Marie B. Trout, PhD – The Blues Why It Hurts So Good
The title of the book, The Blues, Why It Hurts So Good, promises the reader a perspective on the blues genre that breaks the chains of the mantra “Keeping the blues alive.” There is a subliminal suggestion in that oft quoted catch phrase that suggests blues is an anachronism whose very existence as a contemporary theme song for our lives is in jeopardy. Dr. Marie Trout trounces that suggestion and makes the slogan instantly passé. She not only makes good on proving the validity of her title, she also shatters more than one glass ceiling in the process and gives the fan base the promise of a bright future.
How does she do that?
First of all, she’s not your typical blues journalist, a middle-aged male obsessed with the blues as an adult outlet for adolescent excesses at the altar of pop rock. No, she’s a beautiful Danish blonde who earned her Ph.D. writing her doctoral dissertation in Wisdom Studies on the healing effects of the blues. That dissertation became this book.
The name of the book comes from an observation she makes in the book that “Ninety-four percent of fans (surveyed) agreed blues music helped them release emotion, and 92 percent stated they felt the healing effects of blues: what is commonly meant by ‘hurt so good.’ This term, hurt so good, could well be interpreted to mean that one can let go of unresolved distress (that is often felt as paradoxical and may be difficult to describe.) in a properly distanced ritual, while feeling connected to others.”
She does not base her conclusions that blues is emotionally, physically and medically good for you just on personal beliefs but rather on detailed questionnaires filled out by more than 1000 readers of several blues websites. She followed up those questionnaires with random interviews with respondents as well as in-depth interviews with industry veterans like Bruce Iglauer, founder of Alligator Records, and bluesman Joe Louis Walker.
Don’t think for a moment that Dr. Trout’s tome is informed solely by hollow echoes from the halls of academia. Yes, she draws conclusions from carefully documented research, but, more importantly, she processes her data through the eyes of a blues road warrior. For a quarter century she’s been in the blues trenches as manager to her husband, award winning blues rocker Walter Trout.
Add to that her experience as Walter Trout’s care giver through a harrowing two years where he came perilously close to dying before receiving a live transplant. The process of writing this book saved her sanity as she watched her husband nearly disappear in front of her. Her research uncovered the startling revelations that she and her husband are not alone in experiencing blues music as a sanity savior and life savior.
The 1000 people who filled out her questionnaire confirmed that she and Walter are not alone. This book documents the amazing healing qualities of this music, not just for the artists obsessed by it but by the fans who form a bond with the artists and their work. They also confirm that while rock music touches the same chords, blues cuts way deeper with the honesty that comes from a life if not well spent, certainly just plain spent.
For half a century I’ve been telling the stories of blues artists who’ve struggled financially to keep their art alive. Add to that challenge the destructive lifestyle of the veteran road warrior and you often come up with a picture of a genre that can be as much a problem as it is a solution. Dr. Trout’s fascinating book is the yin to that yang. Her husband’s horror story has turned into an adult fairy tale. Not only did he cheat death and recover from a liver transplant, but he wrote a whole CD about the experience, Battle Scars, that defines catharsis. And he totally supports his wife’s work on this book, and that’s not simply nepotism.
Dr. Trout addresses virtually all of the ghosts in blues’ closet:
That it’s African American music co-opted by whites. She explains that good blues adds fresh and contemporary references that only add to this American cultural legacy regardless of the color of the artists’ skin.
That African Americans have abandoned the blues because to them it looks backward into a painful past. Her interview with Joe Louis Walker on this is most insightful when he asserts that “when you live the blues, you do not choose to play it. You have no way out. The blues, then, becomes a way of life, not a musical expression.”
That white guilt accounts for some of its appeal to baby boomers. She prints comments from a majority of mostly white male respondents over the age of 40 that say the music stands on its own merits for this demographic.
That the U.S. as a country has a horrible record of mistreating minorities. Her litany of abuses from documented sources in this regard is startlingly conclusive and powerful coming from the perspective of a European unsullied by American jingoistic pride.
That blues is counter cultural. Respondents’ quotes illustrate that they appreciate a form that is honest and “tells it like it is.”
That blues encourages drug use. She shows that blues is a healthy alternative to drugs that induces a euphoric trance-like feeling.
That blues is all about plain and suffering. She documents the cathartic effect of blues on both the artists and the fans.
That blues is simple and simple-minded. While technically simple, she shows that blues probes the depths of feelings often buried or glossed over in other genres, that it brings to the surface emotions honestly, clearly and forthrightly.
That blues is a retro rearview mirror. She documents the belief of fans that the best blues reflects the past which offers a rich heritage of American music, is the soundtrack for the present and is a window on the future of American culture admired the world over.
It is refreshing to read a book about blues that lends scholarly validity to many of the positions blues journalists have been preaching at least since the ’60s. Some of Dr. Trout’s positions may be controversial, but her perspective is healthy both for the genre and for people who are hurting in so many ways and searching for a positive antidote.
It’s no secret to blues lovers that the music is a tonic, but few have considered the topic important enough to verify its palliative effects statistically. Dr. Trout has done just that dramatically. I’m especially heartened, too, that this thesis has been done by a woman and a native of Denmark unsullied by the prejudices many American male writers have about the definition of the genre.
The music has, is and will be defined by the fans who invest their hard-earned money in the work of the artists who provide cathartic heartfelt songs that pull on our heart strings and transport us into a Zen space with empathy for their messages. Dr. Trout’s husband Walter’s Battle Scars is amazing evidence of that, and the Blues Foundation’s Blues Healer Symposium will bring this all in sharp focus.
On Friday, February 3rd I will be hosting a panel consisting of Dr. Marie Trout, Walter Trout, 2017 BMA and Grammy nominee Kenny Neal, and registered nurse/blues performer Patti Parks as a marque event in the Blues Foundation’s 33rd annual International Blues Challenge. The panel commence at 2:15 p.m. at Alfred’s on Beale St.
All proceeds from The Blues Why It Hurts So Good are being donated to Hart Handy Awards Relief Trust.