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Who owns the blues?
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206 posts
Nov 21, 2009
8:22 AM
New article at the Harp Surgery, about race, politics, and a man in a pink tuxedo:

207 posts
Nov 22, 2009
5:44 PM
Adam Gussow recently responded to my most recent post about the politics of the blues in Journeyman's Road - fortunately not to tell me to eat my hat.

Among other things he said, "I feel as though you read--and accurately described--the book I actually wrote, which is all any writer wants. Total agreement on all points certainly isn't necessary."

A highly intriguing compliment! Adam, I'd be interested to hear on what points we differ? Minor disputes in understanding are almost inevitable, but it could be very instructive.

Incidentally for further reading, folks might be interested in this MBH forum discussion.

Last Edited by on Nov 22, 2009 5:44 PM
641 posts
Nov 22, 2009
7:50 PM
Thanks for bringing that to our attention. Interesting stuff. I'll reserve any comments on appropriation of an art form as I've not read doc's book yet. Just wanted you to know the post was appreciated.
YouTube SlimHarpMick
268 posts
Nov 22, 2009
8:58 PM
A little over a half century ago, I was born in USA. I was not born hundreds of years ago in England. Does this mean I don't have the right to play or sing Greensleeves?

I was not born in the stone age. Does this mean I don't have the right to play drums?

I'm not of wealthy heritage (that I know of)from Europe. Does this mean I don't have the right to play classical music?

Am I disallowed to sing about anything that I haven't experienced? If so, there ain't much at all that I can sing about.

Get the politics out of music. Music is about music.
759 posts
Nov 23, 2009
2:57 AM
As a result of this thread and Elwood's links I've now ordered three of Adam's books.
Thing is, some people when they talk about blues (music), I think, tacitly assume it's fundamental and the original black musical form, but if you read Deford Bailey's biography, you get the idea that it was a late-comer. Deford played country music. For him blues music was just a new fad that came along in the 1920s and of which he didn't much approve. Then it just became popular, pop music, popular just because it's simple, but blues had feeling too (so did Soul); that always helps, especially if it ties in with the general mood. In the depression blues moved to Chicago along with the people looking for work. From then on it was another urban entertainment form. That's what I understand so far, rightly or wrongly. I hope to find out more from Adam.
Kinda hot in these rhinos!

Last Edited by on Nov 23, 2009 3:07 AM
208 posts
Nov 23, 2009
8:43 AM
Thanks for your comment – however I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the topic at hand. The essay I’ve linked to in my article (“Whose Blues”) is a pretty good introduction to the issues explored in the rest of the book. I focus on it specifically because it’s available for all of us to read, so feel free to sound off on the topic.

You make an interesting point about who gets to play Greensleeves or classical orchestral music. However, I am very wary of your statement that “music is about music”, i.e. that there is no room for politics in it. There are many who would argue that there is no such thing as apolitical art. Art, as an expression of culture, is shaped by the actions of power within that culture. This is not to say that it’s overt or even deliberate… but dig beneath the surface of any piece of art and you’re sure to find something political.

Thus it’s incredibly important to me that people consuming or producing art pay attention to the political elements. As I say, to ignore the politics in art is to ignore the crocodile in your Coco Pops

So I take your point claiming access (or not) to medieval English folk music. You’ll note that neither I nor the author of Journeyman’s Road has claimed that white people shouldn’t be allowed to play the blues. (I ask a series of rhetorical questions early in the post that perhaps indicate otherwise.)

What’s important to me (here I speak for myself, not necessarily from the Journeyman’s Road script) is that we interrogate the power dynamics that shape the art that we consume and produce. How are our consumption and production related to those power dynamics, how are they influenced by those dynamics, and how might they contribute to or resist against those dynamics?

This is not something that can be done without acknowledging that music is about more than just music.

