Dirty-South Blues Harp forum: wail on! > Is 'Old Black Joe' still an acceptable song?
Is 'Old Black Joe' still an acceptable song?
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56 posts
Jan 01, 2010
5:53 AM
Went to a New Year's gig last night (UK) where a bunch of internationally known pro musicians did a first-class set of R&B standards. Great, if very, very safe. The keyboard player sang a perfect Jerry Lee Lewis-style version of 'Old Black Joe', with full band. Show-wise, it was a great number. And I know it's not an explicitly racist song.

But when your career has been built specifically on imitating black bluesmen (with all the baggage that has been discussed on these forums before), should you do a tune in 2010 which has serious 'Uncle Tom' overtones? The singer joked that "...when my heart was young and gay" didn't mean (quote) "actually gay". Well that was PC of him.

The only black people in the 2-3000 crowd were the two backing singers btw. I wouldn't have noticed but for this, er, cognitive dissonance.
95 posts
Jan 01, 2010
6:10 AM
If Mel Brooks can have a hit on Broadway with the Producers, I wouldn't feel bad about covering an old tune like this. BTW: not familiar with this one.
901 posts
Jan 01, 2010
6:27 AM
When responding to good questions such as the OP, it's important to be concrete (i.e., to know what we're actually talking about: the lyrics) AND to have a sense of historical and cultural context (i.e., to know what the lyrics connote).

Here are Stephen Foster's lyrics. The song was written in the decade or two before the U.S. Civil War:

Gone are the days when my heart was young and gay, Gone are my friends from the cotton fields away,
Gone from the earth to a better land I know,
I hear their gentle voices calling Old Black Joe.

I'm coming, I'm coming, for my head is bending low,
I hear their gentle voices calling Old Black Joe.
Why do I weep, when my heart should feel no pain,
Why do I sigh that my friends come not again?
Grieving for forms now departed long ago.
I hear their gentle voices calling Old Black Joe.

Where are the hearts once so happy and so free?
The children so dear that I held upon my knee?
Gone to the shore where my soul has longed to go,
I hear their gentle voices calling Old Black Joe.

The song is sung from the perspective of an old black slave named Joe. He's nearing death. He's sad because all of his fellow slaves, those he was children with, those he spent time with in the cotton fields, even those younger slave children who he held on his knee--all are dead and gone.

It's a sentimental song about slavery, written by a white northerner and designed to make white people forget about the true pain of slavery--the cruelty of overseers and compelled labor, the pain engendered when slave traders broke up families, the slaves who died because they were over-worked, under-fed, sexually exploited, and cruelly beaten. That wasn't ALL of slavery, but it was a significant element of how antebellum slavery worked in the U.S. South, and it were those elements that were heightned, of course, in antebellum anti-slavery literature, especially the narratives written by Frederick Douglass, Henry "Box" Brown, and others.

This song wants us to forget all that. It wants us, amazingly, to think that slavery for old black Joe was a matter of feeling "young and gay" in the cotton fields, and fraternizing with friends there. Notice that although the song mentions cotton fields, it says absolutely nothing about work. Slavery was, at bottom, a form of forcibly organized labor in which white people owned black people's bodies (as chattel: moveable property) and had the legal right to extract labor from those bodies, all in the service of producing cotton, tobacco, and other cash crops and making a profit from that enterprise.

The song wants us to forget all that. Yet it also wants us to dwell, sentimentally, in the pain of a particular slave. It's asking us to feel for him, intensely. But it's not asking us to feel for his true plight--the stuff about labor, mistreatment, and broken-up families I've outlined above. Instead, it's misdirecting our attention and asking us to feel for him purely on a human level: he's a terribly lonely old man whose friends are gone, and he longs to join them.

Read critically like this, it has a lot to teach us.

But no, I don't think it's a good song to be singing these days--not when the world is still full of people who have no idea what the historical experience of African Americans has really consisted of. This would include people who say "Slavery ended in 1865. Get over it!" People like that tend not to know much about the Jim Crow segregation and reign of lynching that blew through the South in the 1890s and hardened, remaining in place until the early 1960s. Nor do they know that slavery actually continued in various parts of the South until the Second World War, something that Douglas Blackmon's Pulitzer-Prize winning book on that subject explores thoroughly.

It's a good idea to retire such songs to the history books, rather than keep them in circulation.
260 posts
Jan 01, 2010
6:38 AM
I am not even remotely expert in the specifics of African American history, but consider myself well-versed in apolitical bullshit of the average cap-wearing shlub. So I'd like to add:

Those who say things like "Slavery ended in 1865. Get over it!" are not only ignorant of the true longevity of slavery and overtly legislated discrimination (as detailed in Kudzu's last paragraph). Perhaps worse, folks who think that way ignore the LEGACY of that sort of inequality. Folks who think like that refuse to acknowledge that the threads of history are deeply, inextricably woven into the fabric of ours lives today. I meet a lot of folks like that.
37 posts
Jan 01, 2010
6:46 AM
I think it boils down to 2 things: Be in the listening of your audience, and sing from your authentic voice.
When one has no connection to a song it can sound pretty maudlin.
38 posts
Jan 01, 2010
6:50 AM
Wow, just saw your post Adam, thanks for the insight!
261 posts
Jan 01, 2010
7:27 AM
P.S. I apologise to cap-wearers for my insolent "cap-wearing schlubs" comment above. To atone, I would like to point you towards this image of my two favourite humans, the guitarist and drummer I sometimes play with. Both, you'll note, are sporting headwear.

