The Blues In Black And White: Meditations On The Skin Game

The Blues In Black And White: Meditations On The Skin Game

by David Whiteis
copyright © 2001 David Whiteis
An earlier version of this article appeard in Living Blues Magazine 144, March/April 1999

A funny thing happened on the way to the Promised Land.

For years we dreamed of the day when all of us who love the blues could celebrate this love together, without regard for the small-minded prejudices that for so long made it impossible for us to celebrate freely.

A lot of folks still remember the way it used to be, especially in the South: musicians risked their lives by touring in integrated buses; even sharing a stage might touch off a riot -- white musicians who sat in with black bands sometimes had to play hidden behind a curtain. Some Southern nightclubs had a rope running down the middle of the floor, separating the races. On a good night, the rope might eventually get pulled down, and everyone would dance together -- a harbinger of a liberated new world yet to come.

White kids who bought blues records or listened to the blues on the radio in those days might be punished by their parents, ridiculed by their peers, and lectured by their clergy. Black artists might enjoy household-name status among black listeners, yet be virtually unknown to whites; about the only way a black blues or rhythm & blues artist could have a "mainstream" hit was for a white artist to cover it; even then, the royalties and recognition seldom made it back to the source. "Separate and unequal" was the unwritten law of the land, and it was replicated in the world of music.

We've come a long way since then -- in fact, in many ways we've come full-circle. Not only do modern blues festivals, concerts, awards ceremonies, and clubs often look like an integrationist's dream; these days "color-blindness" often means making an extra effort to include more white musicians on the blues stage, on the radio show, or in the critical commentary. What used to be called black music -- blues, jazz, rhythm & blues, even rap and hip-hop -- is seldom called that any more; the very idea of categorizing music in this way is looked down upon.

It's all going on in the name of the most well-meaning and progressive social agendas, of course, and on its face the trend seems unassailable. This is, after all, what "diversity" is supposed to be about; some excellent and deserving performers have benefitted from this newfound ethnic eclecticism. Just as many long-neglected black artists received at least a modicum of their due in the newly enlightened atmosphere of the '60s and '70s, many whites - session musicians, songwriters, even some front-line entertainers -- are now being acknowledged for the artistic contributions they've been making to blues and rhythm & blues for decades. The appearance of southern soul legends Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham at the 1997 Chicago Blues Festival, for instance, stands as one of the high points in the festival's 18-year history.

Yet, alongside these developments, there's a rising tide of opinion suggesting that something precious is being lost -- or even stolen. Where some see integration, others see dilution; where some praise color-blind diversity, others charge cultural imperialism. It's not merely an academic issue: on bandstands, in the media, and among friends, battle lines are being drawn, accusations being made.

Artists find themselves caught between ideological camps -- white musicians who genuinely love the blues and play it with integrity and heart feel as if they're being asked, unfairly, to pay dues for the sins of the past. African Americans who incorporate pop and rock influences in their styles, or who work in integrated bands, are open to charges of selling out, or worse; on the other side of the divide, African Americans who proclaim the ethnic and cultural identity of their art are accused of "reverse racism" and knee-jerk Afrocentrism. Critics and journalists, as well as the publications for which they work, may be labeled racist, regardless of which side they take in the debate.

Name-calling gets us nowhere, of course. But in a world where a handful of (white-dominated) corporations control virtually everything we see on television, hear, and read; where Third World countries and even European nations such as France are beginning to resent the intrusion of American mass culture that threatens the survival of cherished traditions and values; where national debates rage in the U.,S. over multiculturalism, bilingualism, Ebonics, and other "identity politics" -- in such a world, idealistic visions of "free choice" and sharing cannot be separated from issues of equity and justice.

In fact, some of the current developments in the racial dynamics of the blues "industry" have serious implications for the future of the music, both as an art form and a living repository of cultural heritage. To portray contemporary relations between the races as "equal" -- even in the music world -- is disingenuous at best, and serves to obscure real and dangerous inequities in power that threaten to weaken, if not destroy, the cultural and historical context in which the blues has developed over the years.