Three books! And to think I don’t even get a commission…
272 posts
Nov 23, 2009
9:45 AM
Whew! This is getting deep! I,for one,never gave any thought to whether I had the "right" to play blues. I had no illusions that I was anything but a blue collar,middle class white guy.The blues "spoke" to me,that's all I know. Anybody can get the blues. I never felt the need to dress like a bluesman,although I would wear a Hawaiian shirt occasionally. I also find it hard to be prejudiced when most of my musical heroes are black.
With respect to that Adam/Estrin thing,I felt embarrassed for both of them.I've been seeing Estrin for 20 years and never felt that he had anything but respect for the music. Jokester-yes,but blackface minstrel-no way! I;ve always been a bit leery of what I like to call tight assed purists. I'm quite surprised that Adam was one. I'm glad he saw the light! LOL
647 posts
Nov 23, 2009
10:24 AM
Yeah, Elwood. My thoughts are that no one can own or appropriate any artform, though people have tried and still do try.

Hitler banned Mendlesshon's music because he was a jewish composer, while he venerated the anti-semitic Wagner's.

In the UK, left-wing bands and artists use their music to perpetuate the notion that anyone who has a problem with multiculturalism must be racist. Billy Brag and the whole Rock Against Racism movement spring to mind.

Beethoven was an overtly political man who detested much of the politics of his day. His 3rd symphony, the Eroica, (Hero) was to be dedicated to Napoleon. However, when Beethoven learnt that Napoleon had crowned himself Emporer, he defaced the title page out of pure rage.

Prokofiev and Shostakovich had to be very careful about what they said, did and wrote under the tyranny of Stalin.

In Elizabethan England, one could be hung for saying the word 'mass', let alone writing or singing one.

So yes, music, politics and religion have a long history of being bound together. Nevertheless, those ties that bind them tend to lose their relevance when shifted in time. Is that right or wrong? It's neither: it just simply is the case; it's just there like atoms and molecules are.

I didn't offer any comment before because I've not read doc's book, and as such I can't comment on its specific arguments.

However, to answer your original question: Who owns the blues? No one, with the caveat that it or any other art form can be appropriated or fostered by any social group at any time. The ownership is still shared, though.

EDIT: oh yeah, I didn't read that long excerpt in full, Elwood. I just want to read the book from the beginning. That's just one of my quirks / insanities.

YouTube SlimHarpMick

Last Edited by on Nov 23, 2009 10:33 AM
Delta Dirt
47 posts
Nov 23, 2009
10:34 AM
We own it: The Mississippi Delta! Now pay up Yankees, Blokes ,Maddogs and Englishmen. Mine... i mean ours all ours.... so stop your sniffeling and whining and pouting.Just pay up. Ill take personal checks and paypal...Thank you. Delta Dirt.
803 posts
Nov 23, 2009
11:06 AM
One of the problems about discussions of the blues in a context of ownership is that people mean several different things by "the blues." Most people don't take sufficient care to distinguish between these things; instead, they unthinkingly conflate them.

The blues is/are:

1) a personal, social, or historical condition: BLUES CONDITIONS. Lost love; poverty; loneliness; racism; racial violence directed at black people in the South; etc. Some of these conditions are universal--lost love, for example. Others have clear ties to particular social groups, and an extremely clear tie to African Americans in the U.S. South during the period when blues music was being created.

2) a kind of feeling or a whole complex of feelings: BLUES FEELINGS. Many, but not all, are negative: fear, sadness, rage, despair, despair at living in a society filled with racism and racist violence, etc. There are also some positive blues feelings: lust, pride in one's masculinity, a restless and hopeful urge to move on down the road. Again, some of these feelings are universal, but others are clearly tied to African American in the US South during the first part of the 20th century

3) a kind of music characterized by the AAB and related verse forms; a 12-bar or sometimes 8-bar structure; microtonal inflections or "blue" notes; syncopation; etc. BLUES MUSIC. The musical form obviously lends itself to being played by every kind of person, and indeed the blues is now a world music. But here, too, there's no question that African Americans in the US South had an overwhelming, if not hegemonic, role in evolving the musical form, elaborating the techniques for singing and playing it, creating venues (juke joints) where blues music and blues dancing had an important ritual purpos, and making it into a pop music. This doesn't mean that whites weren't involved in the music's production from the beginning. A white singer named Marion Harris was the first to record "St. Louis Blues" in a way that made it a pop hit. Jimmie Rodgers, the singing brakeman, had several big blues hits, including "T for Texas." But still: the musical form, in the main, was a black thing between 1920 and 1950, although there was of course a white audience for pop blues during the 1920s.

