I don’t really know much about music, but I do know Cornel West loves the blues. And part of that love is the love for the Blue notes. Jeff Sharlet described what a colleague theirs at Princeton University, Eddie S. Glaude Jr, the chair of the department of African American studies, and author of Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, said about West:
“There’s a way in which you could think about Cornel as a kind of sick soul,” says Glaude. “In the sense that he begins with the dead, with darkness. He begins with suffering. The blue note. And all too often people want to move too quickly beyond that.”
According to Jeff Sharlet:
“That’s the American way,” says West when I raise the question of the blue note and it’s dismissal, the common conviction that looking forward means forgetting the past. “ ‘No problem we cannot solve,’” he says, paraphrasing conventional wisdom. Well, that’s a lie. I don’t know why Americans tell that lie all the time.” He laughs, shaking in his chair, mimicking a voice that sounds like a suburban golfer in pants a size too small. “‘No problem we can’t get beyond.’ That’s a lie! But—it generates a strenuous mood.”
What is a blue note in music? I know very little about music. What a shame. I am told that in the musical realm, these notes “between the cracks” of conventional pitches are called blue notes”. For example, a melody in C major might be sung with a note that is halfway between E and E-flat. As the term suggests, blue notes are thought to be particularly characteristic of the blues.
The blue note finds its roots in African-American music at the time of slavery and ended up being widely used within blues, receiving the name “C major blues scale,” or just “blues scale”. The term “blue note” is usually translated as “outside note”, due to the fact that this note does not belong to the natural scale. Like the blues it is rebellious. An outlier. It dissents from the conventional wisdom, like Cornel West. This is like the line he liked so much from the poet Leopardi: “I refuse even hope.” That is the blue note in prose. Quoting Leopardi again, “Everything is hidden except our pain.” That is what the bluesman sees and hears. But it takes what amounts to a religious quest to see it or hear it.