First, though, we need to reaffirm the obvious: any artist with integrity and talent can create music of merit, regardless of his or her cultural background. The issue at hand has nothing to do with whether or not individuals can transcend cultural barriers; it's not about who has a "right" to play the blues, or whether the music of Stevie Ray Vaughan or Jonny Lang is "authentic". After all, some of the most vital and lasting music of the 20th Century was created by artists who melded their own cultural heritages with elements drawn from diverse traditions. Think, for instance, of Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price performing European classical music alongside traditional African-American spirituals and folk songs; Paul Robeson singing Hasidic chants and German lieder; Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin reinterpreting the works of pop songwriters like Lennon and McCartney or Paul Simon (who themselves drank deeply from multicultural wells); Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins fusing country music and blues into rock & roll.

But what's going on in the blues these days represents something different and ominous. It has to do with the belief, which seems to be held by many "mainstream" observers (including most critics and more than a few musicians), that music somehow exists in a realm of its own, separate from any historical or social context. There's a movement, fueled in large part by the corporate entertainment industry, to redefine the blues as "just notes"or "just a feeling", devoid of any social, cultural, or historical implications beyond the vapidly rebellious (and aggressively adolescent) stance we've come to associate with rock & roll.

This is, in many ways, a new phenomenon. Even most 60s-era blues-rockers made at least a tacit effort to recognize their debt to living African-American culture, as well as to the individual artists they emulated. Admittedly this sometimes manifested itself as self-conscious "blue-eyed soul brother" posing; at its best, however, it resulted in music that borrowed, with respect and honesty, from a wide palette of sources and influences, and in doing so created sounds that were vibrant and of lasting artistic importance.

Today, this connection is in danger of being forgotten. We still affirm that the earliest blues artists were African-American, and that their music evolved from traditions that extended back to slavery and to Africa before that; we take it as a given that their music, and the music of their artistic descendants, also led directly to electrified blues, R&B, and rock & roll. We even acknowledge that many of the social and cultural components of what might be termed "the blues life" are rooted in historical and social conditions that have been experienced by African-Americans from the earliest days of bondage into the modern era. But that's history -- and in America, when we say that something is "history", we usually mean it's a dead issue.

The problem is not, in other words, that nobody remembers where the blues came from; rather, where the blues came from has been redefined and individualized to a point of almost total abstraction. Today, when white blues artists acknowledge their debt to a mentor like Albert King, Junior Wells, or Ruth Brown, we usually understand this to mean an artistic debt to an individual who happens to have been African American. Considerations such as the historical, social, and cultural milieu in which this individual lived; the role this milieu played in how this individual developed his or her art; the function of this art as a cultural expression within an indigenous (and oppressed) community; and the ways in which this expression was received, understood, and eventually appropriated by the dominant culture, are seldom considered.

This willfully ignores a reality that a lot of whites still don't want to confront: the relationship of Euro-American culture to most other cultures has historically been exploitative and imperialist. More to the point, this basic power imbalance has not changed; it continues to inform the allegedly "free" exchange of values and ideas that proponents of color-blind blues would have us believe exists today.

But you can't have "freedom" without equality, and equality entails more than well-meaning individuals calling each other "brothers and sisters" in recording studios or on stage. Social equality (or inequality) occurs among groups -- races, classes, genders, etc. -- and must be understood and addressed on that level. A few Marian Andersons or Leontyne Prices don't threaten anyone's cultural status quo -- no one is about to forget the European roots of opera. But, through no intentional fault of their own, a handful of corporate-sponsored white blues artists, with well-greased access to media and dollars, do threaten to obscure the historical and cultural significance of a music created, and still played, mostly by people who do not share equally their access to the means of cultural production and dissemination.

