Jack White: 21st Century Bluesman

Jack White’s music has varied between rock, folk, experimental and alternative, but the roots of it lie in blues. He has admitted that in 1999, after The White Stripes’ first album release, he made it his mission to modernise the blues and continue the blues legacy into a new century. Perhaps it is down to the way in which White incorporates several different genres of music into his sound that makes his version of the blues popular, or perhaps it is simply because he himself – exotic yet homely, gothic yet traditional – is strange and interesting enough to make people want to listen. Either way, he’s worth $30million; we must assume that he has sold plenty of records and that people across the world are enjoying his modern take on the blues.

A hundred years had passed since the beginning of [the blues], and it was an illusion in my head at that moment that on a very small level, there was a new blues emerging in the scene we were from. That was enough to compel me to keep going — but I had no illusions about the mainstream ever thinking it was interesting.

Jack White

The White Stripes’ earliest tracks were basic, loud and raw; simple drumbeats set down beneath heavy guitar riffs and chord patterns, accompanied by White’s yowling vocals. The very first album, self-titled and released in 1999, has seventeen tracks which range from melancholic to angry and everything in between; all feelings of the blues. Since those loud and heavily distorted early days, Jack White’s music has become far more refined, yet still retains the blues sound.

Being the musical shape-shifter that he is, he began playing a variety of instruments to add extra layers and textures to The White Stripes’ sound, including bass, keyboards and even a stylophone, amongst others. Meg’s drumming gradually became tighter and a little more complex, whilst maintaining the rough, childish edge that made her beats monotonous yet fun, much like a wind-up toy monkey bashing cymbals together. Meg’s drumming was, according to Jack, ‘the best part’ of the band. ‘It would never have worked with anybody else, because it would have been too complicated… It was my doorway to the blues.’

Jack has since passed through that doorway and continued his quest for the blues elsewhere with numerous alternative projects all seemingly happening simultaneously. He has written songs for film soundtracks, appeared in a documentary with Jimmy Page and U2’s The Edge, collaborated with Alicia Keys, Jay-Z and Loretta Lynn (not all at the same time, sadly) and even played Elvis in spoof film Walk Hard. His biggest side projects, however, are The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather, two ‘supergroups’ which White created through friends and by accident.

The Raconteurs formed in 2005 when Jack got together with fellow musician and friend Brendon Benson and happened to write a song; what would be The Raconteurs’ hit ‘Steady As She Goes’. They realised they worked well together; Benson, who has experienced limited success as a solo artist, no doubt jumped at the opportunity to collaborate with a high profile musician such as White. The Greenhornes members Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler were recruited on bass and drums respectively, and the Raconteurs were born. They have since released two studio albums – Broken Boy Soldiers and Consolers of The Lonely – and have toured extensively.

The Dead Weather formed out of The Raconteurs accidentally. White fell ill whilst touring with The Raconteurs and briefly lost his voice. Their support act was Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince, pop-rock duo The Kills, and White asked Mosshart if she could fill in on vocals on a few numbers. White was adequately impressed by Mosshart and invited her to record a few songs with himself and bassist Lawrence. Dean Fertita, who was touring with The Raconteurs as an extra keyboard player, was roped in too, and The Dead Weather was created. Exciting for White, but perhaps a little sad for Benson who was left on the shelf.

It goes without saying that each of White’s bands have distinctive and unique sounds due to the mixture of musicians, but there is an overriding style which White brings to each project which is difficult to describe. His vocals, obviously, are very recognisable, but even on tracks where he doesn’t sing there is always something that makes it a trademark Jack White track; a peculiar riff or off-key chord, a bizarre lyric that could only come from his mind, or an unusual choice of instrument.

White seems to have two main song-writing techniques; one in which the music is key and the lyrics, relatively simple and often repetitive, take a back seat. The lyrics are simply another layer of music rather than standing out alone and only add to the complexity of the music or a certain powerful riff or hook. The other technique places the lyrics centre stage because there is a story to tell; there are interesting metaphors and imagery, and the music is a tool to emphasise the setting and an atmosphere of the tale. It is the second technique which is most effective and most connected to the blues.

