aesthetic beauty philosophers have developed, it turns out that the down feelings of the blues are beautiful. Not just any and all sadness is beautiful; it is the way blues does sadness that makes it beautiful. The unique achievement of the blues is making sadness beautiful.

In ‘Anguished Art,’ Ben and Owen Flanagan bring out other ways in which the down feelings are the upside of the blues through the concept of anguish. Tragedy, operatic disaster, and sad poetry are pleasing precisely because of the anguish they produce in us. These are expressions of an essential tension in humanity. To feel anguish is to be authentically human. To deny that feeling is less than authentic, and the pleasantness that might come from denial is temporary and shallow at best. The blues is part of this tradition, in a particularly modern way. It has always been important for human beings to feel negative emotions, and the blues carries on this timeless tradition.

In ‘Blues and Catharsis,’ Roopen Majithia shows us how the experience we have in the blues performs an important cleansing of the modern, urban soul. Life builds up pent-up feelings in us and these need release – only to build up and require release again. This is a healthy process of coping with the inevitable residue of human existence. Aristotle and the Greeks were aware of this. The process Aristotle calls ‘catharsis’ explains why the Ancient Greeks held yearly festivals in which they would watch gruesome and horrible tragedies (think of Oedipus). The value of experiencing these gruesome portrayals is the release of feelings – the art form becomes a catalyst for purgation and cleansing. Now, we might not get the same release from a Greek tragedy as its original audience did, and they might not obtain the same release from listening to a blues show as we do, but the art forms perform similar functions: cleaning house.

Part 3 – If it Weren’t for Bad Luck, I Wouldn’t Have No Luck at All: Blues and the Human Condition

The cause may not be ‘original sin,’ but human life inevitably brings with it disappointment, suffering, and betrayal. We wouldn’t consider a being that never felt these emotions one of us. These feelings are some of the basic principles of our frame, experienced in different ways by different people at different times. There are surely some upsides to the human condition, and the blues looks at some of these aspects too. But the blues is primarily focused on the darker parts of the human condition. It does the dirty work.

Disappointment, suffering, and betrayal are all part of the human condition. Some philosophers have argued that the way out of this predicament is to stoically control your emotions. In ‘Why Can’t We Be Satisfied?’ Brian Domino argues that the blues offers us a defiant response to Western philosophy’s characteristic stoicism.

In ‘Doubt and the Human Condition,’ Jesse R. Steinberg argues that a pervasive part of the human condition and a major theme in blues music is doubt. Descartes and other philosophers have provided arguments for a view called skepticism – the view that we don’t know very much at all about the world around us – that relies on this unfortunate part of the human condition. Steinberg argues that blues music surprisingly provides support for skepticism.

In ‘Blues and Emotional Trauma,’ Robert D. and Benjamin A. Stolorow find deep parallels between psychologically coping with trauma and connecting with blues music. Blues provides a therapeutic, visceral-linguistic conversation in which universally traumatizing aspects of human existence can be communally held and lived through.

When it comes to religion and the blues, one name reigns supreme – Son House. If you haven’t listened, the time is now. The music is powerful, very powerful. House is often considered the least musically talented of the great early bluesman but perhaps the purest, deepest, and definitely the most deeply connected to religion. Though he was a preacher, he was a fallen preacher. In ‘Suffering, Spirituality, and Sensuality,’ Joseph J. Lynch chronicles this fallen preacher’s relationship with the blues and religion to find an essential commonality between the two in the alleviation of sin, suffering, and oppression, despite the seeming contradiction between House’s piety and hard bluesman life. Lynch finds a similar Son House-like bluesmanship in Marx, the Buddha, and Kierkegaard.

In ‘Worrying the Line,’ Kimberly R. Connor explains how blues lament is imbued with religious elements and how much of the deep power of the blues comes from the divine power invoked. This divine power comes amidst some less-than-divine, imperfect, impure aspects of human existence. But this is precisely the root of the power. We are not gods or angels; we are mere mortals. But we also have the power of the divine, which is much more powerful when we mere mortals experience it. The blues as Connor describes it is essentially a vehicle of transcendence, and it is this transcendence that we are reacting to when we hear the blues.

Part 4 – The Blue Light was my Baby and the Red Light was my Mind: Race and Gender in the Blues

You can’t talk about the blues without talking about being black and about men and women. The original blues musicians were almost all black. Gender becomes relevant because of the amazing number of blues songs written and performed by men about women, and the trouble thereby caused. But there have been and are very significant female figures in the blues, even right at the beginning, and the social history of women may make them equally suited to singing the blues.

When considering women and the blues, the many, many blues songs written about women by men may initially spring to ming. Women are the second person in the blues. In ‘Lady Sings the Blues,’ Winsby argues that women have a more central place as the subject – the first person, not the second person – of the blues. She makes the case that a certain (partially non-black) population has the right kind of cultural experience and history to play the blues authentically, namely women. Women have a history and experience of social frustration, subjugation, and silencing that brings with it the emotional center of the blues aesthetic. The female voice is very much the voice of the blues, even though most of what you hear sounds like a male voice.

Regarding the color of the blues, Douglas and Nathaniel Langston, in ‘Even White Folks Get the Blues,’ contend that many a great bluesman has conceived of the blues in a way that leaves it open for non-black musicians to be authentic blues musicians. Whatever differences can be claimed between the world views of black sharecroppers and their descendants and people of white Northern European descent, they are not inseparable. The blues is, then, not the province of the cultural experience of African-Americans. In an important sense, blues is colorblind.

In ‘Distributive History,’ Neumann challenges the very idea that blues is ‘black music,’ and thus the oft-cited claim that rock and roll ripped off the blues. Rock and roll did indeed borrow much from contemporary black music, but it did so by tapping into what had long ago become virtually a shared heritage. If one listens to Clapton, Keith Richards, and Jimmie Page and then goes back and listens to bluesmen such as Lightnin’ Hopkins and Muddy Waters, one gets an ‘aha!’ feeling. These white rock legends, seemingly pioneers, were just modifying the blues. They made a lot more money, and this might lead to the idea that rock and roll ripped off the blues, which sounds like yet another injustice on top of the injustices that prompted the blues in the first place. But Neumann debunks this ‘rock ripped off the blues’ account.

In ‘Whose Blues?’ Ron Bombardi offers a philosophical portrait of blues music as a social narrative – a story of American life with familiar episodes of bondage, liberation, and denial and restitution. He argues that the story of blues music is beset by bad habits of thinking about differences between people – habits that stem from a mistaken confidence in the notion that a people’s music will tell the tale of their shared identity. Not only does this confidence ignore importantly stubborn facts about the makers of blues music, but it also conspires to perpetuate exactly the sort of material and emotional oppression from which blues songs have always sought deliverance.

We invite you to engage your mind and your soul as you read the philosophical investigations into the blues collected here. You can approach these essays musically, culturally, historically, racially, emotionally, or religiously. Along the way, you may develop your own philosophy of the blues, or perhaps a bluesy philosophy!