Fishin' and smokin'

Last Edited by on Jan 01, 2010 10:23 AM
193 posts
Jan 01, 2010
10:01 AM
Does "Summertime" fall into this catagory as well?
If it ain't got harp - it ain't really blues!!!!
Delta Dirt
75 posts
Jan 01, 2010
10:31 AM
Kudzurunner, what exactly do you do on Lafayette County?
632 posts
Jan 01, 2010
10:56 AM
Historical context is really important.

From Wikipedia:

"Foster was influenced greatly by two men during his teenage years: Henry Kleber (1816-1897) and Dan Rice. The former was a classically trained musician who emigrated from the German city of Darmstadt and opened a music store in Pittsburgh, and who was among Stephen Foster’s few formal music instructors. The latter was an entertainer –- a clown and blackface singer, making his living in traveling circuses. Although respectful of the more civilized parlor songs of the day, he and his friends would often sit at a piano, writing and singing minstrel songs through the night. Eventually, Foster would learn to blend the two genres to write some of his best work."


"He instructed Caucasian performers of his songs not to mock slaves but to get their audiences to feel compassion for them."

Add on top of that how language changes over time. 'Old Black Joe' sounds a little, well, at least dated, as a name you would call someone, but for it's time it probably wasn't, and I don't just mean that in the culturally relativistic sense that some people might where you allow people to be racist if their times were perceived as more racist. Cotton fields, of course, have a strong association with slavery. You could argue Foster was trying to help people identify with slaves. There are two ways to attack slavery. You can attack it by showing how horrific it is, but that doesn't mean people will identify with it, or you can try to make people identify with it's victims as people with some of the same concerns that you as the 'privileged' class has. The same argument rages with Mark Twain's writing. He uses racist words and describes racist people, but in the end is he embracing that world or trying to subvert it.

It's always a hard choice whether to write about 'the other'. I remember seeing an interview with Steven Tyler about the Aerosmith song, 'Janie's Got A Gun'. It's a song about incest, about a father raping his daughter until she shoots him. He said it was hard to write. He had to think like the victim. The song was a big hit. It spoke to a lot of people who had been through situations like that. That said, it would be very different singing that in front of a bunch of victims of sexual abuse than it would be singing it in a cell block full of people who were sex offenders.

So, I'd say it comes down to context. If I was going to sing it I'd explain it's significance to the audience first.
902 posts
Jan 01, 2010
12:24 PM

I think that you and I agree. You'll notice that I didn't (I don't think) use the word "racist" to describe the song. I don't think that word means much in this context. I do think that the song encourages us to empathize, sentimentally, with the slave, and to that extent one MIGHT make the argument that it is attacking the institution of slavery, or at least subtly undermining it, by making us see Old Black Joe as a human being with human feelings.

But there were various ways of doing that. Harriet Beecher Stowe encourages precisely that sort of empathy with her slave figures in her anti-slavery novel, UNCLE TOM'S CABIN, all of them but Topsy, and yet she also finds ways of reminding us that slavery is about hard work, profit, and people owning other people. Stephen Foster leaves that part of it out. To that extent, there's nothing in this song that wouldn't be embraced by 95% of antebellum southern slaveowners. They had all convinced themselves that their slaves were bound to them, and to the "peculiar institution" of slavery, by affective bonds: by warm feelings for the master and mistresss, and fond memories of "happy and free" times in the country. (It's precisely for this reason that Douglass frontally attacks the widespread belief that slaves sing most when they're most happy.) They were shocked, in the aftermath of the Emancipation Proclamation and the war's end, to find that the slaves didn't actually feel this way, but were happy to leave.

The slavetraders, I should say, would probably have scoffed at this song. Unlike most slaveowners, most slave traders did NOT attribute significant feelings to their human property.

Last Edited by on Jan 01, 2010 12:30 PM
633 posts
Jan 01, 2010
1:31 PM

It's always hard for a bunch of white guys to sit around and decide what is OK and what isn't OK to talk about in race. That said, Uncle Tom's Cabin had a lot more words to draw a more complicated argument. It's hard to pack all the nuances of a political argument into a few lines. Most of the posts in this thread are longer than the song. It's hard to guess, 150 years after the fact, what his intentions were without reading whole volumes on him.

If I was doing a close reading I might focus on the line, "Why do I weep, when my heart should feel no pain" and wonder if Foster was commenting on how whites looked at slaves, although that might be reading too much into it.

I might expand on what I said about how things are perceived in a historical context:

1. Sometimes things seem racist because the language has changed.
2. Sometimes things were racist but that was so ingrained in the culture at the time that people couldn't see beyond it.
3. Sometimes you had to couch your message to reach a broader audience.