These two contrasting techniques are noticeable right from the start of White’s career on the White Stripes’ first album. Most of the songs are written using the first technique, where the loud, heavy music takes first place. On ‘Jimmy The Exploder’, the focus lies in the breaks in the music and the way in which the track alternates between fast and slow beats. The song starts slow, then gets fast and loud, then breaks, comes in fast again, breaks, slows down, breaks and speeds up again. All the while, nonsensical lyrics about monkeys and green apples are yelled by White. The effect is a rough and tumble song that allows the listener to dance, shout and enjoy themselves.

The alternation between fast and slow is not particularly a feature of the blues, but there is something in it that makes it so. In his essay ‘The Invention of the Blues’ (Kill All Your Darlings) Luc Sante says that the term ‘blues’ can be ‘applied to any minor-key lament’, but most traditional blues songs can be characterised by the ‘three-line verse, with its AAB rhyme scheme and its line length of five stressed syllables’. White’s ‘Jimmy The Exploder’ has these characteristics:

Yeah monkey, are you seeing red now?
Yeah monkey, jumping on the bed now?
Hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo

The first two lines are A since they rhyme, and the third line, although not strictly lyrics but instead screamed ‘hoos’, mimicking the monkey’s cry, is completely different and therefore B. The first two lines have the five stressed syllables; the third doesn’t, but it could have done if White hadn’t got carried away with his ape impersonation.

In this case White successfully uses an almost textbook traditional blues technique, but so many more of White’s songs do not follow the AAB rhyme scheme, and are not necessarily ‘minor key laments’. Yet they are still blues because they have the themes and emotions of the blues.

According to Sante the term ‘blues’ can ‘encompass anguish as well as defiance, humor, lust, cruelty, heartbreak, awe, sarcasm, fury, regret, bemusement, mischief, delirium, and even triumph.’ There is no doubt that White uses some if not all of these emotions within his music even if he does not use traditional blues techniques. ‘The Big Three Killed My Baby’, also from the White Stripes’ first album, is a good example.

‘The Big Three…’ is a somewhat political track which refers to the anger and resentment felt towards the Big Three American car manufacturers – Ford, Chrysler and General Motors – all based in Detroit. During the 1970s the demand for American automobiles began to decline for a number of complex reasons, including the 1973 oil crisis and the increase of imported foreign cars which were more fuel efficient. With less demand the Big Three had to cut wages and lay off workers which caused tension between the labour unions and the manufacturers. All of this is included in the song as White’s shouts angrily:

Don’t let ‘em tell you the future’s electric, cuz gasoline ain’t measured in metric
Thirty-thousand wheels a-spinnin’, and oil company faces are grinning
And now my hands are turnin’ red, and I found out my baby is dead.

This song features fury, sarcasm and heartbreak, all three emotions mentioned by Sante as being the epitome of the blues. White was born in Detroit; he understands how the Big Three have caused hardship and strife for its workers and knows how much the Big Three influence and shape the city itself. His anger comes from his own experiences as a Detroit resident; the themes and emotions of his blues come from his own life.

However in so many of White’s other songs he demonstrates such emotions through situations that he does not personally know. For example ‘Hardest Button to Button’ on Elephant tells a story about a broken home from the point of view of what seems to be an angry teenager.

Now we’re a family and we’re alright now
We got money and a little place to fight now
We don’t know you, and we don’t owe you
But if you see us around I got something else to show you

The character of the troubled teenager is directing the lyrics at his father, angry that he walked out but telling him they can survive perfectly well without him. Once again the “blues emotions” are there, in this case fury, defiance and, to an extent, triumph. Judging by the way White spits out the lyrics with disgust a listener may think that White is singing from his personal perspective about his own childhood, but this isn’t the case; White grew up as part of a large, stable family with both father and mother who were highly religious and very respectable. Here White is not writing from his own experience but instead takes on the persona of another to create a new experience. Can a song that is clearly not about a musician’s person strife still be effective and classed as the blues?

