The blues are expressions of human experience that lay bare the feelings and emotions of life. Their lyrics offer lament and praise, damnation and thanksgiving in simple and honest language. The blues singer expresses the hopes and frustrations of life, and Bonnie Raitt gives voice to all these emotions in her new album Dig in Deep.
Most scholars agree that the blues began in the Mississippi Delta region during Reconstruction. Its characteristics include the twelve-bar blues form with an AAB rhyme scheme and the use of flattened-third and seventh notes—the blue notes. Grown out of work songs and field hollers of African-American communities, the blues express the realities of enslavement and institutional racism. Delta musician Blind Lemon Jefferson sang:
I stood on the corner, and I almost bust my head,
I stood on the corner, almost bust my head,
I couldn’t earn me enough money to buy me a loaf of bread.
Theologian James H. Cone writes in The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation (1972) that the blues speak about a particular people who suffered the indignities of enslavement and Jim Crow laws. The blues are an outlet to vent the frustrations of life. People who sing the blues often lament their current situation, express sorrow at the loss (or lack) of a job or lover, state their desire for revenge, and invoke imprecations against those who wronged them.
The blues are also an affirmation of a people who survive in the face of racism and its consequences. As such, the blues also celebrate life. Cone explains, “In a world where a people possess little that is their own, human relationships are placed at a high premium. The love between men and women becomes immediate and real.” That relationship is most often manifested as love and sex. Because many blues songs discuss sex—openly or with innuendo—some people reject the claim that the blues can invoke the sacred; however, the entirety of human existence is celebrated in the blues. W. C. Handy wrote that “modern blues music is the expression of the emotional life of a race” (“The Heart of the Blues,” The Etude, March 1940)—a life which includes both sorrow and sex. The blues speak the truth of human existence.
A child of a show-business family, Bonnie Raitt taught herself to play guitar by imitating her favorite blues albums. In the late 1960s, she was a student at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but she spent much of her time playing gigs in the local folk music and blues clubs. With her strong voice and already impressive skill as a slide guitarist, before long Raitt was opening for and learning her trade from legendary Southern bluesmen like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker (Paul Elie, “Bonnie Raitt and the Fugitive Emotions Evoked by Slide Guitar,” The New Yorker, April 9, 2016). Since her debut album in 1971, Raitt has recorded sixteen more albums and won ten Grammies. Her sound blends folk, country, and rock, but the blues and the slide guitar are shot through it all.
The blues are songs of pain and loss, and of that Raitt has had her share. She took a long break from recording and touring after losing her parents, her brother, and her best friend, who died within a few years of each other. The time of mourning eventually led to a creative boom, culminating in 2012 when she released her first album in seven years. As she explains in a February 23, 2016 interview with the New York Times, recording Slipstream—winner of the 2013 Grammy for Best Americana album—gave her the energy to continue writing and performing. In the follow-up, 2016’s Dig in Deep, Raitt both acknowledges the pain of loss and time and celebrates her life in its current state. The album mixes soulful ballads with energetic rocking grooves that explore a range of human emotion. Raitt wrote five of the songs on the album, telling the New York Times that the process of songwriting allows her to step back from herself and think about the different ways we can respond to feelings of loss and betrayal. Her songs allow listeners to express their own feelings through Raitt’s words and soulful singing.
The album is book-ended by two original songs. “Unintended Consequence of Love” opens with a classic rock beat and a Hammond organ riff. Its funky groove is a foil to the lyrics which mourn the changes in a long-term relationship. Raitt sings, “I guess time wore us down, expectations run aground / It’s an unintended consequence of love.” While the chords and lyrics are rock-based, Raitt invokes the blues in her melody brimming with the flattened thirds and sevens of the blues scale. These flattened notes create the ache in her voice as she grieves over a changed relationship. That grieving continues in the album’s concluding song, “The Ones We Couldn’t Be.” Raitt explains in a January 1, 2016 Billboard interview:
I don’t think I could have written that song without having gone through what I went through, losing so many family members. It’s been awhile. But in time, you take a look at the relationships that either had some edges in them, or were painful. And with time and wisdom, you start being aware of your part in what made things happen the way they did in a relationship. That’s what this song is about.
In contrast to the ballads that lament changes and loss, Raitt includes a couple of songs on the classic blues theme of sex. Her covers of INXS’s “Need You Tonight” and Los Lobos’s “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes” celebrate the joyful energy of physical relationships. Raitt turns “Need You Tonight,” a 1980s pop song, into a soulful blues tune with her flattened third notes and sexy slide guitar. “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes” loosely follows the twelve-bar blues chord changes and demonstrates the blues influence on classic rock. In both songs, Raitt cuts some exciting slide guitar solos. Her guitar playing mimics the aching slides in her voice (or vice versa) which at times adds tension or playfulness to her music. “Gypsy In Me” also features Raitt’s guitar playing as she sings about her wanderlust and desire to be on the road making music with her band. “When I’m in one place for too long / I don’t know why, but I’m / Like the wind and I just keep blowin’ free.” The up-tempo songs demonstrate the themes of perseverance and survival in the blues.
Bonnie Raitt calls on her listeners to “dig in deep and get out of this rut” by encouraging them to enjoy life. The blues-influenced songs on Dig in Deep express a wide spectrum of feelings. Raitt’s slightly gritty voice adds tension to songs of anger and lament. Her energetic slide guitar playing gives praise and thanksgiving in the joys of life. Raitt’s embrace of the blues offers both her and the listener a way to acknowledge pain and loss in order to celebrate love and life.
Jennifer Forness spent eight years as a public school music educator in New Jersey. She currently lives in Germany with her husband and two daughters.