This is the latest installment in our weekly series, The Language of the Blues, in which author and rocker Debra Devi explores the meaning of a word or phrase from a blues song. Come back every week for the latest! Devi’s award-winning book, The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to ZuZu, includes a foreword by Dr. John and is blurbed by Bonnie Raitt and Joe Bonamassa. Get your signed copy at Bluescentric.com!
In Yoruba culture, the ability to connect with one’s inner divinity manifests as coolness (itutu). In the blues, we express that concept when we say a performer “has got soul.”
Interestingly, the color most often used to symbolize this quality in African art is blue. Blue, the color of the sea and sky, is associated with depth and stability, wisdom, confidence, and intelligence. Buddhists meditate on blue to transform anger into mirror-like wisdom.
A Yoruba elder told Robert Farris Thompson in Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy: “Beauty is a part of coolness but beauty does not have the force that character has. Beauty comes to an end. Character is forever.” Thompson adds, “So heavily charged is this concept with ideas of beauty and correctness that a fine carnelian bead or a passage of exciting drumming may be praised as ‘cool.'”
Ultimately, such character becomes the mystic coolness of the Yoruba goddess Yemoja, who reigns over the oceans; and of the Buddha, Jesus, and all the saints and sages who have bridged the gap between their small human selves and their potential for divinity. “This is ashe [divine nature],” the elder explained, “This is character.”
In traditional Yoruba morality, generosity is a mark of coolness and the highest quality a person can exhibit. The act of giving embodies character and composure. The gods on home altars are “cooled” by libation, and other gifts. This reverence for generosity is also strong among the Bakongo people, who live along the Atlantic coast of Africa. The Bakongo proverb kiyaala-mooko kufwa ko means, “He who holds out his hands does not die.”
William Ferris experienced this commitment to generosity among African Americans living on the Mississippi Delta during his travels there in the late 1960s. As one musician told him, “Next time you come, come on to my house and walk right in. If I eat a piece of bread, you eat too.” Ferris wrote in his classic book Blues from the Delta that “black families constantly extended their hospitality by offering to feed and house me as long as I was in their neighborhood.” Considering how African Americans were treated in Mississippi in the 1960s, it’s astonishing that this ethic survived to be extended to a white scholar wandering the Delta.
Jimmie Vaughan experienced it, too. In his interview for The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to Zuzu, Vaughan told me: “When I was fourteen or fifteen I used to go to a black club called the Empire Ballroom in Dallas in 1965 and ’66. The manager would let me stand by the back door and kinda look after me. I knew I was a white guy and they were black people but I wasn’t aware of the issues. I was just digging it.”
A cool person is also silent unless he or she has something important to say. “His mouth is cool” (enu è tútù) is one way a Yoruba person would say, “He fell silent.”
Ethnomusicologist John Miller Chernoff reported in his book African Rhythm and African Sensibility that his West African drum teacher said of young, inexperienced drummers, “They are not careful when they are playing. They don’t cool their bodies and take their time.” They are playing “yoliyoli, which means ‘nothing, nothing.'” The teacher added that if a student overplays to an obnoxious degree, “we just hold his hand and collect his stick so that he won’t play again.” Many flashy young blues musicians have experienced similar admonishments from elder bandleaders!
In the blues, older artists teach the younger generation what cool means by example. Guitarist Robben Ford’s blues playing is technically dazzling, yet Ford credits his ability to maintain a soulful quality despite his speed and dexterity to his youthful apprenticeship with blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon.
“Jimmy Witherspoon was the epitome of cool,” Ford told me. “He always had this sly smile going on, like he had a secret that you wish you knew. You could feel some kind of vibration in the room, and you would go with his energy and his mood and pretty soon, man, the atmosphere would get thick. Which is a mutually created thing with the audience. Those guys understood what it meant to relate to an audience. They didn’t have that element of, ‘I’m a musician, I’m gonna do my thing, you can like it or not.’ That’s a very important element in blues. That communication. The artist isn’t on the bandstand just for himself.”
Keeping one’s cool and silence also became tools slaves and their descendants used both to avoid trouble with whites and to subtly resist their domination. As LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) noted in Blues People, cool took on an edge on plantations and later in the ghetto: “The term cool…meant a specific reaction to the world, a specific relationship to one’s environment. It defined an attitude that actually existed. To be cool was, in its most accessible meaning, to be calm, even unimpressed, by what horror the world might daily propose.”
“After Five Long Years”- Willie Dixon
“All I Want Is A Spoonful”—”Papa” Charlie Jackson
“Cool Disposition”- “Sonny Boy” Williamson II (Aleck “Rice” Miller)
Sonny Boy Williamson II – “Cool Disposition”