The Blues, The Blacks And The Whites

Posted by: Daniel R. Lehrman Posted in: Guitar Lessons

I have been reading a couple of really good books on the blues and it’s history, and it’s expressive nature. One of the books is called ”Blues” it is an NPR Listeners Guide written by Davis Evans and forwarded by Taj Mahal. I am also reading about the history of recorded music, which is more about how ‘recording sounds’ became such an important invention in the late 1800’s, and the fascinating way the industry grew. The point is that the success of recorded music crosses paths with the blues, which really set the recording industry into the tremendous business it is today.

We certainly have a lot to owe to he first recording artists. The first person to sign a contract with a recording company was Caruso, a famous opera singer around the turn of the century. Folks like Thomas Edison (who was a rat bastard)  used their business savvy as well to make recorded sound a ‘taken for granted’ fixture in every home, car and you name it, today.

This article added so much to my education and it seems to stand alone as far as being complete with a basic history of both books I’m reading now, I thought you might be interested. Except, the article is extraordinarily long, so I will break it up into several segments. I know you will become hooked on this article and come back for more. Enjoy

“Why Do Whites Sing Black?”: The blues, whiteness, and early histories of rock.
Popular Music and Society, June, 2003, by Mike Daley

The rock critic Albert Goldman, who was later to become notorious for his biographies of Elvis Presley and John Lennon, wrote an essay in 1969 for the New York Times called “Why Do Whites Sing Black?” This essay provides a classic framework of essentialism and selective representation in discussing white appropriations of the blues. In the present article, I use Goldman’s piece as a framework for a discussion of the 1960s blues revival. I argue that the blues revival depended on a stereotyped representation of black culture, and that this in turn was used to remedy a perceived lack of authenticity in white rock music. This colonization of black music involves a process of “Othering,” where the dominant culture renders the subordinate culture in terms of difference, and that difference allows the dominant culture to define itself. The Other–coded as low culture–is used as a counterbalance to the high culture. Stallybrass and White identified this complementarity when they wrote:

A recurrent pattern emerges: the “top” attempts to reject and
eliminate the “bottom” for reasons of prestige and status, only to
discover, not only that it is in some way frequently dependent on
the low-Other … but also that the top includes that low
symbolically, as a primary eroticized constituent of its own
fantasy life. The result is a mobile, conflictual fusion of power,
fear and desire in the construction of subjectivity….
(Stallybrass and White 5)

While one may be tempted to dismiss Goldman as a crank, especially considering the almost pathological hostility of his Presley and Lennon books, it might be instructive to remember that this piece appeared in one of the most respected newspapers in the world; moreover, I would suggest that his ideas only render explicit a number of unwritten and unsaid assumptions about black and white musics. It should also be noted, though, that Goldman’s writing often appeared in newspapers and periodicals that were not marketed to the typical rock audience. Thus, he was regularly charged with explaining rock music to the “establishment,” who may have regarded this music with some suspicion to begin with. Rather than challenging the racialist assumptions of the status quo, though, Goldman regularly pandered to mainstream ideas about the role of black culture in the arts. This is not to say that Goldman was an anomaly among rock writers. As I shall illustrate later, the ideas about race and authenticity promulgated in “Why Do Whites Sing Black?” were shared by writers like Chet Flippo, who preached to the converted (the “hip,” younger rock audience) at Rolling Stone for many years.

To put Goldman in some context, I would like to discuss some of the contemporary tropes about authenticity and blackness in rock music as illustrated in some of the earliest published histories of rock. But the modern idea of authenticity is much more pervasive than just within rock criticism.

The discourse of folk authenticity can be traced back at least as far as the nineteenth-century Romantics, inasmuch as it articulates a longing for a fantasized lost innocence–as if the folk society is a reflection of the modern culture “before the fall,” as it were. Writing in the mid 1960s, Charles Keil attributed white interest in black music to “a felt deficiency of some sort in the American mainstream” (Keil 49). If we can locate the historical center of the blues revival in the late 1960s, the time of Goldman’s writing, then the unspoken obverse of the romanticization of the blues is the perceived commercialism–the loss of innocence–of mainstream rock. The discourse of pop music decadence probably began around the time of the payola hearings in 1960 and followed through the heyday of the teen idols of the early ’60s, but it reached its peak thanks to the efforts of the first generation of rock critics and historians. These writers built a discursive construct of rock as an art form in constant precarious tension with the market forces that facilitated its dissemination.

