It''s a matter of inbreeding in a nation of immigrants. Although America''s musical personality sprang from many different sources, once they hit our shores they began a series of incestuous alliances such that the family tree has become a shocking document of intimate relations between brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles. It''s not a subject for the squeamish.

Beginning around the middle of the last century, the pace of the inbreeding picked up. Jerry Lee Lewis messed around with Mamie Smith and paved the way for Elvis Presley--whose thrusting loins bore the seminal seeds for Britney Spears. Johnny Cash begat Kurt Cobain while musically sleeping with Janis Joplin, the daughter of Billie Holiday and Etta James. And Garth Brooks may well be the love child of Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Rodgers. The lineage of American popular music is anchored by so many common roots that it''s difficult to subdivide it into categories. And if there''s any single tap root, it''s the music we call the blues.

Given the many ways in which the blues have influenced--and been influenced by--other forms of music, it seems meaningless when purists bitch about the offerings at the Monterey Bay Blues Festival. Breaking down the blues into neat little packages almost makes the concept of an overarching category called "the blues" seem irrelevant. Except at the music''s deepest levels, it''s hard to hear the similarities between Mitch Woods'' West Coast piano-boogie blues, BB King''s electrified Chicago Blues, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown''s rocking Texas Blues, Roy Bookbinder''s acoustic Country Blues, Champion Jack Dupree''s New Orleans Barrelhouse Blues and Robert Johnson''s Delta Blues. There may be similar chord progressions but the overall sound of music is so varied that it''s impossible to define it without talking about the influences that have shaped it, and the ways in which it has influenced other musical forms.

Yes, critics have a point when they complain about the non-blues inclinations of the four mainstage headliners of this year''s Blues Festival: James Brown, "The Godfather of Soul"; Little Richard, a rock ''n'' roll pioneer; Etta James, who''s always blurred the lines between pop, soul and blues. And Clarence Carter, who''s probably the least well-known of the four performers. A semi-regular at the Blues Festival, he may be smokin'' while he''s "Strokin''" but he''s hardly singing anything recognizable as blues. Yes, the critics have a point--but only if they bean-count the begetting and the begatting.

If one dives a little deeper in the musical well that is the blues tradition, the appearances by this year''s headliners not only makes sense, they seem almost obligatory. Maybe the reason the blues have been so elastic during their brief history is that its history is almost as clear as its influences are cluttered.

At its deepest level, the blues was born of European spirituals interpreted by black slaves and reinvented as field chants that unified work efforts, combined with interactive church music that united religious work. The simple call-and-response structure of work songs like "Pick a Bale of Cotton" ("Me and my gal gonna pick a bale of cotton") and spirituals like "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" ("I looked over Jordan and what did I see, Comin'' for to carry me home,") provides some of the most basic inspiration for the blues. It''s not a complicated music form, but it''s one that''s filled with the pain, hopes and scars of the people who sang it.

Call-and-response was a group-form of music--and the groups were mostly black slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation not only freed the slaves, it freed the music to evolve into another form.

After the Civil War, with more of the field work being done by individual sharecroppers, the music changed. A man still needed to make some sort of noise to break the monotony of a long day''s work, so the call-and-response began changing into field hollers, more of a solo musical form. And here is the most direct link to the first music that, sometime around the turn of the 20th century, became known as "the blues."

Whether W.C. Handy was the father of blues music is debatable. But it''s undeniable that he was one of its most important figures in the early years: His 1912 song "Memphis Blues" was the first to use the term "blues" in the title and his "Crazy Blues," recorded by Mamie Smith in 1920, was the first recorded blues song. A few years later, a young musician named Robert Johnson made a mythical deal with the devil to master the guitar, and provided blues not only with an amazingly rich vocabulary but with its most enduring legend.

While Johnson was forging ahead to define both a new musical genre and its attitude, he did not leave the family tradition far behind; you can hear the call-and-response roots in his "Dust My Broom"--which is still a staple in any serious blues musician''s repertoire.

Blues Explosion

While there have been many white practitioners of the blues, particularly beginning in the ''60s, there''s no question that it was born, nurtured and raised by black musicians. It took the civil rights movement and some white kids who had grown up poor and listening to the blues, to knock down the barriers that separated white audiences from black music. The result were the musical twins: rock ''n'' roll and rhythm ''n'' blues.

And right there at the birth of rock, blues'' most immediate descendant, was Little Richard, whose earliest musical experience was fronting Johnny Otis'' blues band. Little Richard, of course, had his own unique take on everything that he did. By the time he switched over to the rock side of the equation, he was sporting mascara, reveling in his falsetto stylings and wearing his hair in a strangely feminine pompadour.

In 1955, his version of "Tutti Frutti" defined Richard''s future musical style--it was a whooping, almost out-of-control piano-banger that married the old field calls with the newly found unbridled musical freedom. Forget Little Richard''s'' other hits ("Long Tall Sally," "Lucille," "Good Golly Miss Molly," among others), "Tutti Frutti" alone should guarantee him a place as an innovator in the blues hall of fame. (Hell, without Little Richard''s wild antics, it''s hard to imagine there would ever have been a Michael Jackson or a Prince. And, oh yeah, Jimi Hendrix probably learned a thing or two when he as playing guitar in Little Richard''s band.)

