The blues are blue, the colour of deoxygenated blood in the veins; the blues are red hot; the blues are grey, the colour of smokestacks. The blues are not pink prosecco, though I was humming twelve bar blues melodies this week as I poured out glass after glass for gussied-up graduates, as un-bluesy work as can be, though at least it let me rhyme ‘bubbles’ with ‘troubles’. For blues songs are work songs, their twelve bars cycling through the workday like a hand going round and round a clock.
Why ‘the blues’? The name probably came from a 17th-century English expression, “the blue devils”, referring to intense visual hallucinations set on by alcohol withdrawal. ‘Blue’ became slang for ‘drunk’; ‘the blues’ for ‘agitation’ or ‘depression’. In some U.S. States there are still ‘blue laws’ prohibiting the sale of alcohol on Sunday. To be blue, then, is to be drunk and sad. If the blues is workday music, then it’s also music for the end of the day, guzzling down pints in the bar after. In Southern juke joints, couples grind their hips together, a dance known as both ‘the slow drag’ and ‘the blues’. A ‘bluesman’ accompanies them on the guitar. This is how the blues was born.
But going back before that: why ‘blue’ to begin with? Why always this blueness, leaking over everything? Why blue devils, blue funks, blue coats, blue notes, blue states, blue gowns, blue streaks, blue moons, blue blood? Why out of the blue and into the blue and bolt from the blue? Why blue screens of death and blue walls of silence? Why talk until blue in the face? Why screwed, blued and tattooed? And just what is in the blue blazes?
Why does music and art, especially, seem so enamoured with this colour above all others? Why Blue, Kind of Blue, Blue Train, Blue Lines? Why ‘the blues’ but not ‘the greens’, ‘the creams’ or ‘the violets’?
In the beginning there was no word for blue. The word does not appear in the Odyssey, in the Icelandic sagas, in the Koran, in the Bible, in the Hindu Vedas. In these ancient texts, the sea is wine dark, the sun is red, the moon shines silver, but the sky is never blue.
Every language evolves its colour words in roughly the same order. First come words for black and white, or else for light and dark. Next — and this is true of every language ever studied around the world — is red. First black, then white, then red: for a moment the whole world is like a White Stripes video. Then, after red, yellow and green appear, usually in that order. Then others: purple, orange. But in every language ever known, the last colour to be named is blue. The blues are hidden: hard to hear, hard to see.
Perhaps this is why we sing them, paint them, write them endlessly: magic them into existence.
There are whole books on the colour blue, hundreds and hundreds of pages spent trying to understand it.
Here’s Christopher Moore, in Sacré Bleu: “Blue is the sky, the sea, a god’s eye, a devil’s tail, a birth, a strangulation, a virgin’s cloak, a monkey’s ass. It’s a butterfly, a bird, a spicy joke, the saddest song, the brightest day. Blue is sly, slick, it slides into the room sideways, a slippery trickster. Blue is beauty, not truth. True blue is a ruse, a rhyme; it’s there, then it’s not.”
Here’s William Gass, in On Being Blue: “There are whole schools of fish, clumps of trees, flocks of birds, bouquets of flowers: blue channel cats, the ash, beech, bird, bluegills, breams and bass, Adalusian fowl, acaras, angels in decorative tanks, the bluebill, bluecap, and blue billy (a petrel of the southern seas), anemone, bindweed, bur, bell, mullet, salmon, trout, cod, daisy, and a blue leaved and flowered mountain plant called the blue beardtongue because of its conspicuous yellow-bearded sterile stamens.”
