Originally created 04/21/00

Smitty's lounge

Smitty's Lounge is illuminated by only a few overhead lights, the fractured shards of an aging disco ball and the incandescent glow of beer signs. On the stage, standing an inch, perhaps two, off the barroom floor, a loosely assembled group of musicians has launched into its next set, one of many it will play.

Although unpracticed as a group, each member of the makeshift band is intimately acquainted with the music. Changes are indicated by a series of head nods, and instructions are shouted over the musical din.

Seated on a stool requisitioned from the bar, Doris Allen clutches the microphone in a death-grip, closes her eyes to all distractions and begins to sing the blues. The reaction from patrons is immediate. All attention is focused on that one point and the sound of Ms. Allen's soaring voice.

Behind the bar, owner Ernest Smith quietly drums in time to the loping tempo and smiles, happy to be hearing the music he loves -- Mississippi blues. Since January, Mr. Smith has been holding Mississippi blues nights at Smitty's, hoping for a resurgence in interest for a musical form with strong Southern roots. Every Friday, he opens his stage to all comers under the proviso that they bring with them a desire to play the blues -- a music he sees as a community builder.

"You watch people listen," he said. "What you've got is a togetherness, feelings and everybody functioning as one. There's no brutality, no violence and no misunderstanding. It's all about love and togetherness and unity as one."

Certainly the group assembled at Smitty's would reinforce Mr. Smith's theories on the power of the blues. As the pace builds, an explosive need to dance fills the room. The disparate patrons are brought together by the power of the music and the simple act of listening.

"They feed off us, and we feed off them," Pheonix Williams, the band's bass player, said later in the evening. "It's a cycle, a good cycle. What we're doing is expressing ourselves and letting them express themselves at the same time. It makes it all good."

Like the other musicians in the makeshift band, Mr. Williams said he comes and plays not because he wants to sell records or develop a fan base or otherwise further his musical career, but because he loves to play.

"We have people like Doris Allen come because they love the music," Mr. Smith said, drawing on an omnipresent cigarette. "They enjoy the music. They like to play. And when you enjoy something like that, it's something different. It's not about money then. It's about doing what you love."

Combining sensibilities of European and African music, the blues emerged from Southern slave-field hollers, gospel music and the rhythmic dance tunes known as jump-ups. With the rise in popularity of the guitar and an increase in musical migration around the turn of the 20th century, the blues became cemented as a particularly American musical form.

Taking a break from drumming, Freddie Smith explained where the blues really come from.

"Blues is from the soul, not from the head. It's from here," he said, pointing to his heart. "And if you've got it in here, you've got it."

The history of modern popular music is firmly entrenched in the blues. From Wilson Pickett to the Rolling Stones, from Johnny Cash to Nirvana -- almost anything with a backbeat and guitars tips its hat to the Mississippi blues.

"Everybody sings their own version of the blues," Ms. Allen explained. "People who you think aren't singing the blues are. Garth Brooks is a blues singer. He just sings his version of them. All that really matters is that it comes from the heart."

Ms. Allen says the blues is not depressing music. While lyrically the songs often deal with life on the skids, the infectiousness of the music lifts the spirits of even the most jaded listener.

"You can see how people respond to this music," she said. "You can watch them understand it and start to feel good, and then you can watch them as they start to relate to the blues."

On stage

What: Blues night at Smitty's Lounge

When: Every Friday night

Where: Smitty's Lounge and Package Store, 1814 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd.; 736-3455.

Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or suhles@hotmail.com.


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