The imperialist overtones become more obvious when we consider that even as the music industry itself moves away from acknowledging indigenous African-American culture as the original and still-fertile birthing ground of blues expression, others have rushed in to appropriate this culture and transform it into a commodity. Chambers of Commerce, local governments, and travel agencies, have cashed in on blues "authenticity" by promoting "blues tours" and "pub crawls" into areas and neighborhoods that they would otherwise advise white people to avoid at all costs. Camera-toting tourists now regularly show up at "exotic" venues ranging from backwoods Mississippi jukes to after-hours joints on the west side of Chicago, hungry for a taste of the thrilling and forbidden "real thing." You almost expect the sponsors and tour guides to be decked out in safari suits and pith helmets.

With all that going on, it seems disingenuous to then claim that the blues has somehow become a "color-blind"art form with no significant ties to a particular cultural heritage or living tradition. There may be nothing quite so "real" as a Saturday night at the ol' juke joint, but after we get back home (or safely back inside the white-owned nightclub that sponsored the tour), it suddenly becomes racist (or at least ethnocentric) to suggest that there's something specific to the African-American experience that gave rise to the music we heard there.

In fact, it sometimes seems as if the preferred route today is to create music that actively downplays the African-American experience. Many (if not most) of today's younger blues artists, regardless of their ethnicity, sound a lot more like white rock & rollers who honed their chops in a suburban garage than like blues musicians with musical roots on the south or west side of Chicago, let alone Memphis or Mississippi.

The phenomenon isn't limited to the blues, of course, and it's possible that as it begins to be felt among what remains of other indigenous living cultures, we may see more widespread resistance to some of its more unfortunate effects.

Right now, for instance, Klezmer music is very trendy -- very much like the blues became trendy among white folkies in the late '50s and early '60s, and among rock & rollers a few years later. At present, everyone's happy about this development. But if, in a few years, the Klezmer scene becomes dominated by a bunch of red-haired Irish kids named Duffy who rename themselves "Little Moishe and the Lower East Side Bagel Kings," pose for CD covers sporting newsboy caps and dark glasses in front of Kosher Delis, and persist in telling interviewers that this music is, after all, "just notes"or "a feeling" that anyone can play, the Jewish community may rightfully begin to wonder what's being appropriated, what's being defiled, and what remains for them to celebrate and honor as their own.

Likewise, if current trends continue, the very notion of the blues as the cultural expression of a particular people who lived and created their art in a particular historical epoch will have evaporated within a generation or two.

Again, this doesn't mean that any kind of music or art is, or should be, off-limits to anyone. But let's also acknowledge, and pay tribute to, the true cultural meaning and context of art. Let's celebrate music as a manifestation of living history, as an expression not only of individuals but of the cultural and historical experiences they and their ancestors have shared. Let those of us who are blessed with the privilege of being received as honored guests in a culture not our own embrace this privilege with humility and grace as well as with creativity and innovation. Let us always strive to honor the spirit, the history, and the meaning behind the music, not just the "feelings" and the notes. Let's not propagate cultural dilution -- or, at its most extreme, cultural genocide -- disguised as integration and color-blind liberalism.

C o m m e n t s

The Blues In Black And White 1 of 6
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March 20, 01

This article was incredibly well-written, handling delicate yet important subject matter very deftly. We live in strange times; we walk a very fine line as musicians, writers, fans, and members of what has now become a world-wide community... the essense, though, seems to be this-- ANYONE can (and _MANY_ DO) play Jazz and Blues (the music has traveled the world over, and can no longer be considered an exclusively "American" phenomenon). The music _does_ belong to everybody, and it _should_ (which is one of the outcomes, for good or bad, of having a class of "professional" musicians in a market economy). BUT, we must understand that in a very real way, "American" music _is_ "Black" music; it came from a very specific time and place, in response to very specific social and emotional factors and spiritual catalysts. If we honor the music, we must honor the history that goes with it. As a hispanic kid growing up as a "white boy" in a suburban middle class neighborhood, I grew up listening to, being touched by, and shaped by music in a way I didn't fully understand; but as a musician, an educator, a journalist/historian, and yes, a light-brown colored Blues artist, I am not only aware of the music's cultural context and origins-- I feel an incumbency, a necessity, to help educate others about where this music came from, and why it came to be.

Thank you, Mr. Whiteis, for cogently chrystallizing these very important issues.


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