Small Town Graded Down Blues

Miss Anne, an Uptown lady, told us how it used to be.

My little town had the blues last week.  The rest of the world has the blues too, something or other about debts and deficits, but we in the old port town celebrated having the blues with a festival.  Musicians from everywhere played in clubs, stages and parks.  I heard rags, hollers, call-and-response, country and city blues, solos and groups.  It was a perfect antidote for all the terrible news in the world o’ finance.  Ol’ Stock Market caint git me down!

Everyone gets the blues.  No life is free from troubles.  If you learn to sing or play them, they won’t hold you down.  Sharing your blues openly, using the right forms, will free you from them. That’s the gubmint’s problem.  When those guys get the blues, they don’t follow the tried and true ways of expressing them.

There’s transformative power in the blues.  If you do it honestly, singing, playing, even listening to the blues gets you back in touch with the cosmic cycle.  Blues is about the wheel, the Great Wheel where all things turn and return.  You will try something you aren’t ready for.  You will make an unwise choice.  Someone else will do you wrong, or you’ll do wrong to them.  All winners sometimes lose, and when you lose, you’ll know the blues.

My little town knows all about the blues.  Port Townsend started with 1,500 or so Native Americans, 3 White families and 15 bachelors in 1851, a couple years before Washington was made a territory.  In the first 20 years the tribes were decimated by epidemics of smallpox, had their tenements burned down, and got massacred at Kala Point.  They got the blues big time.

 T’chiis-a-ma-hum (Chetzemoka), chief of the S’Klallam

The town was in a boom because the government established it as a Customs point, due to it being a deep-water port.  Port Townsend also was the place where crews for the ships could be gotten.  Ever heard of crimping?  It’s another word for shanghaied.  If a ship had a known bad captain, or the voyage would be long and dangerous, they would pay crimps to “talk” men into signing on.  If the men weren’t easily persuaded, the crimps would get them drunk or drug them, knock them out, and they would wake up below decks.  Talk about the blues…

By 1891, 40 years after the town began, the biggest boom in local history was in full swing.  The population was 7,000, fueled by hopes of the railroad coming.  There were two-dozen hotels and about the same number of brothels.  Downtown and Uptown commercial buildings morphed from wood into brick.  Then the panic of 1893 came, the largest national depression until that Great one came in 1929.  The whole town got the blues.  Businesses failed, there were lots of suicides, and 5,000 packed up and left.  Victorian-style buildings and homes lay abandoned all over town.  They fell into decay, left unfinished for 80 years.

My town has been slowly coming back since the 1970s.  The lovely old buildings drew a subculture of self-sufficient hippies who restored them, and stayed to become a core contingent of the town today.  This town once lost two-thirds of its residents, and most of its businesses, and it refused to die.  There’s a resilient spirit here.  When I get the blues, I keep that in mind.

The view of Downtown from the Rothschild House


Filed under Music, photos, symbolism

29 responses to “Small Town Graded Down Blues

  1. jgavinallan

    Full of interest to me….some much new things…wow…another world and time

  2. This is special because not all towns have that “this is tempory, we can rise above this” mentality.
    All around the world there are towns that just gave up and died because it easier to just walk away than it is to start over somewhere with no pain , stain or inconvienience or conscience of the history that went before.
    What people don’t realise is that the pain of that history goes with you, and those who stay behind are more likely to “deal with it” and be much stronger for it.

    I see singing the Blues as a way for those to stand up to Life’s obsticales, to acknowledge that , not only are there troubles around them, but there is great pain in passing through these troubles.

    In the War of Life there are some battles you win and some you loose, for me the Blues are often the voicing of battles lost, the burial service of that event as it were. Then the funeral ends and the battle is once again resumed.
    For me the Blues doesn’t represent giving up, it represents picking yourself up after a bad day and getting back to the hard work of making things work better the next.
    Gubmints (what a stange and beautiful word) don’t have a clue, THEY think the Blues is about wallowing in the losses and trying to afix blame to someone else for why they happened.

    (p.s. LOVE the historical photos !)

    • Thanks, Kiwi. I completely agree with your assessment of what they are, and how to use the blues. How one responds to loss and obstacles is a better predictor of character than how one deals with success. I felt the spirit of the town before I knew its history. Now that I’m learning more, it has confirmed my hunches. The whole West coast evolved from the actions of progressive, restless people. This is the youngest part of the country historically. Those more risk-averse stayed behind in the older, more established places.

  3. Deborah the Closet Monster

    Everyone gets the blues. No life is free from troubles. If you learn to sing or play them, they won’t hold you down. Sharing your blues openly, using the right forms, will free you from them.

    So beautifully put! I don’t usually follow “the” blues, but this was so worth the look through someone else’s eyes.

    • I’m glad I was able to hint at the blues’ universality with some success, Deborah. Anyone with familial connections to any group of oppressed peoples has a inherited, gut knowledge of the blues. The Ashkenazi melodic setting of the Kol Nidrei – most definitely blues.

  4. Margie

    Port Townsend is on our list of great little places to visit. It offers a lot for visitors to discover, yet retains a distinct feel of not bowing down to the tackiness of tourism.

    • I agree with you about that feeling of the place, though of course there are some touristy-tacky boutiques on Water Street. Ironically, they are where the main row of fancy houses used to be in the 1870s. Thanks, Margie.

  5. There sure are some global blues these days. Music can be a healing balm, for individuals, if not for nations.

  6. What I adore about the blues is the fact that most of the best practitioners never had formal instrument or voice tuition. It’s a slow, beating rhythm that goes with the heart and the sweat, the music of silent tears and quiet hope.

    Somewhere in the blues there is always that glimmer of sunshine. Glad it made its way to your town for you all to enjoy!

    • That’s a really good point, Patti. I hadn’t thought about how many famous blues writer-performers were self-taught. Still, the blues also had a big influence on some well-trained composers like Duke Ellington and George Gershwin. It’s a ubiquitous genre.

  7. Great history info! As for the blues, I grew up in Memphis, home of Beale Street. Beale Street was a run down string of pawn shops and bail bondsmen when I was growing up. Then some smart developers renovated it and managed to find some of the original blues musicians, who had been long forgotten. They were able to enjoy a second period of fame in their lives. Nice post.

  8. Glad you enjoyed it, Galen! For other readers I’ll explain that Beale Street was an important place for blues in the early days. From 1909-1917 W.C. Handy, the well-educated composer who gave blues a much higher profile by writing, arranging and publishing them – worked and played there. He wrote “St Louis Blues”, which I linked to above, on Beale Street in 1914. There’s a statue of him in Handy Park.

  9. Great post. You’ve always got so many interesting things to say about music and seamlessly find ways to relate them to other themes. These are probably my favorites posts.

  10. There’s not been much focus on the Great Wheel as of late, it’s nice to see it come ’round again, especially in such a soulful, inspiring way.

  11. Another absolutely fantastic entry! I havent been able to Blog or check out my fav Blogs for a while. But I’m BACK- wohoo! And I really enjoyed reading this. Theres tenacity in your town and in your spirit, I admire it. Thanks for the GREAT Blues utube links!

  12. Wow, your town really is gorgeous, doesn’t look blue at all. sorry I haven’t been arround, will do better!

  13. One of your best posts! Inspiring me to go and listen to some blues which is a real cultural blind spot for me.

  14. The only thing that would make this better would be for me to have working speakers. The music playing in the background while I’m looking at these old photos and reading would be very Ken Burns. I’ll have to come back when I get the speaker problem remedied.

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