This ties into something from Sociology, about possible 4 attitudes towards racism.

Some people are racist, openly racist.
Some people are racist, but they hide it.
Some people aren't racist.
Some people aren't racist, but in certain company they won't challenge racism, and may even pretend to be racist to fit in.

This oversimplifies it of course. There is a line, somewhere between challenging racism and not challenging racism where fitting in is part of subverting racism.

It's sort of like Marc Anthony's famous speech in Caesar, with the hostile crowd, where he starts of, 'I come not to praise Caesar, but to bury him.' He gets the crowd to listen, then he wins them over to his side. Perhaps Foster is keeping race out of the lyrics to humanize slaves to people who wouldn't otherwise listen, or maybe I'm getting swept up in the lyrics and rusty English Lit skills.

I think it's also important, just from the psychological point of view for writing good lyrics, to note that even someone living in abject debasement may have days, or at least moments, of joy or catharsis and moments when your 'heart is young and gay'.

I look back at some of the tough times in my life when I was so broke that sometimes I didn't have anything to eat, living in a cockroach infested motel, laid up with heel spurs, no job and no medical and suicidal ideation and although I'd never want to go back there, I have fond memories of certain moments. Perhaps because of how stark the contrast was between the baseline and those moments they stand out. My favorite moments in music are moments when sorrow and joy and hope and melancholy all get stirred together.
64 posts
Jan 01, 2010
2:36 PM

I would add a fifth attitude towards racism that I've encountered the majority of the time; some people are racist but truly believe they are not racist:

1. My grandmother who believed there was nothing wrong with her attitude or language because "they call us words you couldn't imagine" so its all fair and good. Also she had a black friend who was a former farm hand of hers and she watched the TV series "Benson" so that proved it. I later had to disown her because of her attitude and language in front of my children; one of whom is bi-racial and another black (she is now 95, has Alzheimer's and doesn't know what planet she's on, let alone what race she is).

2. My wife's aunt and uncle who believe that while there is nothing wrong with other races it was wrong for us to adopt children of other races because God separated the races for a reason (the tower of Babel story), and our bi-racial son is the product of "sin".

3. All the people who use racist words and phrases; who, when I call them on it, look at me incredulously and invariably tell me that its just a phrase and didn't mean anything by it and that they're not racist.

While some of the later may simply be back-peddling after the fact and in essence hiding their racism, most sincerely believe they're not.

Sorry if I've gotten to far off topic.
20 posts
Jan 01, 2010
2:38 PM
And what about Foster's "Oh Suzanna" ?
A standard for all harp players and a tune everybody knows, but just check the orginal lyrics...
634 posts
Jan 01, 2010
3:19 PM
Ozark- I don't think that's off topic at all. My friends mom is like that. I once asked her what group had the highest unemployment rate (I was trying to make a point about disability). She insisted the group with the highest unemployment was white males, because of affirmative action.

Saregapadanisa- Wow, I'd never seen that verse. Context is always only one more sheet of paper away. It would be interesting to see, a hundred years from now, how historians reconstruct our digital lives. I find it both fascinating and chilling to think that someone could reconstruct the context of what I say without me being there to rebut it. Not that I personally expect to be the subject of historians, but it raises all sorts of questions about how ideas evolve, even for one person, during the course of their lifetime and how much more access we give into our thought process, even just in a forum like this.
1003 posts
Jan 01, 2010
3:20 PM
I have to confess--When I am alone in my woodshed and I need a good finger work-out--I sometimes play the shit out of "Darktown Strutters Ball." It's just a great tune--and a bitch to fingerpick Piedmont style. . .
7 posts
Jan 01, 2010
4:03 PM
get over it look who president. and ply your music.and by the way nacoran where would jessie jackson and al sharpton fit in your racist list. now just enjoy the music .quit cring about the past .see what it brings up. white people have hard tims to .ya im old school.
262 posts
Jan 01, 2010
4:06 PM
Bet you'd look great in a cap.
635 posts
Jan 01, 2010
4:37 PM
Roadharp- Um, I'm white. I don't know Jessie Jackson or Al Sharpton personally, but I've never been a fan of Sharpton. After the Tawana Brawley mess and his never apologizing to the cops involved I didn't have much respect for him. I am not real religious myself but I found Jackson's philandering troubling. I'm not even a huge Obama fan even although I voted for him (not in the primaries), although it's because I'm actually more to the left of him, especially on issues of personal privacy. (Yeap, maybe my blues name should be Red Blues!) Of course, being a bit of a pinko I look at social class more than race. Growing up poor sucks no matter what race you are.

As for complaining, it wouldn't be the blues without a little complaining. And, well, I was an English Major in college so this is the sort of thing English Majors, Sociology people and other people like us do for fun. We analyze stuff like this, just like a blues player would analyze the blues. Why? Because we are crazy. So, to paraphrase Jimmy Carr on postmodern misogyny, 'Don't you worry your pretty little head about it.'

