Continuation: The Blues, The Blacks And The Whites:Found a Quiet Place To Read, Eh?

Found a Quiet Place To Read, Eh?

Robert Cantwell characterizes the entire folk revival as “a complex response … to the ongoing adjustment of newcomer groups, whether racial, ethnic, or generational, to the conditions of life under an industrial and post-industrial social and economic system” (Cantwell 53). Comparing folk revivalism to nineteenth-century blackface minstrelsy, Cantwell argues that the “invention of the folk” provides a sense of security in a changing world, allowing the dominant culture to define itself contrastively (54-55).

The blues revival of the 1960s was in many ways an extension of the late ’50s/ early ’60s folk revival, at least in the US. In Britain, blues revivalism was an outgrowth of the trad jazz movement, which Ed Ward calls “a pallid but enthusiastic attempt to recreate the Chicago and New Orleans styles of the twenties” (Ward 343). Jeff Titon defines the blues revival as a time when a music “by and for chiefly black Americans [was turned] into a music by black and white Americans primarily for white Americans and Europeans” (Titon 223). I would add white European (mainly British) musicians to the mix as well. Titon traces the beginnings of the revival in the United States to the publication of Samuel Charters’s book The Country Blues in 1959, and locates its demise at the 1970 Ann Arbor Blues Festival (Titon 223-24). I suspect that these watermarks a more a matter of personal meaning for Titon than of historical accuracy; but as the account of a fairly typical blues revivalist, his version will do for now.

The idea of blues itself is a constructed one, based on contributions from a number of sources: collectors who, in building discographies, helped to define blues by their exclusions and inclusions of certain records; critics like Samuel Charters, who created blues in their romanticized image of the Old South and untainted black culture, of the solitary, anguished bluesman in a shabby hotel room (I’m thinking here of that paragon of blues authenticity, Robert Johnson, who was kind enough to provide blues revivalists with a neatly delimited body of work, a Faustian legend, and an early death); and the musicians who reinterpreted the blues for a wide audience, inevitably narrowing its stylistic breadth and promoting a small canon of blues “standards.”

The blues revival involved, at first, the collecting of old blues records. Almost immediately, urban musicians began to duplicate these performances, usually within the acoustic country blues idiom. By the mid-’60s, younger British musicians were adapting the urban blues as well. Eventually, some older black blues performers reaped trickle-down benefits from the publicity given them by Eric Clapton and others. B. B. King, Albert King, and Muddy Waters found large white audiences, especially on the college circuit.

In any case, most urban blacks did not participate in the 1960s blues revival–as Nelson George describes, blues was no longer relevant to the young, while the older listeners were uncomfortable in the new social contexts of the music (George 46). I should point out that this was not true in many regions of the United States, where blues continued to be very popular with black audiences through the ’60s and beyond. But within urban contexts, many of the black blues musicians who suddenly found themselves playing for large, affluent white audiences welcomed the extended lease on their careers, and some in fact preferred the white audiences to black ones. As B. B. King told Time magazine in 1971: “The blacks are more interested in the jumpy stuff. The whites want to hear me for what I am” (Time 41). For musicians like King, who preferred to remain within the ’50s style, the white audience was a boon. For other blues musicians who might have wished to update their styles, the revival was less fortuitous? The white audience, according to another King interview from 1968, “knew about the blues before I came there…. [T]hey were interested in what I had to offer, and they came to listen, not dance, not clap their hands, or do anything of this sort, just listen” (Time 41).

Goldman’s 1969 essay is a distillation of some of the most potent ideas about race and authenticity that were circulating at the time in writing about rock music. The assumptions that he so vividly illustrates have had a lasting impact on the ways that we understand the history of rock, and, by extension, a large part of the cultural history of the last fifty years.

Goldman, in “Why Do Whites Sing Black?,” begins with a romanticized scene of old Memphis, at a time when “America was still a land of brutal innocence” (D25). Describing a cast of “plough jockeys and parlor belles … shouting congregations and shouting bluesmen,” he talks of the “plangent sounds” of the blues “rising in a dense, pungent cloud over Memphis,” where they remain until reclaimed by “this generation’s longing for the good-time years” (D25). (2) Meanwhile, Beale Street has crumbled, and presumably authentic black culture as well. The metaphor of music as a cloud that arises from culture, to hover autonomously above while the world below changes, powerfully illustrates Goldman’s assumption of music as autonomous from its social context, a body of texts which assume independent status as they are released, and which can be “retrieved,” literally plucked out of the ether at a later date to infuse a new generation with some kind of magical culture energy.

Goldman praises the contemporary white appropriations of the blues as a vestige of racial harmony in the midst of strife. He writes:

Spun out of the grooves of a hundred million records and spread
across the country by a hundred million speakers, the Memphis Soul
Sound enfolds the nation now like an evangelical tent, rocking with
hymns to the newly proclaimed brotherhood of black men and white
men in modern America. (Goldman D25)

While it seems at first that Goldman is interpreting Memphis soul as integrationist, in fact he qualifies his statement by pointing out that his utopian black–white culture occurs through the mediation of “a hundred million records.” His argument rests on the unstated assumption that because records circulate as commodities, the recording medium allows the easy crossing of cultural borders. But, as Robert Cantwell points out, “folk revivalism is inherently political … because it involves the movement of cultural materials … from enclaved, marginal, usually poverty-stricken people toward the centers of cultural power…” (Cantwell 51). The process of appropriation is always infused with the unequal power relations that operate at every level of Western society. Yet Goldman asks: “how can a pampered, milk-faced, middle class kid who has never had a hole in his shoe sing the blues that belong to some beat-up old black who lived his life in poverty and misery?” Goldman answers his own question with a thesis that white kids are trying to save their souls. Adopting as a tentative identity the firmly set, powerfully expressive mask of the black man, the confused, conflicted and frequently self-doubting and self-loathing offspring of Mr. and Mrs. America are released into an emotional and spiritual freedom denied them by their own inhibited culture.
(Goldman D25)

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

This stuff just floors me, I can’t get enough of it. I hope you are as riveted as I am about The Blues, The Blacks and The Whites, and enjoyed the first part, come back tomorrow for another installment. Enjoy.

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