Here’s Maggie Nelson, in Bluets: “Over the past decade I have been given blue inks, paintings, postcards, dyes, bracelets, rocks, precious stones, watercolours, pigments, paperweights, goblets, and candies. I have been introduced to a man who had one of his front teeth replaced with lapis lazuli, solely because he loved the stone, and to another who worships blue so devoutly that he refuses to eat blue food and grows only blue and white flowers in his garden, which surrounds the blue ex-cathedral in which he lives. I have met a man who is the primary grower of organic indigo in the world, and another who sings Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ in heart-breaking drag, and another with the face of a derelict whose eyes literally leaked blue, and I called this one the Prince of Blue, which was, in fact, his name. I think of these people as my blue correspondents, whose job it is to send me blue reports from the field.”
Just as there are connoisseurs of wine, says Collette, so there are connoisseurs of blue.
Can the companies help us out? Can market research?
Facebook is famously so blue because blue was Mark Zuckerberg’s favourite colour. Google, too, have shown a love for the colour, or rather discovered our own. They once tested users of Gmail with 40 different colours of ink – that is, colours of link – to see which they clicked on most. The blue-ish links were the most popular.
We follow blue, draw into its blueness, as if it might lead somewhere magical.
Heinz once tried out making different coloured ketchups – purple ketchup, blue ketchup – but gave up on it because consumers didn’t believe it was real ketchup. The Dutch have an expression, “dat zijn maar blauwe bloempjes”, which means “those are nothing but blue flowers”, which means “what a load of old nonsense”.
We disbelieve blue, resist its blueness, as if it might lead somewhere dangerous.
Let’s turn now to the painters, to the colour collectors.
Here’s Van Gogh, in a letter to Emile Bernard: “There is no blue without yellow and without orange, and if you put in blue, then you must put in yellow, and orange too, mustn’t you?”
Here’s Kandisky: “If two circles are drawn and painted respectively yellow and blue, a brief contemplating will reveal in the yellow a spreading movement out from the centre, and a noticeable approach to the spectator. The blue, on the other hand, moves into itself, like a snail retreating into its shell, and draws away from the spectator. The eye feels stung by the first circle while it is absorbed into the second.”
Here’s Cezanne: “Nature is more depth than surface. Hence the need to introduce into our light vibrations represented by the reds and yellows, a sufficient amount of blue to give the impression of air.”
Here’s Raoul Dufy: “Blue is the only colour which maintains its own character in all its tones. It will always stay blue. Whereas yellow is blackened in its shades, and fades away when lightened; red when darkened becomes brown, and when diluted with white is no longer red, but another colour – pink.”
Here’s Yves Klein: “Blue has no dimensions; it is beyond dimensions… All [other] colours arouse specific associative ideas… Blue suggests, at most, the sea and sky, and they, after all, are in actual, visible nature what is most abstract.”
Here’s Matisse: “A certain blue enters your soul. A certain red has an effect on your blood-pressure.”
Here’s Picasso: “When I haven’t any blue I use red.”
Here’s Gauguin: “If you see a tree as blue, then make it blue.”
Hitler, by contrast, wasn’t a fan: “If artists do see fields blue they are deranged, and should go to an asylum. If they only pretend to see them blue, they are criminals and should go to prison.”
Just as painters cannot seem to dispense with the colour blue, nor with the idea of the colour blue, neither can music shy away from either ‘the blues’ (which leaves its fingerprints on everything from rock & roll to R&B to funk to jazz to samba), nor the idea of ‘being blue’. Perhaps every musician goes through their ‘blue period’, their touching on sadness and pain. Some wallow here for whole careers, mining truth from misery. Some offset essentially happy music with tinges of sadness, like a yellow-heavy painting tainted with blue.
Bill Evans, in the liner notes to Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, describes a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous. He must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that any unnatural or interrupted strokes will destroy the line and break through the parchment. Erasures or changes are impossible.
He is describing, in an offhand way, Davis’s improvisations, but he also suggests an art in which something is at stake. True blue, as they say. Blueness equalling truthiness.
And yet, blue remains mysterious too, ambiguous and unknowable. We still we feel like Mallarmé, haunted by blue’s blueness: “Je suis hante! L’azur! l’azur! l’azur! l’azur!”