57 posts
Jan 01, 2010
4:39 PM
Yes, well I think we're all singing from the same hymn sheet here. Thanks for your expert input Adam - the song effectively puts Black Joe on the same level as Old Shep. In the US, I guess 'OBJ' and similar would be considered extremely provocative, if not suicidal. Here in the UK, what surprised me was that these weren't suburban old fogies who'd never met a black person, they were renowned musicians who you'd expect to know better, especially given their R&B pedigree.

If I were ever to consider doing it in a show - it's a great rocker - I'd have to introduce it as Adam says; "a sentimental song about slavery". But that's just WRONG, like "a sentimental song about the heroin trade". Maybe somebody could rewrite the lyrics to reflect how times have moved on. Any takers?

Last Edited by on Jan 01, 2010 4:44 PM
21 posts
Jan 01, 2010
4:40 PM
Roadharp, did you notice that when Blogward started this thread, he made it clear that it happened in the UK. I understand your state of mind, but if it was just a question of plying your music, just try to go and sing some of these songs in a club somewhere like, say, Chicago South Belt.
To put it differently you may be waterproof to history, culture, sociology - you name it - of music, but there is something that music is all about : emotion, and it includes, first thing, the emotion of the people receiving it.
Unless you want to live and play your music in a closed self-contained circle. Musicwise (and lifewise) understanding, openness and insight always help, and no, this thread is not about the past.
The short post by Elwood (cf supra #4) sums it all.
903 posts
Jan 01, 2010
8:15 PM
Look, "Old Black Joe" isn't a racist song in any conventional sense, and I think it's a mistake to try and claim that it is. I certainly didn't. I'm simply trying to understand it, and its meanings, as fully as possible. It's a cultural document. It meant one or more things to various constituencies in its own time, and it means different things to various sorts of people these days. I'm simply trying to get a read on those things. The academic training that I've had, and the teaching that I've done, particularly in the fields of African American studies and southern studies, lead me to be attentive to certain meanings that may not be obvious to some people.

But I've also read Sam Dennison's SCANDALIZE MY NAME, which is a history of racist (anti-black) imagery in American popular song, and "Old Black Joe" barely makes the grade if we're talking about deliberately, overtly degrading imagery. My question to Roadharp would be: Are you familiar with that OTHER set of lyrics, the long and dreary set archived by Dennison--lyrics that repeatedly use the word "nigger" and stress the bulbous lips, razor-toting hands, elongated monkey-like limbs, Sambo-like grins, watermelon-eating-and-chicken-stealing comicality, and other similiar characteristics of African American men?

See, all that stuff has worked its way into the American popular unconscious. It's shaped the way that a lot of people, most of whom wouldn't call themselves racist, see black Americans. It's poisonous stuff. It's also shaped the way that black Americans respond to images of themselves propagated by popular culture. African American intellectuals have been concerned for more than 100 years by BOTH sorts of imagery--the openly racist and the patronizingly, infantilizingly sentimental (such as "Old Black Joe")--because both sorts of imagery have made it very difficult for them to be treated as....well, as three-dimensional human beings, with brains, hearts, feelings, ideas, spiritual strivings, social commitments, philosophical speculations.

It is, of course, possible to simply blunder right past all this complexity and do whatever the hell one wants vis a vis this long and burdening history. Black writers such as Langston Hughes (with his blues poems) and Zora Neale Hurston (with her novel THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD) revolted against the older black intellectuals of their day, the ones who were so concerned with "what the white folks thought," and deliberately risked white laughter and derision for the sake of telling the truth as the saw it about the black working class--rough, vulgar, sexy, violent folk who were also human beings and deserving of representation.

If I were teaching "Old Black Joe," I'd pair it with other texts of the period that offer different representations of slavery, including Douglass's NARRATIVE OF THE LIFE OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS.

If I were a white rocker or blues guy, I'm not sure why I'd feel the need to sing the song. I strongly suspect that the Englishman who sang it (see the OP) had no intention of doing anything other than putting across a song that he found moving or compelling. Perhaps he had in mind an old black American man, somebody he'd read about in a book--a Mr. Bojangles, if you will. Or perhaps he was thinking about some other old man he knew--an English pensioner down the block. People have all sorts of reasons for singing songs. Often the reasons aren't conscious or thought-through. No big deal.

I have a hard time imagining any black artist, though, American or English, wanting to sing "Old Black Joe" these days, even with proper contextualization. It may be worth pausing for a moment, if you agree, and asking why this is true. It may be that such artists sense immediately that the song asks us to ignore too much of the reality of slavery relative to the emotional truth it attempts to convey. Imagine if the races were reversed. A black songwriter in days gone by wrote a song about a loyal old white man, a slave, who missed the "free" life in the cottonfields where he'd worked (for the black guy who owned him) and missed all the wonderful friends he'd known there.

Imagine that you and your white friends had grown up in a world run by black people who had a long history of mocking you, not taking you seriously, etc.

Now imagine that you went to a club and watched a show-band equivalent of Seal--i.e., a good second-tier black singer--sing a song about "Old White Harry".

Would you really be making the same argument you're making above, which is, in effect, that we should just forget about history, have a drink, and enjoy the damned song?