"The blues" includes blues conditions, blues feelings, and blues music. The conditions inspire the feelings; the music evokes the conditions (i.e., reprents them in a certain kind of vernacular imagery that is absolutely tied to BLACK vernacular; little red roosters, mojo, shake my tree, etc.) and expresses and alleviates the feelings.

Surrounding all three things--the conditions, the feelings, and the music--there is, of course, a political economy: a long and dispiriting history of white profiteering, white control, white expropriation of black intellectual capital (i.e., making black blues artists sign over their songwriting to white producers), etc.

The question of ownership--who "has a right to play the blues," or "who owns the blues"--is enmeshed in everything I've sketched out above. The answers are complex, not simple. Gene tries to make them simple. That's a mistake. People who say, "No black, no white, just the blues" are, in 99% of the cases, white people who haven't spent a single moment thinking seriously about the issues and thus have no idea why, for example, black people might see such a statement as one more power-grab. Music is never "just about music." If the contemporary Gaelic music scene was overwhelmingly dominated by Englishmen, I suspect at least a few Irishmen would be bothered by that fact, and I hope at least a few of the English students of Gaelic music would have uneasy consciences.

I play the blues. I'm a competent, sometimes inspired, and reasonably innovative blues musician. I teach the blues--or rather, I teach people how to play the blues harmonica and I also teach college students, graduate and undergraduate, how to think about and talk about the blues in an informed and thoughtful way. I feel no need to defend who or what I am vis a vis the blues. This is partly because I've taken the responsibility of educating myself into the music and its social context, partly because I've paid quite a few dues as a musician, and partly because my extended (5 year) stint as a Harlem street musician gave me a vibrant and grounded sense of how the music actually functions within a specific black community. That community accepted me for the musician I was, but it also educated me into the social aspects--the ritual aspect of the music, the divergence within the community between those who lived by the music and those who looked down on it as low-class and/or sinful. I had dozens of conversations, even hundreds of conversations, about who I was, who they were, and what the music was about. All of that experience removed the music from the realm of fantasy and grounded it in reality. It wouldn't have occurred to me to dress like a Blues Brother, for example, while working in Harlem. Why would I do that? That's fantasy. It's silly. It wasn't something anybody down there would have thought about doing. Music--blues harmonica, jazz sax or organ, hip hop beat-boxing, etc.--was a way of life down there, a way of demonstrating public mastery of a complex language, rising ABOVE everybody else, but also contributing to and being part of a community.

Nothing I've said should be construed to mean that I think what black people say about the blues, or anything else, is always right. Black people are human beings; human beings have agendas. But close daily contact with people helps you begin to distguish the range of agendas they subscribe to--which is to say, helps you begin to see people for the complex, sometimes unbalanced or self-contradicting, beings they are.

Fantasy is a part of blues performance, of course. McKinley Morganfield and Chester Burnett renamed themselves. That's what some people do when they're facing harsh realities and they're hoping to rise above the pack, make a name for themselves, and escape the trap of cotton sharecropping.

The contemporary blues world is, in many ways, a very different world from the heroic period of black bluesmaking (1920-1960), the period when blues, in its successive incarnations, was THE black pop music. Blues music is a world music now. But "the blues," however you define it, still draws a lot of its power and its meaning for people, black and white, from the sociohistory, the culture, of that 1920-1960 period, which corresponds with the latter two-thirds of the period of harsh Jim Crow segregation in the south and pre-civil-rights-movement racism in the urban North. When white people try to pretend that all that stuff DOESN'T still strongly inflect the music, they're revealing just how much they don't know about the music. The figurative language in which the blues does its work, the call-and-response social ritual, the styles of dress: all of those things have been borrowed, to a greater or lesser extent, from black America circa 1920-1960, and all, to a greater or lesser extent, were evolved in a context of great social stress, with racism and economic exploitation pressing down upon black America. Those things--the blues language, the call-and-response ritual, the mode of dress--were things that black Americans evolved as a way of creating individualized selfhood and maintaining community cohesion in the face of pressures that wanted to erase black individuality (and dignity) and fragment black communities.