Several histories of rock music appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the first wave of rock historiography. Carl Belz’s The Story of Rock is a good example. Like innumerable others, he constructs the history of rock as a series of discrete eras, beginning with the innocence of the ’50s and culminating in the commercialized and decadent present, which for him was the period between 1968 and 1971. Rock music during that time was “plagued by uncertainty about its own identity–particularly in relation to pop commercialism” (Belz 210). He gives as examples of rock profiteering “the promotion of James Taylor as an authentic and original folk singer and of Johnny Winter as a master of the Delta blues” (212). Langdon Winner, writing in 1969, places rock’s crisis of authenticity somewhat earlier. He proclaims that, “[t]he issue of creativity versus pure commercialism, of course, takes us to the very heart of the motivational maladies which afflicted rock and roll at that time” (Winner 43). For a while, Winner writes, the commercial forces gained the upper hand: “For all intents and purposes, rock and roll died in 1961 and remained in that condition until its renaissance in early 1964” (39), a victim of surf music, teen idols, and Beach Blanket Bingo. The renaissance, as played out over the rest of the ’60s, consisted of innovations in three areas: technology and technique, rhythm and time, and the scope of musical resources. Tellingly, all of these developments are related by Winner to new infusions of African-American musical aesthetics. The new technological possibilities of the electric guitar are revealed by Eric Clapton, Mike Bloomfield and Jimi Hendrix, three blues-raised musicians (Winner 45). Innovations in technique are attributed to renewed study of Albert King, B. B. King and Muddy Waters (46). The replenishment of rock rhythmic resources is ascribed to the “soul beat[s]” of James Brown, Sam and Dave, and Otis Redding (47). Finally, the increased scope of musical resources available to rock musicians includes spirituals, Charles Mingus, and Chicago blues (48).


(1.) This makes sense when one considers that by this time, the parameters of blues style had been codified for the mass audience by the blues revivalists. Thus the development of the form was arrested while a frozen, stereotyped pre-1960s blues style became dominant.

(2.) The characterization of black culture as simple and innocent can also be traced back to Romantic abolitionist literature–in “Africa Delivered; or, The Slave Trade Abolished,” James Grahame wrote: “In that fair land of hill, and dale, and stream, The simple tribes from age to age had heard No hostile voice” (quoted in Brantlinger 189) “until,” Brantlinger continues, “the arrival of the slave traders, who introduced to an Edenic Africa those characteristic products of civilization: avarice, treachery, rapine, murder, warfare, and slavery” (Brantlinger 189). (3.) Even the original black buyers of early blues records were considered to be unworthy consumers of the music. In The Country Blues, Samuel Charters writes about two relatively unpopular blues singers, Rabbit Brown and Robert Johnson, on the basis that “the blues audience is capricious and not in the least concerned with musical or sociological concepts” (quoted in Titon 228).

Works cited

Bane, Michael. White Boy Singin’ the Blues. New York: Da Capo, 1992 (1982).

Belz, Carl. The Story of Rock. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.

Brantlinger, Patrick. “Victorians and Africans: The Genealogy of the Myth of the Dark Continent”. “Race,” Writing, and Difference. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Chicago, IL, and London: U of Chicago P, 1986. 185-222.

Cantwell, Robert. When We Were Good: The Folk Revival. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1996.

Charters, Samuel. The Country Blues. New York: Da Capo, 1975.

Flippo, Chet. On the Road with the Rolling Stones: 20 Years of Lipstick, Handcuffs and Chemicals. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985.

George, Nelson. The Death of Rhythm and Blues. New York: Pantheon, 1988.

Goldman, Albert. “Why Do Whites Sing Black?” New York Times, 14 Dec. 1969: D25, 46.

Haralambos, Michael. Right On: From Blues to Soul in Black America. London: Eddison Press, 1974.

Keil, Charles. Urban Blues. Chicago, IL, and London: U of Chicago P, 1966.

Marcus, Greil. Rock and Roll Will Stand. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1969.

Roediger, David R. The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. London: Verso, 1991.

Stallybrass, Peter, and White, Allan. The Politics and Poetics of Transgression. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986. Time, 9 Aug. 1971: 41.

Titon, Jeff Todd. “Reconstructing the Blues: Reflections on the 1960s Blues Revival.” Transforming Tradition: Folk Music Revivals Examined. Ed. Neil V. Rosenberg. Urbana, IL: U of Illinois P, 1996. 220-40.

Ward, Brian. Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness, and Race Relations. Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 1998.

Winner, Langdon. “The Strange Death of Rock and Roll.” Rock and Roll Will Stand. Ed. Greil Marcus. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1969. 38-55.

Mike Daley is a producer at CBC Radio in Toronto, Canada. He is currently working on a Ph.D in ethnomusicology at York University while pursuing an active performing and recording career. His dissertation, on Jimi Hendrix and rock historiography, is near completion.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Popular Press
COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

If you are a subscriber, the next part of the article will come in the mail tomorrow, I know you are hanging in there and can’t wait. If you are new, well, get a subscription, I can’t guarantee everything I write about or come across will be this good, but, if you enjoy this vibe, I score every now and  then. I give the author credit on every page, he deserves it. To be continued tomorrow.


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