Last Edited by on Jan 01, 2010 8:29 PM
643 posts
Jan 01, 2010
9:25 PM
Well said Professor. It's interesting though, except for the line 'Old Black Joe' it sounds a lot like what you might hear in something like Sacred Harp music, very oriented on death and loss and actually fairly poetic. If this song was written today without the word 'black' in it would be a very different song. I've seen English Majors to argue for hours just over whether the historical context is an appropriate tool for analyzing poetry. Of course, every word has a historical context that gives it meaning. At a certain point people start talking about signifiers and the signified and everyone's heads explode.

If I'm not careful I'll start expounding Derrida and Foucault and Marx and I will have a very big headache.
58 posts
Jan 01, 2010
9:30 PM
"get over it look who president"

Roadharp, Am I correct in assuming you're one of those people who think that just because we have a black president means that racism is no longer an issue in this country? That comment certainly seems to suggest it. If that is what you believe you're sorely mistaken.

"quit cring about the past"

That's a pretty ridiculous thing to say.
88 posts
Jan 02, 2010
4:04 AM
Racism comes in ALL colors.
131 posts
Jan 02, 2010
5:11 AM
I think songs about slaves don't always have to be about being a slave.

I like My Hat.
52 posts
Jan 02, 2010
6:48 AM
i haven't been on this board long,but this kind of thread seems to appear quite often for some reason or other.
i did a post on this thread yesterday then deleted it as i didn't want to get involved in such an emotive subject.it's a new year and a time for looking forward.however...
the simple truth is,every race and colour has indulged in slavery.yes,every single one.
before europeans got involveed in the african slave trade,africans were capturing,enslaving and killing each other just the same as native americans,australian aboriginals,in fact all mankind have been at it.
it's still going on with the sex trade.
am i dismissing the african trade triangle,not at all.
what i consider to be a sweeping statement from adams post that"white people owned black peoples bodies" is too much of a generalisation for me.it's undeniably true that a relavively small powerful group of business people,royalty,british aristocracy,bankers, land owners and speculators did own black bodies and transported them after buying them often,from other africans.
being a student of british history,i can tell you that those same people were sticking it to the lower classes at home too.it's true,you were free to starve or freeze to death if you didn't pay your rent,or work 16 hours a day.if you were a young girl,or boy,you may have had to deal with the sexual proclivities of your master or his sons.
a relatively few people transported,and owned slaves,some of which were ex slaves,yet we still get this generalisation that white people owned slaves.
some white people organized the slaughtered of the native american and the theft of their lands.
history is full of mans inhumanity to man and is still going on.it won't ever end,and that is the sad truth.
having read extensively about the so called war against the indians,i know that the slaughter at sand creek at wounded knee,the genocide of the mandans and many other tribes was every bit as bad as the slave trade.
i could go on about the highland clearances,which displaced some of my ancestors. should white people responsible for the slave trade.i don't think so.
is a song from way back racist or innappropriate?it depends on your view.for me,it's of no importance at all.

Last Edited by on Jan 02, 2010 6:52 AM
132 posts
Jan 02, 2010
7:57 AM
I agree with Manky. I'm happy someone brought up Native Americans. A subject that is overlooked too often. Some of my ancestors are Indians...... and Scandinavian, German, Scottish, Irish, Jewish, English and some other stuff i cant think of right now. Sioux Indian being the most recent. The US government at the time were brainstorming ways to eradicate an entire race of people, and they nearly succeeded. I think its a far more darker time in US history than slavery. That's my opinion. And I'm probably a racist, but who isn't. Whatever, people are people. I like to play the Harmonica. And that's a good song.

OH and I like hats too.

Last Edited by on Jan 02, 2010 7:59 AM
22 posts
Jan 02, 2010
8:09 AM
Mankycodpiece, you are right, nobody should be hold accountable for ther fathers, grand fathers, great grand fathers deeds. But this thread is not about an other take of the white men's guilt. It's about blues today, what the music means, what it conveys, and in that perspective I am delighted to read these enlighting posts by kudzu or nacoran.
In my experience, and I am speaking of today, it's very easy for a white person to say very sincerely that he don't care about other men's colour. Not so for a black person, and for a reason. And that has a meaning for the music we play, the way we play it, and why we play it.
Noticed that we are a bunch of mainly white guys (correct me if I am wrong) exchanging views on an african-american musical expression ?
133 posts
Jan 02, 2010
8:14 AM
Saregapadanisa said
Noticed that we are a bunch of mainly white guys (correct me if I am wrong) exchanging views on an african-american musical expression ?