All of this becomes obvious when you begin investigating what lies just behind the music.

This DOESN'T mean that a tousle-haired guy from Yorkshire or Buenos Aires can't learn how to play some really great blues harmonica without guilt. It DOES mean that the moment he starts trying to defend his actions by making a cultural argument that tries to avoid serious engagement with the issues I've raised, he's not being serious.

And if he tries not just to blow harp, but to sing "Got My Mojo Working," while pretending that there's no black, no white, just the blues--i.e., that the music makes deep sense without taking into account all the stuff I've sketched out above--then he's really not being serious.

And the blues is some serious music. It deserves the best we can give it.

Last Edited by on Nov 23, 2009 11:29 AM
14 posts
Nov 23, 2009
11:07 AM
I'm Jewish, but I think gospel music is amazing. I also have a thing for songs with Jesus in the title (Jesus is Just Alright, Jesus Just Left Chicago, One Toke Over the Line Sweet Jesus, etc.). It's an odd fetish, I know.
Delta Dirt
48 posts
Nov 23, 2009
11:23 AM
Play it,Learn how to play it, Play it good, Play it with feeling, Play it with soul. But for Gods sake quit trying to explain the concept of it. Ive been hearing this same worn out cliche for 40 years in the heart of where it began. Have fun. Thats why bluesmen played in the first place.
804 posts
Nov 23, 2009
11:31 AM
"Have fun. That's why bluesmen played in the first place."

Yes and no. And to the extent that you don't understand the "no," you're not advancing the conversation.

I do respect your agenda, however. :)

Last Edited by on Nov 23, 2009 11:33 AM
Delta Dirt
49 posts
Nov 23, 2009
11:48 AM
Im sorry i didnt see any advancement and i did work at Ole Miss and write on this very subject for the University and the magazine years ago.
648 posts
Nov 23, 2009
12:05 PM

There is one point I would argue with in what you said above; not so much a socio-historic one, more of a musical one:

"The figurative language in which the blues does its work, the call-and-response social ritual, the styles of dress: all of those things have been borrowed, to a greater or lesser extent, from black America circa 1920-1960..."

It may seem like petty knit-picking on my part, but the notion that 'call-and-response' is borrowed from a specifically African tradition is not, in my view, an accurate one. On the contrary, it is the melodic basis on which much of european music was modelled up until Schoenberg and the Second Vienese School, and that movement's largely unsuccessful attempt to redefine the so-called 'high art' music of that continent.

Nevertheless, call-and-response in the blues is used in a much more dualistic way than in many other types of music: the response is like a different voice; in much music, it the same voice answering and agreeing with itself.

My point may seem trivial, but I think the distinction I've drawn is an important one.
YouTube SlimHarpMick
520 posts
Nov 23, 2009
12:13 PM
To me the blues is a state of mind, a condition.

Blues music is the portal through which I can treat what ails me at that time. That music is an extremely powerful medium that has the capability to lift me up and fill me with joy, or to tear right to my heart and make me breakdown in tears.

To me it's not a question of who owns the blues. For me it's more like the blues owns me.
271 posts
Nov 23, 2009
1:01 PM
There seem to be two main arguments here:

One is to simply play what you want to play just 'cause you and/or your audience like it.

The other is that you should do some in-depth research on a song and it's history, as well as researching the person who wrote it and the conditions/circumstances of the group of people that he/she belonged to. Then you should search your conscience before deciding whether you have a moral right to perform that song.

