The Blues In Black And White: Meditations On The Skin Game by David Whiteis

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

For years, blues lovers dreamed of the day when we could celebrate together, without regard for the small-minded prejudices that for so long made it impossible to celebrate freely. A lot of folks still remember the way it used to be, especially in the South. Musicians risked their lives if they toured in integrated buses. Even sharing a stage might touch off a riot – white musicians who sat in with black bands, or black sidemen who accompanied a white headliner, sometimes had to play hidden behind a curtain. Some clubs 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 the ‘40s, ‘50s, and early ‘60s might be punished by their parents, ridiculed by their peers, and lectured by their clergy. Racist organizations like the White Citizens’ Council of Alabama urged white communities to boycott stores that sold “Negro records,” lest the “savage” rhythms and “screaming, idiotic words” corrupt the lily-white purity of Caucasian youth. Their efforts succeeded all too well: black artists who enjoyed household-name status among black listeners were, for the most part, virtually unknown to whites. About the only way a black blues or R&B artist could have a “mainstream” hit was for a white artist to record a cover version, and 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 many modern blues festivals, concerts, awards ceremonies, and clubs look like an integrationist’s dream; these days “color-blindness” has come to mean insisting that white musicians not be discriminated against (if that’s not an oxymoron) on the blues stage, on the radio show, or in the critical commentary. What used to be called black music – blues, jazz, R&B, even rap and hip-hop – is seldom even called that any more. Living Blues Magazine, the oldest continuous blues-based periodical in the U.S., has in recent years come under increasing fire for its insistence to remain –as its masthead proclaims– “The Journal Of The Afro-American Blues Tradition.” A newer magazine, Blues Revue, has pointedly flaunted its putative “color-blind” policy by billing itself as "The Blues Resource for All of America;" its masthead now proclaims it "The World's Blues Magazine." Guitarist Bob Margolin, a white musician who played for years in the Muddy Waters band, has written a column for Blues Revue that has expanded and elaborated on the argument that the blues – and music in general – has no intrinsic “color” or “ethnicity” (at least not anymore), and should be listened to and appreciated in that spirit. Another white guitarist, Elvin Bishop, titled one of his CDs The Skin I’m In as a pointed jab –really, a gauntlet thrown down – to those who’d question his authenticity as a bluesman.

And it’s all, of course, going on in the name of the most well-meaning and progressive social agendas – after all, isn’t this what “diversity” is supposed to be about? Just as 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 contributions they’ve been making to blues and R&B for decades.

Alongside these developments, though, 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 colorblind 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 treated as interlopers or even cultural thieves; they feel as if they’re being asked, unfairly, to pay dues for the sins of the past. On the other side of the divide, African American musicians who proclaim the ethnic and cultural identity of their art are sometimes accused of “reverse racism” and knee-jerk Afrocentrism. But if they incorporate pop and rock influences into their styles, or work in integrated bands, they’re open to charges of selling out. 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 national debates rage over multiculturalism, bilingualism, Ebonics, and “identity politics”; 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 – in such a world, idealistic visions of “free choice” and sharing cannot be separated from issues of equity and justice. To portray contemporary American race and class relations as equal – even in the music world– is disingenuous at best. It obscures very real inequities in power – inequities that threaten to weaken, if not destroy, the cultural and historical context in which the blues has developed over the years.

This is not to deny, of course, that 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 Jonny Lang, the North Mississippi Allstars, or the late Stevie Ray Vaughan 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 African-American divas Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price performing European classical music alongside traditional Negro spirituals and folk songs; Paul Robeson singing Broadway show tunes, Hasidic chants and German lieder; Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin reinterpreting the works of pop songwriters like Paul Simon or Lennon and McCartney (who themselves drank deeply from multicultural wells); Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins fusing country music and blues into rock & roll.

What’s going on in the blues these days, however, 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. In 1956, no less an authority than Elvis reminded his public that ”the colored folks have been singing and playing it just like I’m doing now, man, for more years than I know. I got it from them.” Throughout his life Elvis went out of his way to pay credit to Arthur Crudup, Fats Domino, Jackie Wilson, and other African-American artists who had inspired him and served as musical role models (and he also put his money where his curled-up mouth was, contributing generously to Wilson’s medical care after Jackie was felled by a stroke.)

Later in the ‘60s, at least some white 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. When the Rolling Stones embarked on their first U.S. tour, they insisted on showcasing Chicago blues legend Howlin’ Wolf on their first American television appearance; when Memphis-born harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite moved to Chicago in the ‘60s, he settled on the South Side, in the same community as the African-American blues musicians whom he idolized. Admittedly, such cultural cross-pollinations sometimes manifested themselves in self-conscious “blue-eyed soul brother” posing; at their best, however, they 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. (And in many cases, the artists never forgot where the music came from: In 1976, when The Band performed their famous “Last Waltz” farewell concert at Winterland in San Francisco, someone associated with the project tried to cut Muddy Waters from the bill. Drummer Levon Helm was ouitraged: he stated that if Muddy wasn’t going to appear, neither would he. He personally forced the “suits” to include Muddy, his friend and mentor, on the show.)

The diminution of this perspective has been so gradual, and so insidious, that casual observers may not even realize how pervasive it has been. After all, most people 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 this music led directly to electrified blues, R&B, and rock & roll. We even acknowledge that many of the social and cultural elements 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 something is history we usually mean it’s a dead issue. Today, when contemporary white blues artists like Margolin or harpist Jerry Portnoy acknowledge their debt to a mentor like Muddy Waters or Big Walter Horton, it’s usually understood that they’re referring 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. 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.

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. You can’t have “freedom” without equality, and equality entails more than the bromides of well-meaning individuals who call 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, perhaps through no intentional fault of their own, a generation or two of corporate-sponsored white blues artists, with well-greased access to media and dollars, now threaten to obscure the historical and cultural significance of a music created, and still played, largely by people who do not share equally in the 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 has moved 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 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 too after-hours joints on the west side of Chicago, hungry for a taste of the thrilling and forbidden “real thing.” You almost expect the 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 cool 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 seems that 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.

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. In recent years, for instance, Klezmer music –the improvisational ensemble playing that evolved out of the Jewish shtetls and ghettos of the late 19th and early 20th centuries– has become trendy. At present, everyone seems happy about this development. Jews are proud that this rich and soul-stirring musical heritage has found wider acceptance; everyone else is delighted to have discovered a new lode of aesthetic and emotional uplift. But if, in a decade or so, the Klezmer scene becomes dominated by a bunch of red-haired Irish kids named Duffy who name their bands “Little Moishe and the Lower East Side Bagel Kings,” pose for CD covers in front of Kosher delis sporting newsboy caps and dark glasses, and persist in telling interviewers that this music is, after all, “just notes” or “just 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 it also means that if we’re to understand and appreciate it with honesty and integrity, we need to acknowledge and pay tribute to the true cultural meaning and context of art. In other words, let’s learn to 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.
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