Right On Man!!!!!!!!
53 posts
Jan 02, 2010
9:34 AM
saragapadanisa,knowing my family history,it's not possible that any of my forfathers owned anyone. the whole point of my post is the fact that only a miniscule number of people,in relative terms owned slaves.less than 0.0000% or even less.
yes,many more people profited from the trade at the time,either knowing or unknowing.
you said it's easy to say you don't care about another mans colour.of course it is.
so for those of us that believe that it's the character of the man and not the colour that we care about,we shouldn't say that as it may be viewed with suspicion,as displayed by your comment.
i came onto this board to exchange views and learn about the blues harp.i didn't know that playing the diatonic harp was all about african american musical expression until i read it here.i've never seen it that way.
i grew up with fats domino,little richard,chuck berry and all the other guys that played stuff that was based on 8 and 12 bar blues.jerry lee lewis and all the other white guys were doing the same thing.
music is just music to me.i don't have an agenda to persue.i don't care who owns the genre or who does it the best,i'm totaly beyond all that.
btw,it was listening to supertramp and alabama 3 that encouraged me to take up the blues harp.
it's only since i've done so that i've listened to some of the stuff of the old masters like sonny terry.
thats about it from me,on this subject.
23 posts
Jan 02, 2010
10:02 AM
Mankycodpiece, there is not a piece of suspicion intended in my comment, and if you perceived it that way, I flatly and sincerely apologize. I am not even implying that, because of history, race, everything, we shouldn't enjoy playing our music, you're absolutely right to do so, and I am the first one to enjoy it without a second thought.
My point was just about the kind of "no need to speak of that" argument. I just find that thread interesting and meaningful, and that it has something to do with the way I practise music, specially in the place where I live. Just my opinion.
Sorry again if my poor expression had let you think otherwise of my intentions.
57 posts
Jan 02, 2010
10:19 AM
saregapadanisa,no need to apologise.things can get misunderstood.
i'm getting on a bit and just find the whole subject of race a complete bore.here in the uk,it's become something of an industry.
i'd much rather learn to overblow and whatever than debate the race subject ad nausum as it seems we do here.
anyway,no offence taken.
24 posts
Jan 02, 2010
10:40 AM
And I do definitely need to practise my overblows too ;-)
59 posts
Jan 02, 2010
11:29 AM
I think the guy's reason for doing the song was along the lines of 'Hey, dig my cool Jerry Lee Lewis keyboard and singing skills'. As for finding the race issue boring; well, this guy is getting on a bit, too. Old White Eric.
650 posts
Jan 02, 2010
11:50 AM
Manky- I know not all, or even most, white Americans were involved in slavery. My family probably didn't, since we were mostly in Upstate New York. We almost certainly did our share of mistreating the Iroquois, although, that was probably after fleeing absentee landlords and the Potato Famine in Ireland (and quite possibly the being absentee landlords, I'm a mix of Irish and English (and Dutch). Your right, humans don't often treat each other humanely. A very large percent of African American families though can trace their heritage back to slavery, even if not many white people were involved. And of course, if you live in America and you follow your family history back, each generation involves twice as many families you are related to, so even with that tiny percentage it gets more and more likely that you were related to someone who did something.

But that's not really the point. It's really not about the oppression from 150+ years ago. It's about the inequity that continues today. I'm part Irish. There was a time in America, (and much more recently in Ireland/England) where that was a really loaded thing. I've never had to face racism because of that though. I've heard a few Irish jokes but I've never been judged for it. There may come a point when that's the case for African Americans.

It's not even that we are a bunch of mostly white guys playing a form of music with strong ties to the black community. There are lots of blues songs that don't deal specifically with race, but there are some that do. Even if we don't know the context that doesn't mean that someone in the audience won't. We can argue ignorance, but if we are only ignorant of something because we are being willfully ignorant then do we still get a pass. I don't mean to load the word ignorant there. I mean it just in the 'not knowing' sense.

The problem with issues like this is everyone has their own solution. Some people want to banish songs (or other cultural artifacts) to the dustbin because they are offensive, some people want to cherry pick the non-offensive parts, some people get offended by that because it seems to be sanitizing history, some people want to ignore it, some people say that only certain people can talk about it.

I think the point of discussions like this isn't just about history, or oppression, but trying to come to some consensus on how we deal with it today.

And of course, some people just want to play the harp. There are threads for that too.
794 posts
Jan 02, 2010
3:25 PM
The thing that irks me the most about these sorts of conversations, wherever they occur, is that they are invariably couched in the notion of the white man being the bad guy.

If I say 'pink elephant,' what do yoy see in your mind's eye? If I say 'racist' now what do you see? Honestly?

It really does cut both ways, at least in my own very personal experiences.

Quite frankly, I'm a bit tired of it; not on here, but everywhere. And I'm sick to the back teeth of constantly being made to feel bad about who I am by white, middle-class, neo-marxists. I mean, a few years ago in the UK, one of these idiots made a nursery change 'bah bah black sheep' to 'bah bah rainbow sheep' in case the rhyme's connotations offended a black person. For God's sake, give me strength. Who in hell ever saw a rainbow coloured sheep.

This discussion is ostensibly about whether one's understanding of a song's cultural implications should determine one's choice as to whether to perform it.

Why do such discussions continuously revolve around race on here? Could it be those white Marxist, self-haters I referred to above?

Why does no one ever make an issue - not on here, but anywhere - about the fantastically hypocritical lyrics of John Lennon's Imagine, or the the nerve-janglingly disingenuous B side Working Class Hero?

John Lennon may have been speaking imaginatevely; he may have been trying to conjure a world that bore no relation to his own existence. Poets do that all the time. But, that is not the point: it is the defeaning silence around such issues that makes this thread all the more irksome.