Blues great Big Bill Broonzy believes that a blues musician can and should only sing what they know:

When I sing about my mule bein’ sick and those crops getting’ rotten, [young people] don’t know what I’m singin’ about. They never had no mule get sick. Don’t mean nothin’ to them […] But I gotta sing. That’s what I know.

White seems to defy this thinking by singing about something he doesn’t know in ‘Hardest Button to Button’. In fact, it could be said that White doesn’t have the right to sing the blues at all since he doesn’t truly know the blues, what with his supportive, stable family life and good upbring. The old, traditional blues artists created their music ‘in the darkness of poverty and segregation and illiteracy’, incorporating the field hollars, chants and other features of African-American folk music of the 19th century that they would sing whilst working. The blues was an outpouring of pain and suffering and a plea for change. White’s life can compare in no way to the hardship of the original bluesmen: ‘It take a man that have the blues to sing the blues’ once stated blues legend Lead Belly. So not only is it questionable if White can sing about the strife of others, but whether he can sing about any strife at all since he hasn’t truly experienced the blues.

In his book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, Greil Marcus describes the way in which Randy Newman took huge risks by taking on the personae of others in his songs:

[Newman] always writes, and what is harder, sings, in the voices of his characters […] no matter what grotesquerie is involved, he does not sing about, he sings as. He feels this is dangerous, which it is […] Audiences are no longer used to the idea that someone might make something up, create a persona and effectively act it out.

White may also face this risk. A musician who so clearly fabricates characters, stories and themes in his songs rather than writing of his own experiences may not be able to build any level of trust with his audience, since the audience are aware that all the musician writes is fictional. If it is clear that the emotions within a song aren’t those of the musician himself but are instead of a character that the musician has created, the emotions may not be believable. If the emotions in a song aren’t believable, particularly if the song is supposed to be the blues, the musician has failed in creating a relatable and emotive song.

However White manages to avoid this because whilst he plays characters in certain songs, in others he is a narrator describing his characters. This is important because it allows the listener to see White as a chameleon, changing persona from one song to the next as a means of weaving tales rather than expressing his own personal feelings and circumstances. One example of this is the Raconteurs’ track, ‘Carolina Drama’. The song opens with the following:

I’m not sure if there’s a point to this story but I’m going to tell it again
So many other people try to tell the tale, not one of them knows the end

This introduction sets the song up as a longstanding folk tale that has been passed down through generations and instantly depicts White as the narrator, which distances him from any character within the story. He still manages to incorporate Sante’s feelings of the blues – anguish, fury and triumph – as the story unfolds, but these emotions come from the narrator as a character himself rather than one of the people he describes. As the song goes on White’s vocals become louder and increasingly strained and the imagery in the lyrics becomes more vivid as the story escalates:

Billy took dead aim at his face and
Smashed the bottle on the man who left his dad in disgrace and
The white milk dripped down with the blood, and the
Boyfriend fell down for good
Right next to the preacher who was gaspin’ for air
And Billy shouted “Daddy, why’d you have to come back here?”

The narrator becomes just as irate as the characters in the story until the tale finally ends and White is accompanied by his band in a loud and hearty chorus of ‘Lalalala’s, as if relishing the drama of other people. As Sante says – ‘If the blues is a form of music based on human suffering, then enjoyment of the blues is tantamount to enjoyment of suffering.’

White certainly seems to be enjoying the suffering of his characters. In this case he demonstrates his own emotions – how he feels about the drama – whilst still telling an interesting story of other people. Therefore he can successfully and convincingly spin tales of other people in his songs whilst maintaining the themes of the blues.
There is a sense of myth and legend surround ‘Carolina Drama’; White has written it in such a way that makes one think it is a tale passed on from one person to the next and with each new telling something different happens:

Well now you heard another side to the story but you wanna know how it ends?
If you must know the truth about the tale, go and ask the milkman.

