Blues Bus at Berfrois

Berfrois waves down the Toads’ Blues Bus.

Blues Bus to the Blues Fest; or, The Blues Concert as Lecture

“I am here, and there is nothing to say,” John Cage said, in his “Lecture on Nothing” (Silence, 1961). “If among you are those who wish to get somewhere, let them leave at any moment.” So we boarded Line 15, ancient music now turned summer, for the 2011 Portland Blues Festival. The bus in summer is different than the bus in winter. The bus in winter is a lecture on nothing; the summer bus is a lecture on something. Yet Cage also said, on the flip side “Lecture on Something,” “This is a talk about something and naturally also a talk about nothing.”

We went down to hear a lecture by Lucinda Williams, who sings in a laconic voice, lips tight but arms open, looking like some hair-tired but blessed mom who’s just thrown a gutter ball. Singing on an outdoor stage close by the river spotted with yachts, Lucinda appeared to be glancing at notes loose on a music stand, and during “Born to Be Loved,” a breeze up from the water blew the notes off the stand and onto the stage, reminding us of a paper we recently read on the Norm Friesen blog: The Lecture as a Transmedial Pedagogical Form: A Historical Analysis.

Friesen, whose publication set-list rivals a Dylan discography, and whose research funding rivals a branch of the military, argues that the lecture is “a remarkably adaptable and robust genre that combines textual record and ephemeral event.” Thus Friesen tries to save the lecture as a meaningful pedagogical tool: “The lecture, I argue, is most effectively understood as bridging oral communication with writing, rather than as being a purely spoken form that is superseded by textual, digital, or other media technologies….”

Lucinda first appeared to want to rescue the fallen notes, then turned to face the born to drum Buick 6 drummer Butch Norton in cowboy hat and Bermuda shorts and banged a clinched fist against a desperate hip, for, as Friesen explains, “…the ideal for the lecture is to create an illusion. Parts of the lecture may be memorized, but in a long-standing tradition, it is generally read aloud. And in reading aloud, what the lecturer strives to create is the illusion of spontaneity and extemporaneity.” I started to jot down some notes, Joe Mitchell style, and the woman next to me (we were standing at a beer garden table behind the seated crowd, with a panoramic view of the Hawthorne Bridge to the north, the river, the water turning from blue to silver as the evening spread, dappled with the playful yachts, and Lucinda’s serious stage to the south) asked me if I was working on a set-list.

When we were in school, pre-e-hysteria, pre-WeakPoint, there were two kinds of teachers, those who lectured and those who ran discussion classes. Discussion classes were often popular for their freewheeling possibilities, yet many students avoided them, for they often filled with students who themselves seemed to want to lecture. My favorite lecturer was Abe Ravitz. There was never a syllabus, just a list of books we’d be reading, a set-list. Dr. Ravitz walked purposefully into class, book in hand, and started talking. He had no notes, just the text, which he referred to, quoting frequently. We took notes. This was not an illusion. We wrote in-class essay exams, in blue books.

Larry Cuban, commenting on the Friesen paper, asks, “if lecturing is so bad for learning and seen as obsolete, how come it is still around?” Amiri Baraka explains in his groundbreaking lecture on the blues, Blues People (1963): “With rhythm & blues, blues as an autonomous music had retreated to the safety of isolation. But the good jazzmen never wanted to get rid of the blues. They knew instinctively how they wanted to use it, e.g., Ellington.” This is in the chapter titled “The Blues Continuum.” Just so, the best lecturers are part of a continuum, and don’t want to get rid of their roots, and know how they want to use them, and the worst lecturers are those who are self-satisfied, and who might lose their cool if they lose their notes. Yet there are always breaks in the texts, as we learned from the French scholars (Barthes, for example). Lucinda’s notes blowing off her stand was a break in her text, revealing that she is a blues lecturer, but not a self-satisfied one.