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Here Goldman repeats the old stereotype of black culture as simple, instinctive, and carefree, unencumbered by the white burden of intelligence, introspection, and responsibility. Historically, this particular Othering of blackness has been traced by David Roediger to the resentments of immigrant white workers toward a perceived competition in the form of freed black men in the years prior to the Civil War. The black Other, Roediger writes, “embod[ied] the preindustrial, erotic careless style of life the white worker hated and longed for” (Roediger 13-14). As Brian Ward recently noted:

White enthusiasts routinely reduced the diverse sounds and lyrical
perspectives of Rhythm and Blues to a set of stock characteristics
which they had always … associated with the unremittingly
physical, passionate, ecstatic, emotional and, above all, sexually
liberated black world of their imaginations. Paradoxically, in so
doing, white fans of black music neatly fitted black music, style
and culture into much the same normative categories so dear to the
most bigoted opponents of black music and black equality….
(Ward 12)

Eventually, though, Goldman writes, “the white kids will swing back into their own tradition, fortified and enlightened by the adventure of transvestism” (Goldman D25). The experience of immersion in the blues is seen as slumming, or, to extrapolate from Goldman’s metaphor, sexualized role-play.

Goldman gives the example of Paul Butterfield, a white musician who came to study the blues and “so ingratiated himself with his black masters that they took him on as an apprentice and taught him the blues the way no young black boy is taught in these evil tradition-spurning days” (Goldman D25). Because of the new, upwardly mobile northern black middle class, the classic arts are lost on black youth. (3) It is left to the visionary white men to recognize the value of the blues, and preserve it in its most authentic forms. This is the trope at the center of the blues revival–the fantasy of the white blues aficionado as the savior of black music–the benevolent master. He retrieves the dying tradition from the clutches of decadent black culture and reanimates it, even improves upon it.

Michael Bane, writing about American white blues revivalists, argues that “they learned the music from the bottom up. They won acceptance in the black community because, and solely because, they were so damn good” (Bane 183). The white revivalist, the commentator is relieved to note, does not desecrate the blues but masters it. Bane quotes Nick Gravenites (another white blues musician and composer from Chicago) in the same book, recounting Paul Butterfield’s early career:

I remember there was this place called the Blue Flame Lounge, and
Butterfield would be the only white guy there. He was part of an
all-black R&B review. At first he was a novelty act–white guy
playing blues harmonica. But he’d knock them out. He was better
than any of the people playing there, no matter who they were.
(Bane 186)

As the final element in the model, the white revivalist provides the black blues musician with his long-overdue financial rewards. As Gravenites boasted to Michael Bane, “We got ’em contracts … and not just ‘nigger’ contracts either. We got them more money than they’d ever gotten before in their life” (Bane 194).

This is the classic model, but Goldman extends it further. Butterfield, writes Goldman, has transcended the limitations of the blues in a new music that uses the freedom of the blues as a base but goes beyond. Goldman describes Butterfield’s music:

Faster, freer, more wide-open than the present style of Chicago;
more contemporary in its harmonies and rhythms than the sibling
style of Kansas City; a time-machined mix, half past and half
present, half black and half white, the Butterfield Band style
of the moment is that rarest of things in American music–a viable,
convincing and enormously enjoyable extension of an old and
honored folk idiom. Butterfield has done for blues what no black
lad could do–he has breathed into the ancient form a powerful
whiff of contemporary life. (Goldman D46)

Writing about a 1977 club show by the Rolling Stones, Chet Flippo strikes a similar chord:

The Stones fully reverted to what they actually were in the
beginning: English schoolboys faithfully aping American Southern
blues singers. If there were any way to get temporary skin
transplants, these Limey boys would be black every night onstage.
As it was, they played it a hell of a lick and still sounded
surprisingly blacker that most white Limeys and than even a few
gentrified, upwardly mobile American negro singers who sensed that
“the blues” was actually sung by field niggers not long off the
ship. Better a marcelled hairdo and a drape suit and a record
contract in Chi-cago or New York than Can’t Bust ‘Em overalls and
a chaw of Red Man tobackky and kowtowing to the White Massa and
moaning about staring up the backside of a mule on those endless
plow rows instead of singing about dancing with some foxy
high-yellow pussy at the Aragon Ballroom…. [E]ven Mick Jagger,
middle-class and socially grasping as he was, had the lungs and
the soul to out-soul many brothers. (Flippo 85-86)Somehow in Goldman’s and Flippo’s discursive worlds, the avid study of black music allows the white artist to become a paradigm of hyperwhiteness, so white he’s black. In a parallel story, Goldman celebrates Steve Winwood, following his apprenticeship in black music, as “Super-Whitey No. 1,” as if immersion in black music paradoxically energizes the whiteness of its participants (Goldman D46). Eventually, too, the black practitioner is pushed out of the equation altogether. As Bane put it:

The central question changed from “Can a white man sing the blues?”
to “Can a black man sing the blues?” because after Cream the
whites had the terminology all sewed up. With the skill of a
surgeon, popular culture removed “black” from “blues” leaving the
term free to become almost synonymous with British groups in the
[John] Mayall cast. (Bane 159).

Albert Goldman’s account of Paul Butterfield’s musical development–his early apprenticeship in authentic blues, his mastery of the form, and finally his fortified return to superwhite rock–can be seen as a paradigm of the blues revival, at least within the discursive world of rock criticism and historiography. A more extensive study would be required to shed light on the ways that these ideas influenced actual practice–the ways that musicians and fans used these tropes in their music making, listening, and purchasing patterns. Nonetheless, I think that some of the viewpoints that I have highlighted may point the way to a better understanding of the fantasies and assumptions that informed late ’60s and early ’70s conceptualizations of rock.


(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

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

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