It could be likened to the myth of Staggerlee, the story of a man who killed another for his Stetson hat. There have been numerous versions of the Staggerlee tale told by endless musicians because it is, as Greil Marcus states, ‘a story that black America has never tired of hearing and never stopped living out’. Of course White’s ‘Carolina Drama’ has not been covered and re-covered and adapted and changed by another prominent musician, but a quick search on YouTube will demonstrate that there are plenty of unknown guitar-wielding folks making their own versions of the song. Whether these versions are good or bad is beside the point; other musicians are playing White’s song and this is in the nature of the itinerant blues musicians of the past.

During the early 1900s blues ‘songs were carried from place to place by numerous hands, and accordingly altered, extended, abridged, and transposed’ as Sante describes in his discussion of the history of the blues. In the early blues years nothing was recorded, songs were passed along from musician to musician and adapted along the way. White continues with this tradition. He recorded a fast paced and wailing version of traditional blues song ‘St. James Infirmary’ and also Son House’s ‘Death Letter Blues’ in typical loud and distorted White Stripes fashion. Pop classics ‘I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself’ (written by Burt Bacharach and made famous by Dusty Springfield) and ‘Conquest’ (Patti Page) were also covered by the White Stripes, and once again White’s vocals and roaring guitars made both songs loud, fun and dramatic. With the Dead Weather, White recorded a version of Bob Dylan’s ‘New Pony’, and Alison Mosshart’s vocals made the song a livelier and more emotive lament than Dylan’s original.

White breathes fresh air into all the songs he covers, making them louder, faster and more frantic than the originals. It is as though he is trying to increase the emotions within the songs and convince the listener that he has a right to sing them. The best example is Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’ where White wails the lyrics with such emotion that his voice begins to break and he sounds as though he’s in physical pain. Whilst Dolly Parton’s original version, with light quivering vocals and twinkling acoustic guitar, is haunting and poignant enough, White’s version is so much more desperate and makes the emotions within the song truly emerge.

Just as White adapts the songs of others, he has had his own songs adapted by other musicians. Amongst others, The White Stripes’ ‘Fell in Love with a Girl’ was released by soul singer Joss Stone, ‘My Doorbell’ was given a reggae makeover by Bigga Haitian, and the Dead Weather’s ‘Cut Like a Buffalo’ has been remixed by dubstep producer Skream. White is clearly an accomplished song-writer if other musicians want to take his songs and adapt them into alternative genres, and even in completely different styles these songs still contain the emotion of the blues that White wrote into them. In this respect White is ensuring that the blues not only remains a genre in itself but that it influences or is part of other genres. He is modernising the blues.

Jack White is not the only musician currently doing his bit to keep the blues alive in the 21st century. The Black Keys have been singing the blues since they formed in 2001, and their music has gradually evolved from a traditional yet heavy blues vibe to a fresh mixture of pop, soul, blues and rock; something relevant and popular with a young audience whilst maintaining the blues background. Guitarist Joe Bonamassa strives to keep the blues alive with his classically trained guitar skills, but he does little to add much fresh and relevant to a modern audience which keeps his fan base small. Even if they don’t strictly play the blues there are plenty of musicians who inadvertently create the emotions of the blues that Sante speaks of in his essay. Pop-rock band Elbow write lyrics that can encompass humour, heartbreak, lust and triumph all at the same time. Rowdy American rock group Cage the Elephant write songs of defiance, fury and mischief as they release their anger and frustration on the world. In fact there are plenty of musicians who, although they may not know it, are currently using the emotions of the blues within their song-writing.

However, White is in a league of his own because he actively accepts the challenge of keeping an important music genre alive. He knows about the technical aspects of the blues and incorporates them into his heavy rock sound, but also understands the themes and emotions of the blues which are also crucial. He can pour out his problems, thoughts and feelings into a song and then tell the stories of others in an equally convincing manner. He can adapt and modernise blues classics and in the next breath write his own songs that have the potential to become classics. White once made this statement when describing his music-making process:

I don’t want to be satisfied in any way when it comes to music. It may be very hard for me to enjoy things, but I’d rather live in that zone.

This may provide an insight into why he’s such a great modern bluesman; he’s pessimistic, never quite satisfied, but more than anything else, working hard and making people sit up and listen.

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