Despite my initial disbelief I found similarities in four major themes that run through these two genres: Heartache, Drunkenness, Disagreeable Lover and Aloneness.
The main theme of the blues is of course having the blues or heartache. Standard blues lyrics routinely talk about looking for a fix for this heartache. In fact just like the classic Persian poets, a blues performer considers having the blues a real privilege. There is a saying, that if you don’t have the blues, you aint got nothing.
Rumi of course routinely exclaimed proudly how the pain of love was exclusive to him. In fact in my Rumi translation of his poem “Go Back To Sleep,” he is shunning all those who aren’t fortunate enough to be suffering from this heartache. He is commanding them to go back to sleep, which means remain in darkness of ignorance and give up your desire for growth and evolution. Just like in the American blues, this heartache was also paramount for Rumi.
Love is best when mixed with anguish.
In our town,
we won't call you a Lover
if you escape the pain.
The similarities don’t end there. Also like many of Rumi’s poems a blues singer is often singing about being drunk, or is getting drunk, or just woke up with a hangover. Rumi’s famous quatrain from my book “Hush, Don’t Say Anything to God” explains this point clearly:
“I am so drunk
I have lost the way in
and the way out.
I have lost the earth, the moon, and the sky.
Don't put another cup of wine in my hand,
pour it in my mouth,
for I have lost the way to my mouth.”
The similarities continue. So far we have covered the core theme of heartache or the blues, and the concept of drunkenness in both genres. And here’s the next point of similarity: the disagreeable lover. In the famous Billie Holiday’s song “Fine and Mellow” she sings:
“My man don't love me
Treats me oh so mean
He’s the, lowest man
That I’ve ever seen
Love will make you drink and gamble
Make you stay out all night long”
And here’s one from Rumi
“Everyday my heart falls deeper in the pain of your sorrow.
Your cruel heart is weary of me already.
You have left me alone, yet your sorrow remains.
Truly your sorrow is more faithful than you are.”
Here, Rumi’s sorrow is of course heartache or having the blues.
Also similar to the line “love will make you drink and gamble,” complaining about the heartless lover ruining one’s good name, is routine in Rumi poetry.
And the last major similarities between these two disciplines is complains of always being alone. They are alone for various reasons: they are misunderstood by others, their lover is never around, or nobody desires them. And this issue of aloneness is rampant in both the Persian classical poetry and blues lyrics.
So these similarities over the years made me aware about a connection between Rumi and the blues, in fact I used to perform a song called Rumi Blues with blues music and rhythms, honoring the connection without actually fully understanding the reason.
THE AFRICAN AMERICAN CONNECTION
Then a few years ago I came across an article in San Francisco Chronicle* that confirmed my assumptions.
The article exposed the missing link for me: that blues is an African American experience. And African American of course denotes origin from Africa and this is where things get interesting. Although the article focuses more on religion and the musical connection to Africa, the point that interests me is the lyrics.
The Persian classical poets, specially Rumi, where immensely popular in the East. In fact Rumi has been a giant in Middle East ever since the 13th Century. And the Persian classical metaphors for heartache, drunkenness, disagreeable lover, and aloneness were well established all through the Mideast from the Mediterranean Sea to India, North, West and East Africa and the Moorish Spain.
The African slaves, who were familiar with the imagery and metaphors of the Persian classical poetry, brought these ideas with them to the US and gradually through generations as English became their native tongue learned to express them in the New World.
THE BLUES IS THE SOURCE OF TODAY’S POP MUSIC
The modern day pop music, using electric instruments with drum kit started with Rock and Roll, and Rock is heavily based on the blues. Hence this African American experience inspired by Rumi and other Persian classical poets became the source for today's popular music.
So next time you hear a young crooner tearing his or her heart out in a modern love song, you have Rumi to thank for.
*The San Francisco Chronicle article can be found here:
The Music of the Famous American Blues Singers Reaches Back Through the South to the Culture of West Africa.