While in the early stages of sketching the outline for my book, This Will End in Tears: The Miserabilist Guide to Music, I came upon the notion of writing an essay about the color blue, which was important to my case for two reasons: the color's connection to the history of melancholy and its widespread cultural connotations. As I began my research I found that the color — its history and its meanings — held a story much deeper than I had imagined and held a similar special attraction for other writers.
I found the connection between melancholy and blue to go as far back as the middle of the 16th century and the Gremlin-like blue devils that plagued the most saturnine men and women. I was fascinated by the twists in meaning it contained — it has enigmatically stood for the most peaceful of hues (the ocean and the clear sky) and the most redolent of sadness and despair, and it has been both the most holy color (painters once reserved a special tint of aquamarine for the clothes of the Virgin Mary) and representative of pornography.
The representation of the word in music can be found throughout time and across genres — including an entire genre unto itself. Just a few examples include: The Fleetwoods' Mr. Blue; Miles Davis' Blue in Green from his landmark album Kind of Blue; the Father of Country Music, Jimmie Rodgers, and his series of Blue Yodels; Elvis Presley's Blue Hawaii and Blue Christmas; Leonard Cohen's Famous Blue Raincoat; Joni Mitchell's Blue and the classic album that spawned it; George Gershwin's one-act opera Blue Monday; and New Order's New Wave hit of the same name. There are obviously too many brilliant connections to name.
But the color's hold on our imagination is much wider than its musical representations. In my research I quickly came across two small, beautiful, ruminative books on the color: Bluets by Maggie Nelson and On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry by William Gass. They both offer insight into blue's seemingly endless grip, Nelson revealing in her introduction that she "fell in love with a color — in this case the color blue — as if falling under a spell."
Author Christopher Moore's novel, Sacré Bleu, is also a book about the color blue, which he refers to as "a mystery, a fantasy, a romance, a comedy, a history, and an appreciation." This November another book — The Rarest Blue: The Remarkable Story of an Ancient Color Lost to History and Rediscovered, by Baruch Sterman — will be released, continuing the line of recent writers lost in an indigo trance.
I was focused largely on the color's connection to sadness, but an interesting twist I discovered is that studies surrounding color-mood associations have found blue to be most representative of comfort, peace, calm, and quiet, while grays and blacks are more often tied to negative emotions such as sadness. So it is that the color's lovers may wind up being a touch blue from the loss of a crumb of its mystery and breadth of meaning.
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Adam Brent Houghtaling is an editor, writer, musician, and digital consultant living in Brooklyn, New York.
Books mentioned in this post
Adam Brent Houghtaling is the author of This Will End in Tears: The Miserabilist Guide to Music