This week, I’ve been listening a lot to a song called ‘Diving Duck Blues’.
There’s a really mellow version with Keb’ Mo’ and Taj Mahal that’s taken my fancy. With Taj on the acoustic guitar and Keb on the steel slide, it has a really wholesome tone.
Like so many blues songs, its roots go way back. This one stems back to 1929, and was first recorded by Sleepy John Estes. Listening to the original grainy recording, complete with a sketchy mandolin and piano, I’m transported to a very different world.
Think about 1929 for a moment. Segregation existed everywhere, the world was about to plunge into the Great Depression and Germany was only a few years from dictatorship. Sadly I could go on.
It’s easy to glorify the past and to be nostalgic about days long gone but sometimes it’s really worthwhile asking, would you trade the present for the past?
When I think about it, I’m incredibly glad I was born in 1990 and not 1890. The thought of surviving through two World Wars (and potentially having to fight in the First) is bone chilling.
Across the world, there are a lot of people who are really scared and uncertain about what lies ahead and maybe even long for the past. Understandably so. This is the first time that my generation in the developed world has really been confronted by a reality of mass unemployment and an invisible killer. For older generations, it brings back terrible memories and stories of bleaker times.
It’s impossible to know the long-term impact that the coronavirus will have on the world. One thing that is certain, no country will be spared. While some nations are already suffering far worse than others, the economic, social and psychological impact of this pandemic will shape everyone’s lives.
So, in returning back to ‘Diving Duck Blues’, it’s possible to find an unlikely but much needed nugget of positivity. Listening to Sleepy John Estes’ original version, the bleakness of the lyrics is striking but not surprising for the times and Estes’ circumstances. The song is all about the desolation of being in love with a married woman, and all the torment that goes with that.
I can’t say that I really connect with most of the lyrics. But I’m glad that’s the case.
Amidst the melancholy there’s one real hopeful verse, which takes its cue from the famous ‘Trouble in Mind’:
…Now, the sun gonna shine
In my back do’ someday
Now, the wind gonna rise
Gonna blow my blues away
It’s a stark contrast to the image of the diving duck drowning in a river whisky (‘I’d dive under water/never would come up’) and it’s still the line that resonates most today, especially during these troubling times.
Fast forwarding to the Keb’Mo and Taj Mahal version, their verses paint a much more shaded picture. They riff a lot on that hopeful line, which I really like. Their lyrics funnel love, frustration, nostalgia and warmth. There’s almost some wry humour attached to the duck never coming up. From the vantage point of time, music has the ability to be reinterpreted and recast wonderfully. And that’s something to be positive about.
Just take Sleepy John , I doubt he would have ever imagined this interpretation of his music as he scraped by in the Tennessee of the 1930s. Let alone that such a philosophical version would be recorded by two world class black musicians who have done incredibly well for themselves.
With time comes the ability to learn lessons and reflect, even if the journey is a painful one.
Looking back 100 years, it’s incredibly comforting thinking about how the world has changed for the better. For all the good, bad and ugly attached to the here and now – I’ll take it over false nostalgia any day.
(Diving Duck Blues – Keb’Mo’ and Taj Mahal)
(Diving Duck Blues – Sleepy John Estes)