Race is not the only cultural issue there is to discuss, even on here.
YouTube SlimHarpMick a.k.a. HarmonicaMick
745 posts
Jan 02, 2010
4:13 PM

I agree that there's been a bit too much racial politics on here recently.

Sorry though, I do have to correct you on the 'rainbow sheep' myth. The truth of the story was that a couple of pre-schools added extra words as an action song to encourage language development. 'Black sheep' stayed in the song and was never removed by 'neo marxists' for PC/anti-racist reasons. Noone, in fact, was forced to do anything. Of course the truth of the matter wasn't reported by the reactionary UK tabloids and so the myth is perpetuated to this day.

I do have to agree with you on the hypocrisy of multi-millionaires writing blue-collar anthems.

Last Edited by on Jan 03, 2010 1:33 AM
795 posts
Jan 02, 2010
4:46 PM

Thanks for correcting me on that point. Still, there are similar instances in PCUK that could equally well demonstrate the point. I'll research the veracity of my claims a little more carefully, should these discussions arise on here again.
YouTube SlimHarpMick a.k.a. HarmonicaMick
Delta Dirt
76 posts
Jan 02, 2010
4:53 PM
I gave up trying to escape the drudgeries and uglyness of life even for a few minutes by coming to
this site. Instead what i find is a bunch of opinionated ass holes who dig themselves deeper and deeper into a quagmire of bullshit because they are the oldest on the site or the boss. What i see is lonley middle aged men who take themselves way to serious and look to vent amongst foreigners and locals and try to connect this disjointed puzzle into the blues somehow. I came looking for fun not your brand of politics. Most of you havent a clue about another race much less the region of the country youve moved to or live in. I hate to think my tax money pays for such. Sorry but when you start talking about past generations and their ugliness then start looking at your own damn self rightousness.
654 posts
Jan 02, 2010
8:33 PM
Mickil- The song in question at the top of the thread involved race issues. That's why this thread has talked about race a lot. If you are referring to me with the remark about neo-Marxism, the only reason I brought my politics into the thread was in response to a specific question someone asked about what I thought of several noted African-Americans. I was actually trying to make a point that I try not to judge people based on race. (I wouldn't consider myself a Marxist either, in any functional sense of the word, since Marxism doesn't work, and it was predicated on a very un-humanitarian principal of violent overthrow. I don't consider myself self-loathing, at least on issues of race. I tried to point out that historically, lots of groups have been bad to lots of other groups. Recognizing that does not make someone self-loathing. There are certainly people who take 'Political Correctness' to illogical places, but there is a difference between being PC and just paying attention to racism, or any of the other hate-isms.

If you want to discuss the merits of some other part of the blues, or music, start a thread. Does a millionaire have a right to write a song about poverty? I think that would depend on things like whether they ever experienced it, whether they are mocking the poor people down at Walmart, or somehow have some sort of insight into it. I thought Phil Collins 'Another Day in Paradise' was pure junk! I like Imagine, but I recognize that it's pretty schmaltzy and doesn't represent any particularly deep thinking.

Delta- There are threads for that too. Whose tax is paying for what? What are you on about people abusing their position on the site? There are lots of threads on this site; why shouldn't a community talk about a lot of different things related what the community does? No one is forcing you to read every thread. Coming in and calling everyone names because you don't like their opinions? What's that about? We should just talk about your pre-approved list of 'fun' topics?
266 posts
Jan 03, 2010
12:08 AM
I thought *everyone* hated "Working Class Hero".
904 posts
Jan 03, 2010
1:20 AM
@Delta Dirt: If you feel the way you claim you feel, with that much anger boiling into conversations about race, then you might want to think about not coming into this site. I care about your well-being, believe it or not, and don't want you to develop an acid stomach or have a heart attack.

As the proprietor of this website and thus this forum, I guess I'm the "boss" you're calling out. But anybody who reads what I've posted on this thread with an open mind will see that I'm accusing nobody, expressing anger at nobody, and slathering guilt on nobody. I'm simply trying to answer a good and interesting question posed by blogward. I'm trying to open up dialogue, not shut down dialogue. I've used every tool at my disposal to do that--including humor, as with my comment about "Old White Harry." Although it serves occasional strategic short-term purposes, guilt is useless and unproductive in the long run. People who feel guilt tend to feel disempowered. That's no good. I want people to feel empowered. I encourage everybody on this forum to get in touch with whatever guilt they've brought here and figure out constructive ways of shedding it.

Dialogue about difficult issues, especially issues that foreground race, can be a productive way of engaging with unconscious guilt. I'm a big believer in dialogue. Your post suggests quite clearly that you'd prefer this dialogue not take place.

