Working Mojo interviews blues and blues-based artists about their creative workflow, pulling back the curtain on what can feel like a mystical process.

The blues seems to have a simple form, but the complexity within those constraints are infinite. It’s how the blues is the root of so much great music, from rock and roll to metal to Americana. All of the variations can seem intimidating. Yet artists produce great blues work every year. Working Mojo is where you'll learn how they do it.

Photo of Muddy Waters playing the guitar.
Muddy Waters, November 1976. Photo by Lionel Decoster, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
"Got my mojo working, but it just won't work on you."

Muddy Waters' 1957 version of "Got My Mojo Working" is about trying to use magic to win a woman. One of the many reasons we still appreciate the classic song is because of the idea of the paranormal helping us out of a jam. The idea is common throughout the blues, perhaps epitomized by the legend of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil in exchange for blues talent.

It's easy to see how the devil might seem like a decent talent-enhancing option. Creative work is hard, but absent demonic contracts, the only way to learn to craft the blues is to put in the effort. That means listening, practicing, and hearing from others who do it.

The unique beauty of blues songwriting

Memphis Minnie sitting with a guitar.
Memphis Minnie. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
"The hundreds of sides Minnie recorded are the perfect material to teach us about the blues. For the blues are at once general, and particular, speaking for millions, but in a highly singular, individual voice. Listening to Minnie's songs we hear her fantasies, her dreams, her desires, but we will hear them as if they were our own."

This inscription, from Memphis Minnie's grave, speaks to blues artists and lovers (the brilliant Fiona Boyes brought it to my attention), because of how it perfectly captures the beauty of the form. The blues isn't only about expressing sadness. It's about joy, playfulness, anger, and every other human emotion. But a great blues song focuses those feelings until they bypass our analytical sides, flying directly to our emotional core. Other songs and songwriting styles are more than capable of achieving this, but the blues is particularly adept at reaching listeners on a visceral level. The straight-forwardness. The history. The rawness. The blues speaks directly to our souls.

The blues, like jazz, also has a wonderful tradition of song interpretation (and occasional flat-out stealing). Artists often work through the work of others, covering songs in ways that might make them immediately recognizable or sound completely different. The great artists take what came before and find a way to provide a fresh perspective. This too is a fascinating process. What goes into choosing a cover? What is the essence of the original? And where is the space for the artist interpreting the tune?

There's no correct answer to these types of questions, but we learn a lot from the conversations around them.

Who am I?

"You don't sing to feel better. You sing 'cause that's a way of understanding life."

I don't have much in common with the Ma Rainey character from August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. However, we do share a reliance on using craft to make sense of the world. In Wilson's play (and probably in real life), Rainey, considered the mother of the blues, used music as her lens. I use writing. I've spent much of my life listening to, writing about, and loving music, trying to understand and explain what makes a song great. While I'm not sure songwriting is an act that can ever be truly deconstructed, like viewing the atoms in a molecule of water, it's fun and fascinating to hear how other musicians approach their work. Hearing their take on their own creative process and learning how blues artists make sense of the world helps us to understand our own creativity.

I came to the blues from rock and roll, with Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers Band, and Stevie Ray Vaughan sending me back to Elmore James, Taj Mahal, and Albert King. I can't think of an artist more exciting than Hound Dog Taylor. I believe Eddie Kirkland epitomizes soulful blues. I often think about what Mike Bloomfield's playing would sound like today if he hadn't left us too soon. While the history of the blues is important, I'm more concerned with the people making the music we all love.

I've talked to people about their technical set-ups for years, and interviewed plenty of musicians about their songwriting. I listen to hundreds of blues tracks a year. Working Mojo is the culmination of that work and adoration, giving you reviews, interviews, and profiles exploring the craft of blues songwriting.

The blues songwriting and interpretation process is vital, with blues artists around the world creating new music. The blues isn't dead. It's a vital, living, evolving art form. It's time to learn how blues artists do it, by asking them to make their creative processes visible to us. Great songs will always feel like magic captured in a bottle. The beauty of the blues, like so many art forms, is that there’s an ineffable aspect that can be felt, but not truly described. At least not with words. But there’s also a lot about the blues that can be explained and discussed. Mojo can be person-made. Together, we'll put in the work.

A huge thanks to Foster for the feedback on this: Joel Christiansen, Lyle McKeany, Oliver Palmer, and Ryan Williams