James Brown was there, too. In between arrests and failed attempts to become a pro boxer and baseball pitcher, he came up through the musical ranks as a gospel singer. But gospel was too narrow a pigeonhole for Brown''s energy, and 1958 he recorded "Try Me," a crossover hit that topped the R&B charts and made it onto the pop charts. Pumping his hips, doing the splits, Brown turned the music into a visceral experience. Just as the old songs had helped coordinate bodies and work, Brown''s take on the music had a commanding physical effect. With songs like "Brand New Bag," Brown striped the essence of the blues to a rhythmic core while "Say It Loud, I''m Black and I''m Proud" could be an anthem for the progression of blues music. And certainly had an influence on Jimi Hendrix, who played for James Brown, too.

Etta James was another alumnus of Johnny Otis'' band. And she was there at the same time, helping to give birth to rhythm and blues. Her "Roll With Me Henry" hit the R&B charts in 1955, and by the 1960s she was regularly landing songs on both pop and R&B charts. She''s also done as much as anyone to make the blues accessible to larger audiences. In concert, she''ll break out blues standards that make it obvious to even the densest audience member where her roots are dug.

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Critics be damned, this weekend''s festival is a true blues festival.

It''s the Vibe

Unless you already have your tickets, it''s not likely you''ll get a chance to see the mainstage headliners at the Monterey Bay Blues Festival. But with a grounds pass, you can hang out near the arena and listen to Little Richard, James Brown and Etta James--which is almost as good.

What''s even better is that those grounds passes give access to the other two stages at the festival. I say that even though this year''s lineup on the smaller stages is not as strong as it has been in previous years. For the first time in four or five years, I honestly can''t say there''s anyone I think is a must-see. (OK, OK. There''s the Blowin'' Smoke band that opens the Garden Stage on Friday at 6pm--they put on a really good show last year, and there''s Magic Slim on the Garden on Saturday about 5:10pm--he''s a living link to the early Chicago Blues sound, which makes him historically noteworthy. And there''s Finis Tasby, who''s been playing the blues--first as a drummer, then as a bassist, now as the front man--since the mid ''50s. He''s worked with Lowell Fulson and John Lee Hooker, and always puts on a good show. He''ll be at the Garden on Sunday at 6:30pm.) But that''s almost beside the point. With somewhere around 40 bands playing on the Garden and President stages between Friday night and Sunday evening, the quantity should make up for the quality.

Besides, it''s the vibe at the Blues Festival that''s the important thing, anyway. Don''t bother calling me at home this weekend, you know where you''ll find me.

In the meantime, here''s this year''s Blues Festival lineup:

Friday

Main Stage

7pm -- Sai Whatt Band

8:20pm -- James Brown

Garden Stage

6pm -- Blowin'' Smoke

7:20pm -- Yve Evans

8:40pm -- Brummells Band

10pm -- Sai Whatt Band

President Stage

6pm -- Guitar Mac

7:20pm -- Mighty Penguins

8:40pm -- Delgado Brothers

10pm -- Bay Area Blues Society


Saturday

Main Stage-Afternoon

11:30am -- Blue Tones

12:50pm -- Theodis Ealey

2:10pm -- Magic Slim

3:30pm -- Clarence Carter

Main Stage-Evening

6pm -- Bobby Webb

7:20pm -- Beverly Watson

8:40pm -- Bobby Rush

10pm -- Little Richard

Garden Stage

10:30am -- Domingo & Friends

11:50am -- Vel Omarr

1:10pm -- Da Mudcats

2:30pm -- Blue Tones

3:50pm -- Kelly Hunt

5:10pm -- Magic Slim

6:30pm -- Al Von

7:50pm -- Johnnie Cozmik

9:10pm -- Beverly Watson

President Stage

10:40am -- Kenny "Blue" Ray

Noon -- Broadway Blues Band

1:20pm -- Natural Four

2:40pm -- T-Bone Stone

4pm -- TBA

5:20pm -- Jimmy C Street Blues Revue

6:40pm -- Uvon

8pm -- Jimmie McElroy

9:20pm -- Little Charlie and the Nightcats


Sunday

Main Stage

1pm -- Mighty Clouds of Joy

2:20pm -- WC Clark

3:40pm -- Sonny Rhodes

5pm -- Shemekia Copeland

6:20pm -- Etta James

Garden Stage

10:30am -- Community Choir

11:50am -- Alberta Adams

1:10pm -- Lydia Pense & Cold Blood

2:30pm -- Lorla Wygal

3:50pm -- Al James

5:10pm:Jesse James

6:30pm -- Finis Tasby

7:50pm -- Frankie Lee

President Stage

Noon -- Consonance

1:20pm -- Big Mo

2:40pm -- Lara Price

4pm -- Bobby Murray

5:20pm -- Terry Hiatt

6:40pm -- Crusin'' Deuces

8pm -- Brenda White

Grounds passs tickets: $20/Friday, $25/Saturday or Sunday, $60/all three days. Monterey Fairgrounds. 394-2652.

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