“Do you need to be depressed to write a sad song? Is a song better when it really happened to you?” Budding rock journalist William Milller posed these questions in Almost Famous but Ben Harper’s collaboration with Charlie Musselwhite begs them again. Get Up! is powerfully performed, with soulful vocal wailing and tasteful harmonica solos, but what could Harper have to be blue about? He snagged a lifetime contract with Virgin back in the days of Nirvana, and he’s recording with the legend that inspired Dan Aykroyd’s character in Blues Brothers. Maybe his divorce was tumultuous. Or he’s mad at the world’s state of affairs. Or, maybe you don’t need to be sad to sing the blues. If so, so go five lyrics that prove it.

Don’t Look Twice


Harper’s opening lazy-blues track sees him in raspy-falsetto as he warns “be glad your worries ain’t like mine.” Slow, down-tuned blues fits any “woe-is-me” trope, but things get an interesting shade of dark when he hits the frail shifts into his upper register, mirroring this string of complaints from the perspective of a highly-neurotic ceiling: [LISTEN]

You know it’s bad when the ceiling says to the floor
“I’ll trade ya places, I can’t take it up here no more
I’m a living nervous habit, I tremble and I twitch
Keep on pullin’ at me like I’m some kinda hanging stitch”

Don’t look twice, don’t look twice
Be glad your worries ain’t like mine

We Can’t End This Way

harpermusselchillinHarper’s disappointment in our society’s lack of brotherly love is a passionate one, as he is forced to repeat several of these lines with additional emphasis. He’s taking MLK’s and Jesus’ quotes to heart and putting them through verse in song: we can’t let the danger of apathy poison us until we forget the importance of caring for your fellow man, even if “life has a way of getting in our way:” [LISTEN]

There’s a man on the corner begging for help
There’s a man that walks past him, and he’s drowning in wealth
Who doesn’t understand how disappointment destroys the soul

Blood Side Out

harmonica fingas

Harper’s vocal sorrow isn’t always so wholesome and upstanding, though. When he can’t get the woman he wants, he “gets his kicks” through his “wine-soaked heart and whisky-soaked lips,” plus whatever other trouble he plans to get into out on the night streets. There’s a “siren in the distance with his name on it,” and it doesn’t matter whether it’s from a cop or an ambulance – it’s all bad news, either way: [LISTEN]

Something illegal is on my mind (but it ain’t murder)
Took all I can take, I ain’t broke, I might break (don’t go no further)
These streets, they’re all littered with faces the same
And all these strangers have no names
Blood side out, I’m going in, I’m down again

I Ride at Dawn


Here our protagonist is, you guessed it, basically a Spartan in 300. Violence in and of itself is a bit too high energy for blues music. But low-key campfire jams fit the night before battle, as warriors prepare themselves to possibly die for the “greater good.” You could be a slave who bought your own freedom and then fought heroically to preserve it, or a bloodthirsty conqueror-tyrant, but that feeling for the night before remains the same: [LISTEN]

Give a man a hundred years and he’ll want a hundred more
Give him a hundred choices and he still chooses war
From Salem Poor to Genghis Khan
Tomorrow I ride at dawn

I’m in, I’m Out, and I’m Gone

ben-harper-1 huge

The blues is not just a genre based around sob-stories – leave that to the oft-maligned emo set. It’s also about rich storytelling to depict these dire circumstances. As Harper mentions, his “burden is his own,” and he doesn’t need any help from anyone else. After all, look what help God was for the death row inmate in this tale. No, self-sufficiency and constant motion pave the path of least resistance. That’s why “he’s in, he’s out, and he’s gone:” [LISTEN]

Hardly can blame her for trusting a one-armed lion-tamer
She stepped in from the storm, as dry as a bone
The preacher thought to himself, “He never takes care of His own.”
She said “look what your prayers
Look what they’ve done to me
What can your prayers do for me?”