By Lauren Drake
Larry Jamerson, better known as the “Blues Man,” sat in his folding chair by the fountain in Red Square. The hot sun radiated down on his weathered U.S. Army cap. Its coloring was a stark contrast from the vibrantly colored tie-dyed T-shirt he sported. Jamerson’s black sunglasses shaded his eyes as he alternated between a harmonica and drum, promoting his books of poetry and blues CDs displayed next to him.
“I paid my dues to sing the blues,” Jamerson said. “That means you’ve been to hell and back when you say you’re a blues man.”
Jamerson hails from St. Louis, Missouri, a place he calls the “home of the blues.” At 60 years old, Jamerson has traveled across the country selling his art, comparing himself to a traveling prophet.
“That’s what a prophet does; travel around and heal souls,” Jamerson said.
The name “Blues Man” was given to Jamerson while he played his music on the streets of Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, but he also believes that he earned such a name.
He made his way to Washington after spending a number of years in Las Vegas, Nevada. Following the recent recession, Jamerson found people in Las Vegas were too upset from gambling away their money to appreciate his art. He has since lived in Seattle, Spokane and Olympia. The only way Jamerson could survive off of his art was because he moved around when one city’s art scene was no longer thriving, he said.
Today he sells his musical and written art on the streets of Bellingham — circulating from Western’s campus, to Fairhaven, to downtown.
Junior Will Barrett first met the Blues Man five years ago while touring The Evergreen State College campus in Olympia. Barrett was surprised to run into Jamerson once again after coming to Western. He believes the message behind Jamerson’s art is one of incredible complexity.
“As a man of color, he is able to bring synthesis to a lifetime of experiences, both his and his culture’s,” Barrett said.
Jamerson loves education and said he strives to learn something new every day. He chooses to sell his artwork on college campuses because he believes students are able to communicate with him more openly about his vision.
“The students grow, whereas most people are set in their thinking and you can’t really teach them anything,” Jamerson said.
Jamerson willingly shares his wealth of knowledge of black history and culture, artists, civil rights activistism and his own ancestry. Tales of his triumphs and struggles are in no short supply.
Jamerson explained the origins of blues music and the role it played in America’s slave fields. Blues has always been protest music against hard conditions, he said. Slaves would use its uplifting rhythm to chase their blues away, which eventually resulted in the term “rock ’n’ roll.” The roots of rock ’n’ roll can be traced back to these southern blues influences, among many other styles of music.
“People in St. Louis die from the blues,” Jamerson said. “If you can’t rock and roll away your blues, you die, because too much depression kills you.”
Jamerson said he worries for his family at home who face economic stress, high crime rates and chronic health problems.
“You have to stay on guard,” Jamerson said. “There’s so much conflict that if the bullets don’t get you — the robbers, thieves and murderers — then the stress kills you. The young people, there’s no jobs, so they’re selling dope.”
“As a black man in Washington state you’re not treated with much respect. But if you’re a Seahawk or a veteran you’re treated a lot better.”
Jamerson struggled with crack cocaine addiction and used behavior modification techniques to beat it.
“I opened my heart up and loved again,” Jamerson said. “What drugs do is stop you from loving. Once you close your heart and stop loving, that helps maintain the addiction.”
Barrett said Bellingham is a community that generally lacks diversity, and that the Blues Man is able to provide a more accessible platform through his art for the Bellingham community.
Jamerson said he plans to stay in Bellingham as long as the art scene continues to grow. Many more well-known artists have began to perform here frequently because Seattle has become too expensive and competitive.
Junior Paul Schultz has taken time to reflect upon Jamerson’s music, the encounters they have shared in the community and how each of these factors have influenced him. Jamerson’s lyrics are very conscious and socially aware, Schultz said.
Learning is not a practice that has always come easily to Jamerson. His younger self was found daydreaming during class and even banging on his desktop like a drum. Jamerson recalls that his classes weren’t artistically stimulating in primary school, and found an alternate form of discipline through boxing and began excelling in school.
Jamerson enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1975, but was honorably discharged later that year due to an injury he sustained during basic training. Jamerson then decided to attend college. He went to Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri from 1975 to 1978. Jamerson referred to his school as the “Black Ivy League.”
The freshman curriculum suited the needs of students coming from inner-city schooling backgrounds who needed to be brought up to par with college level coursework, Jamerson said.
“I’m not like many people who went to school to get credit cards and houses and think that they’re better than somebody else,” Jamerson said. “I went to school to learn and to be free. I used my education to be free and to free other people.”
Jamerson said he has faced a lot of prejudice, even on Western’s campus.
“As a black man in Washington state you’re not treated with much respect,” Jamerson said. “But if you’re a Seahawk or a veteran you’re treated a lot better.”
Through studying psychology, Jamerson has been able to desensitize himself from abuse. He attributes this understanding to his gentle and more healing approach in art.
“When you put pressure on a rock it’s either going to break, or it’s going to become a diamond,” Jamerson said. “Discrimination made me a great blues artist and a great poet.”
In order to solve problems of inequality and create a more just world, Jamerson thinks society needs to become one race of people and start judging people by their character instead of their religion. For this reason, he calls himself a universal man.
“We can fly to the moon, we can take an atomic bomb and blow up another country,” Jamerson said. “But we can’t get along with each other over something as stupid as skin color and sex.”
Looking to the future, Jamerson hopes to open his own blues club. He said his club would serve tea and marijuana in place of alcohol. Although Jamerson would prefer to open his own club somewhere out of the country, he thinks that a more traditional blues club could certainly thrive in
Bellingham and would especially draw in the Canadian audience.
Jamerson said he thinks people can either choose to be part of the problem or part of the solution. This is why he chose to be the “people’s poet.”