Since this website is dedicated to an art form that is indelibly connected with the experience of working-class black American men--nine out of ten players on my Top 10 all-time harp greats list fit that description--and since those men are, in every single case, descended from parents or grandparents who were slaves owned by white men, I'm hardly going off-topic to suggest that, if we want to understand and appreciate the music (and related musics) as fully as possible, we might want to learn a little something about the personal and social history that helped produce it. If this website were dedicated to basket weaving, this imperative would be somewhat less urgent. And of course one can find blues harmonica forums where this sort of issue doesn't come up. Some people--and you've made clear that you come from this direction--would prefer that blues harmonica playing become a kind of pastoral retreat, a way of escaping from history into a world of pure play. I'd encourage people who want to sustain such a perspective simply to bypass this sort of thread. You'll find a great deal of other nourishing fare on this forum, and on this website.

I really don't care whether race has, as someone suggests above, has become a cottage industry in England and/or in other precincts. When awkward questions get raised, I'm in favor of being brave. I think we've got nothing to lose by walking towards them and trying to engage with them, and with each other. My own feelings about race are anything but doctrinaire or PC. I get irritable when I'm around hard Left "power to the people" types who want to sentimentalize every "oppressed" social group but engage in casual disdain for what they called "straight white middle-class males." I'm a straight white middle-class male, although my class affiliations are slightly skewed. I've certainly been on the receiving end of disdain from black radicals. It took me a while to figure out that they were human, too, and that some of them had their own agendas of a sort that made them incapable of seeing me as a human being. I write about such a moment in MISTER SATAN'S APPRENTICE.

But this thread isn't about me, and I'd rather not take it in that direction. Since you felt the need to engage in casting aspersions on those "opinionated assholes" who "haven't a clue about another race," especially those who might be "the boss," I thought a digression into that sort of thing was important.

As for the historical experience of Aboriginals, American Indians, and working-class whites: of course that's something worth thinking about--as long as the issue isn't raised purely as a way of avoiding engaging with the issue at hand in this thread. I teach Jim Goad's THE REDNECK MANIFESTO. I'd encourage everybody to read it. If this website was sited in Australia and the art form it revolved around was such that 9 out of 10 of the artists on the Top-10 list were aboriginals even while the overwhelming majority of website visitors were white guys, I'd certainly think conversations that highlighted race and uncomfortable histories associated with race would be worth having.

Likewise, if all of us were black guys and this was a website dedicated to....oh, I don't know....Jeff Foxworthy and redneck humor, then it would be appropriate from time to time to have the mirror version of this sort of dialogue--even though black people don't have, lingering behind them, a long history of being slavedrivers and slave-traders over rednecks.

It's hard to imagine such a website, isn't it? But precisely for that reason, it's a useful exercise.

Back to those blue thirds.

Last Edited by on Jan 03, 2010 1:39 AM
59 posts
Jan 03, 2010
2:05 AM
"As for the historical experience of Aboriginals, American Indians, and working-class whites: of course that's something worth thinking about--as long as the issue isn't raised purely as a way of avoiding engaging with the issue at hand in this thread."

I appreciate you saying this, too often people use tactics like this to obfuscate and avoid having to talk about the real issue at hand. For example, bringing up the fact that all races have engaged in slavery is the begining of a straw man argument and is just a way of avoiding the actual issues being discussed in this thread.

Last Edited by on Jan 03, 2010 2:07 AM
59 posts
Jan 03, 2010
6:55 AM
ryan,the straw man argument is inaccurate in this case.
the original post was a question,not a position.
my only reference to it was to say tha neither side of the question was of any importance to me.
to me,OBJ is just a song.i can see that some may be offended by it.
maybe some folks could be offended with the beach boys's old cotton fields back home.if we tried a little harder we could drag out a few more.
there's no end to this kind of debate,which is why i've come to conclude that i should have stayed with my original deccision not to get involved with it.
906 posts
Jan 03, 2010
7:48 AM
@verylong: I agree with you on pretty much every point. Sonny Boy Williamson wasn't a particularly nice guy, as far as I can tell, and that's fine with me. Bad people can and do make great art. I certainly prefer education over censorship.
60 posts
Jan 03, 2010
4:53 PM
"the original post was a question,not a position."

Yes but the reponding comments were positions, and it's clear your comment was not in response to the original question but to some of the responses people gave(I say this beause the original post made no mention of slavery at all). I said your comment was the beginning of a straw man because nobody was claiming white people are the only race to have owned slaves and that other races are innocent of such a horrible crime against humanity. And whether or not other races owned slaves is kind of irrelevent to what was being discussed. Bringing this up is just a way of changing the subject and avoiding having to discuss the hardships that African Americans suffered due to slavery, and how this relates to blues music.

Also I understand being frustrated with conversations like this, I often feel the same way. Luckily it's easy to avoid and ignore those types of conversations on this forum. I was debating whether or not to post this because I thought maybe I should avoid keeping this thread going, but....oh well.
1006 posts
Jan 03, 2010
5:40 PM
Wow!, what a tedious thread.

Opinions are quite often like a$$holes--they should be washed often and kept covered and out of the public view.

Of course--that's just another opinion. . .
402 posts
Jan 04, 2010
10:27 AM
did you wash it recently, ow? lol
60 posts
Jan 04, 2010
11:04 AM
Funny thing about the internet - people who would simply change channels on the TV, and wouldn't dream of shouting 'Bo-Ring!' at a public meeting think people wil be interested in their boredom.

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