It doesn’t make sense. You hate depression, but feeling sad can be okay – and everyone loves the blues.
That’s because depression isn’t about feeling sad. And the blues isn’t about depression.
Depression is about regressing into a child’s way of relating to the world. You become helpless, so you lose touch with your own anger, your ability to protest against conditions that make you angry. Instead, you accept defeat, and turn the blame, and the anger, in on yourself.
Sadness, on the other hand, is a recognition of impermanence. It is about accepting that life is a brief opportunity for joy.
It is far from certain that impending death intensifies the experience of living. If no one ever died, it seems like there would be less suffering and, if certain logistical details could be overcome, things might actually be more fun.
We’ll never know the answer to that conundrum. You may lodge a protest, but life remains short, and only rushes by faster the older you get.
On the other hand, the natural human response to that set-up is to grab what’s there and enjoy it. Sadness – the memory of impermanence – intensifies your hurry to drink deep of good times. In the process, every drop tastes sweeter.
The blues are songs written about sad subjects. The levee is gonna break. My woman done left me. That sort of thing.
One of the saddest songs ever written is a blues song – Son House’s “Death Letter Blues,” which begins like this:
I got a letter this mornin, how do you reckon it read?
It said, “Hurry, hurry, yeah, your love is dead.”
I could listen to “Death Letter Blues” forever. It always makes me feel like cryin’.
But I always feel a little better afterward, too.
Why is that?
Because ol’ Sonny is sharing his pain with me. And that feels good. Makes us both feel better, or it did, back when Sonny was still kickin’.
Patients spend a lot of time in my office crying. I once ran out of tissues – something a therapist should never do. It was one of those panicky episodes, like running out of maple syrup at an IHOP. People come to a therapist to cry. I know I always did.
You come to have a good cry because it makes you feel better. It feels good to open up and share the pain.
There’s another element to blues songs – the reason they’re not about depression.
The Blues fight back. This is music that came up from African-American communities in the Deep South. Those people knew oppression – heck, they knew human slavery. But their souls were never dominated, even when their bodies might have been.
That’s the true history of the blues, and African-American music, period. It’s subversive – it fights the power, stands up to the pain. It stands up proudly.
The blues make good times from bad times. They summon anger from fear and sadness, and in the process defeat depression.
The blues fight back by refusing to stay silent about the conditions the singer endures – poverty, loneliness and oppression.
Sometimes they fight back by refusing to lose their sense of humor. Check out Sonny Boy Williamson in “Fridgidaire Blues”:
No, but that’s alright mama, baby, I don’t like the way you do.
Well, but I been tryin’ two or three days, woman, you know, just to get rid of you.
There’s an obvious lesson here for beating depression.
Express your feelings someplace safe, and own your right to them. You gotta right to sing the blues.
Don’t lose your ability to laugh at yourself, either.
Now – just in case you thought you didn’t care for the blues… here’s something sweet and lovely to tear up your soul: