White Blues, The Death of Living Blues, Demythologizing the Blues - Who's Blues Are They?
August 22, 2002 10:01 AM   Subscribe

Demythologizing The Blues. Blues reseacher and scholar David Evans breaks it down. Country blues as a living tradition tied to a rural black culture - there is something of that culture left - I think it's essentially over.--that's from this interview with David Evans--scroll past the autobiographical details for the meat and potatos. Paul Garon, of Race Traitor and Living Blues, has strong feelings about White Blues. Similarly, black writer Jesse Douglas Allen-Taylor feels a chill amidst a white blues audience and asks Whose Blues Are They? Also, n a related and timely topic, here's Elvis Presley and the Impulse Towards Transculturation. (Hint: Elvis didn't sound black. Well, duh...) Originally in the NYT--no password needed now!--The Blues Dying In The Land Where It Was Born, and as a bonus, the New Yorker profile on an outfit I love to loathe, Fat Possum. Is is this guy's fault? And if you want to make the pilgrimage, let Junior's Juke Joint be your guide! (don't forget to make that unannounced drop in on raysmj!) Added bonus: R. Crumb's Charley Patton.
posted by y2karl (34 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
On the question of Are the Blues Yet Alive?, my short answer would be, at best, barely. As noted here. And that's the theme of this thread, I guess... And you?
posted by y2karl at 10:07 AM on August 22, 2002

perhaps on a larger social scale. But music seems to me a personal matter. When i listen to say Leroy Carr, i am awed. And does Blind Lemon really get neglected? Part of what draws me to the Delta blues is the guitar and some times piano work. The control and cadence....good post Karl, i dont care what miguel says about you:)
posted by clavdivs at 10:47 AM on August 22, 2002

So I love blues music, I'm of european descent. I understand that white people playing the blues is hard to buy. Especially "the blues" as a very specific product of a time and a place and a culture. But the tone of some people in these articles seems to say "white" people shouldn't even listen to the blues (college kids listening in bars, yuppie cd collections, etc..). I mean white people have suffered. There's alot of Irish music and it's cousin country music that reeks of the same kind of optimistic misery that good blues has. So can white people even listen to the blues ?

ps. Y2Karl (this is fine big post btw) why do you love to hate homeboy from fatpossum, i can guess but i'd like to hear?
posted by Divine_Wino at 10:51 AM on August 22, 2002

Excellent. thanks y2karl!
posted by whatnot at 10:58 AM on August 22, 2002

i dont care what miguel says about you:)

Well it's true, clavdivs. It's always the same two words and here they come again: great post!
posted by MiguelCardoso at 10:59 AM on August 22, 2002

Jesus, Karl! Link-a-rama. Thanks for the great post.
posted by websavvy at 11:00 AM on August 22, 2002

There's a name for the last bit of wine in the bottle,
Divine_Wino, as you should so well know: dregs.
Their roster is composed of who's left that's still alive, missed by all the record collectors and folk revivalists and undiscovered in the 21st century in a music that has not advanced, rural blues that is, for over fifty years.There's better left alive, as in the link in the first comment there.

Oh, hi, everybody, thanks... *blush*
posted by y2karl at 11:03 AM on August 22, 2002

I can dig it. i actually cannot really listen to the fat possum recordings for all the remixing and blah blah (it's not that I'm afraid of some new permutation of blues that might be good, it's just that it sounds awful) but seeing people like RL Burnside live in New York City is pretty cool. Especially as he was doing a very traditional set. Which to me is a benefit of fatpossum bringing bringing these people to light, even if they then go ahead and make em sound shitty.

I'm currently really digging Precious Bryant btw who cut an album with some dude who left fat possum. Her record is a very straight traditional recording.
posted by Divine_Wino at 11:25 AM on August 22, 2002

Growing up in a small Indiana farm town in the late 50's early 60's didn't offer much in the way of music diversity. At 7 or 8 while playing with the radio in the 55 Chevy I picked up WLAC out of Nashville and started listening to it because it was so far away. As a result John R. played the music that created the core of what I would enjoy in music. At the time I didn't know if it was black, white or whatever. I just knew I liked the way it sounded. Can that happen today? I don't think so. Nice links.
posted by mss at 11:49 AM on August 22, 2002

What's particularly aggravating about white people and blues isn't so much their appreciation of the music itself, which is ultimately a personal thing, but their complete disregard for the social conditions out of which blues arose/arises. The New Yorker article bothered me less for the Fat Possum material than for McInerney's "this is the south, this is the blues, this is great" attitude. Blues may be a flower, but it grows from shit, and while it's fine to love the flower it's amazing that some people can ignore where it grows. Mississippi - and the Delta region in particular - is no different from a third-world country. The plantation system is alive and well, and if the racial situation has improved socially, there's still an enormous economic disparity between white and black, one that perpetuates itself through broken schools, broken homes, and a social system that is virtually non-existent. There's a crack epideic in that region unlike anything ever seen in our inner cities. Social order has broken down, and all McInerney can say about his visit is "wow I saw some great blues music."
posted by risenc at 11:50 AM on August 22, 2002

... although I think Fat Possum deserves credit for releasing Solomon Burke's "Don't Give Up On Me", a mighty fine recording if there ever was one!

Great post, mind.
posted by soundofsuburbia at 12:04 PM on August 22, 2002

risenc: The plantation system is pretty much dead, actually, except in spirit in the Delta and parts elsewhere. But the poverty lives on (in the Delta specifically), and so does the out-migration. If attention to the blues helps bring some money and attention to other things about the region, though (and one of the warmest and most emphatic accounts of a Delta trip I saw recently was at the site of a musician - Shannon McNally), what's the problem? Hmm. Doesn't appear to be any problem at all.

Oh well. You mean the Delta nothing but good, and I imagine you just want them to point out the hard times still there more, great. Just state that, and be done with it, or talk about the music in your own way. Otherwise, it sounds kinda shrill and self-righteous. And I've heard that sort of thing a zillion times. It doesn't seem to do ay good, or turn anyone's head. (By the way, if you took the Delta counties out, Miss. would be ranked almost 39th or 40th in almost every social indicator ranking, so you're not quite right about the whole state being a part of the Third World. But yeah, the Delta's pretty freakin' poor.)
posted by raysmj at 12:09 PM on August 22, 2002

That's 17 Delta or part-Delta counties out of 82 in the state. Forgot that few will know exactly what we're (we at metafilter, or the royal we, or whoever you like) talking about there. The Delta's like a bowl, an alluvial plain of the Miss. River to be specific, stretching from Memphis to Vicksburg.
posted by raysmj at 12:14 PM on August 22, 2002

I like this roadtrip photoalbum Violet Turner took that I found at Junior's Juke Joint. This might help figure folks out where the Delta is, raysmj. (I knew you weren't going to let that slide by...) Hey, you been to one of those mounds?
posted by y2karl at 12:30 PM on August 22, 2002

Great post! I'm especially grateful for the link to Race Traitor which, embarrassingly, I'd never heard of before.
posted by small_ruminant at 1:02 PM on August 22, 2002

Raysmj: Well, like most third world countries, Mississippi has its share of wealth; it's just concentrated in certain demographics and geographies. And don't get me wrong - there's a distinction between an interest in blues, which I'm all for, and a strange diassociation between the music and where it comes from. Fat Possum - cool, they bring money. McInerney - not cool, because he more or less celebrates the poverty as a necessary evil in the production of blues. That strikes me as sort of sick.
posted by risenc at 2:08 PM on August 22, 2002

I hear what you're saying risenc, and it's no small irony to me as to the historical circumstances of Delta blues, but I didn't read such a cavalier attitude in McInerey. Upon rereading the New Yorker article, however, I think I shouldn't be so hard on Fat Possum just because I hate the sound of their productions. Still, I like R.L. Burnsides's Arhoolie album better than anything he did for the obese marsupial--he had better chops back then. Anyway, additional background can be found at the Gayle Dean Wardlow pages, found at the greatest blues site of them all, Blues World. Read the interviews--Wardlow's a Mississippi native who knows the history of the changing Delta landscape and has some interesting insights into the origins of the music there.
posted by y2karl at 2:57 PM on August 22, 2002

y2karl: One thing to keep in mind about McInerney - and this reveals my personal bias - is that he's from the south, Nashville, to be exact (as am I), but he only "reveals" the fact when it's convenient for him. So, in his "Bright Lights, Big City" days, he made out like he was a hip New Yorker, and downplayed - even denied - his southern roots. Then, when it's to his advantage - as with this article - he lets it go. I strongly dislike people like that.
posted by risenc at 3:13 PM on August 22, 2002

There's a better Fat Possum article by Richard Grant, that was originally written for the UK Telegraph magazine, and then posted on the Fat Possum site for a long time. Unfortunately, I can't find it online, for now.
posted by liam at 3:22 PM on August 22, 2002

Jeez, that McInerney--that went right past me until your last comment. Your ire is explained.
They still have that jet plane across the road from the Parthenon?
posted by y2karl at 3:25 PM on August 22, 2002

risenc: We're not talking pockets of wealth like Third World countries. Mississippi the state has a fairly substantial and growing middle class, which most Third World countries do not. The Delta does not have much of a middle class, and it's shrinking, moving away. That's the difference. If you compared upstate New York, say, to most of Mississippi, you wouldn't notice much of a difference. With the Delta, you could, because the poverty's in your face there.

Here's a Miss. unemployment rate map. The Delta counties aren't the only one with high unemployment (notice that most are near the Miss. River, or over in old cotton country in the far eastern part of the state), but thousands of people than average are not even considered a part of the workforce. In short, their unemployment rates are considered to be conservative estimates. This map is also from June, and the Delta has more seasonal workers than other places.

Here's are two other tables showing out-migration from 1990 to 2000. Which area shows the greatest loss? The Delta, easily. I'm not an economist, but I know people who research that state often, and that last map tells you more than practically any study can about what they've told me. It also fits with what I understand from my time in the region. (For the record: One which lost heavily too, and sticks out, is Hinds. It's the home of Jackson, which has seen outmigration to suburbs.)
posted by raysmj at 3:57 PM on August 22, 2002

y2Karl: The plane is still there, as far as I know (I don't live in Nashville anymore). The city has changed a whole lot, though; every time I visit there's a new, major development downtown or along West End Avenue.

raysmj: I see your point - and I suppose I wasn't thinking when I said the entire state. That said, my original point remains the same, that there are far too many people like McInerney who don't see the social roots of blues, and can often be found ignorantly celebrating the poverty that breeds it.
posted by risenc at 5:44 PM on August 22, 2002

risnec: Just for your edification, though, found this article from the Jackson Clarion Ledger from earlier this year on the same topic. I think it was McInerney who I read, somewhere (before a badly received book of his on the blues, or the South, or sumthin'), say that why he was attracted to the blues was its primitive vibe, appeals to certain overeducated persons like himself (he said that). I could get that, to a degree, but it sorta made him sound like people who buy generic folk art for $8,000 in order to sniff in front of their chic New South suburban friends about how fashionably primitive it is. Or maybe I'm judging him by his image. I'm not sure.
posted by raysmj at 6:02 PM on August 22, 2002

posted by raysmj at 6:23 PM on August 22, 2002

Funny, I was thinking of a party I was some years ago, hosted by a woman who owned a very successful South American, Indonesian and African folk art store where everyone was moaning over the loss of tribe and village cultures to the Mammon of mass culture. You couid sympathize with the pangs of the connoisseurs on losing the traditions and handicrafts on one hand and empathize with the villagers wanting to get their hands on good health, a full stomach and a life span beyond 30 even if they are overcome along the way with the mimetic desire for a boombox, running shoes and a Britney t-shirt.

But back on track: I'm not unsympathetic to Paul Garon's read on white blues up abpove there (I have the early 70s issue of Living Blues with his article on Surrealism & The Blues, which he expanded into Blues And The Poetic Spirit. I've not read the latter but if it's anything like the former, I recommend it. And here's a though I had, relating to new white blues. Usually, for me, it'd be like eating a tofu dog when you're a carnivore. I mean, it tastes like a hot dog, sort of, but what's the point? Which is how I felt about John Hammond, Johnny Winter or Stevie Ray Vaughan. But sourthern guys orf a certain vintage--Elvis, Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich, Jerry Lee Lewis--I have no problem with the concept or the execution. I'm thinking it has to do with exposure to the core culture, the historic space and time, the South. And your thoughts on this?
posted by y2karl at 7:45 PM on August 22, 2002

To an extent, sure, although I won't touch the debate over Elvis - so many people see him as a huckster who copped black songs and morphed them into easily digestible bits for white consumption. On the other hand, outside of all the social questions inherent, he definitely had something going on that someone merely out to copy and reproduce couldn't maintain.

A larger, but related, issue is the relationship between blacks and whites, on a daily basis, in the rural deep south. It's very, very different from race relations anywhere else, and I think one of the problems that civil rights leaders and social reformers from outside the deep south have with overcoming obstacles to progress is that they don't understand that dynamic.

Not that that has much to do with white people appreciating the blues. Well, maybe just a little bit.
posted by risenc at 8:52 PM on August 22, 2002

I'd rather support the Music Maker Foundation.
posted by Vidiot at 9:28 PM on August 22, 2002

so many people see him as a huckster who copped black songs and morphed them into easily digestible bits for white consumption.

Not in any small part due to the lies told about him by the likes by first Albert Goldman and then spread by Chuck D--who really should have known better even at the time--you really should read the transculturation link above as well as 'Strange Things Happening Everyday': Race, Class and the Music of Elvis Presley: Memphis 1948-1955 before you buy into the received slander of urban legend. From that easily digestible bits thing, I see that you haven't read either. That is so wrong and ignorant that I have to call you on it. Read the links in that Elvis thread and see if you can repeat such a siimplistic and boneheaded comment...
posted by y2karl at 9:32 PM on August 22, 2002

Sorry about the grouchiness--it's the quitting smoking thing.

A larger, but related, issue is the relationship between blacks and whites, on a daily basis, in the rural deep south. It's very, very different from race relations anywhere else, and I think one of the problems that civil rights leaders and social reformers from outside the deep south have with overcoming obstacles to progress is that they don't understand that dynamic.

I live in Seattle, a very liberal and very un-Southern city, and the cultural segregation and racial tension I took for granted here had no echo when I was in Louisiana for a brief visit or when we passed through Mississippi on the way back--the difference was so profound just on the level of polite street banter between strangers.

Even at the height of the Jim Crow race laws, the social, and therefore musical, interactions between the races were so intimate and complex--southern blacks listened to country (no one ever goes on about Chuck Berry stealing Western swing guitar licks, I must note...) and whites listened to blues. Songsters like Mississippi John Hurt or string bands like the Mississippi Sheiks had huge repertoires of the pop songs of the day, as did white string bands, little of which was ever recorded for various copyright related reasons. Elvis just came in on the tail of that shared musical history and happened to fall into another category previously occupied by Frank Sinatra: teen idol with a predominantly female audience. Which was something he born for with his looks and moves.

A big feature of early rock n' roll and R n' B shows in the South involved the spontaneous and voluntary desegregation of concerts by the audiences themselves. One could argue that the rise of rock 'n roll in general, and Elvis in particular, was part and parcel to the social changes that led to the Civil Rights era.
posted by y2karl at 10:08 PM on August 22, 2002

Related reading: "Deep in the Heart of Dixie" (via Daily Jetsam)
posted by allaboutgeorge at 3:58 AM on August 23, 2002

Oh, yes. There are great conversationalists in Mississippi. You know, Mississippi has a strange reputation because it is last in things like education and median income and health care. It has a reputation for being sort of a third-world country in the middle of America. But my experience is that Mississippi is probably one of the most literate places I've been.

Ray is going to like that one. Hey, thanks, George!
posted by y2karl at 6:56 AM on August 23, 2002

y2carl: Jeez, I was trying to avoid getting flamed ... you can't win for losing, I suppose. I don't at all buy into the "Elvis as a huckster" line, having, yes, read much in the way of his defense. Like I said, it's hard to deny he had something going on. But, also like I said, there are a lot of people who think differently, and I wasn't interested in giving them room to spout. Hunka hunka burnin' love forever.
posted by risenc at 7:08 AM on August 23, 2002

OK, OK, all is forgiven & I apologize. And not that I'm carrying a torch for E--but Elvis was a racist is such a bogue calumny.
posted by y2karl at 7:39 AM on August 23, 2002

Well, it's easy for people to look at him and say "white guy recording black music" and think that it ends there. They impose their own contemporary impressions and assume the same thing applies to Mississippi in the 1940s. But like you said, race and music in the south are anything if not complex, and it's a gross simplification to say that all Elvis did was white-wash black music for teeny-bopper consumption.
posted by risenc at 8:10 AM on August 23, 2002

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