I stand behind the "Just play the damn song" argument.
187 posts
Nov 23, 2009
1:13 PM
It's interesting to know the history and background of the blues. I don't like, however, when someone deems themselves worthy to be an authority on who has a right to play the blues, or what IS the blues. And I don't point that at anyone on this forum;I've enountered a 'blues Nazi' or two before(anyone that plays out for any length of time will). Everyone is free to their own interpretations of how it should sound or not, and this can be limitations set by how broad their minds are to originality. The Blues is a multi-faceted style:sad, ecstatic, brooding, fierce, etc. Sometimes, best spoken slow and soft. Others, loud and in-your-face to make sure you get the point.
~Todd L. Greene, Devout Pedestrian

"listen to what you like for inspiration, but find your own voice"

211 posts
Nov 23, 2009
1:43 PM
Great discussion. I love this forum...
805 posts
Nov 23, 2009
2:22 PM

I've never told anyone they don't have a right to play blues music. The proof is in the pudding. Can they actually play? Would I gig with them, or ask them to sub for me on a gig? As a musician, that's all I care about.

And of course none of us like that word "authority," do we? Many people come to the blues precisely for that reason: they hear in the blues a sound of liberation, of explosive self-expression. They don't like people who play sheriff, or people who they imagine are playing sheriff. I'm not the sheriff. I just express myself as intelligently as I can, trying to honor the complexities of my experience and the world as it presents itself to me. I also sometimes get impatient with people who stubbornly resist the complexities part, particularly when they're talking about something as enmeshed in the complexities of American (and world) experience as the blues. The blues deserve better.

Although many people in the academic world would indeed call me an authority of sorts in the matter of my academic specialty, blues literature and culture, I've basically avoided putting my knowledge--THAT sort of knowledge--out there in this forum, precisely because blues people are rangy, irritable people on occasion and especially when they feel they're being talked down to--even when they're not being talked down to, but merely talked to. That's what I'm doing here: talking.

It's possible to have two kinds of conversations about the blues: simple conversations ("I like the blues and that's that!" "Play the blues and shut up!" "Just do it!" "Just have fun!") and more complicated conversations. It's no challenge to have a simple conversation. It's more of a challenge to exchange information. I'm always learning something from the people I exchange information with.

One thing I've learned is that many people come to the blues, even a website like this, out of a desire to escape from the world and its complications. The paradox is that blues is probably the worst place AND the best place to escape to. It's the worst place because five hundred years of miserable transatlantic history and Jim Crow US Southern history are inextricably bound up with the music. People ignore that at their peril. It haunts the blues scene as an anxiety about "who has a right to play the blues" that a lot of people feel the need to disavow.

By the same token, blues is great healing music, body-music, and a great bridge builder. Many people groove to it because they know it has that power.

I love that part of it, and I'm happy in this community to do my part to glory in that enlivening, bridge-building power.

But I'm also an educator. It's in my blood. I took the risk, earlier in this thread, in sharing some of the knowledge that I've accumulated, some of the thinking that I've evolved, over my blues journey. I believe in call and response; my way certainly ain't the only way. Call me an authority, or don't. I still believe that education is a good thing--sharing knowledge, and caring about the conversation that results. I hope you agree.

Last Edited by on Nov 23, 2009 2:29 PM
271 posts
Nov 23, 2009
2:34 PM
I've wondered from time to time how American music would have evolved if there had been no history of slavery.
In my alternate universe, people would have come here from Africa of their own free will and of course would have brought music with them.
Of course, people would still get sad, but would we have the blues?
Would we have rock and roll? Would we have jazz?
Somebody oughta write a novel...
212 posts
Nov 23, 2009
2:59 PM
I should point out again, perhaps because one might read the discussion without reading my article or the Gussow essay it links to, that neither of us neither of us said anything about anyone "not being allowed" to play the blues.

Now that the red herring's out of the way, let the conversation roll on.
213 posts
Nov 23, 2009
3:02 PM
@Tuckster -- "Blues purist"? I think you got the wrong end of the stick. The outlooks described here are the complete opposite of being blues purist. In fact, by this way of thinking, blues purism is based on false premises (the false notion of a single original 'pure' blues).
806 posts
Nov 23, 2009
5:03 PM
I've always described myself as a blues impurist. Purists tends to get racial, sooner or later, and hope for purity. Things never have been pure. That's the great insight of the blues: I love you, baby, but I hate what you just did, so I got to move on down the road. But I'll be thinking of you, baby, until that new girl comes along and changes up my game......


I hate to see you go, but I love to watch you walk away. As Rick Estrin once sang.

So check out the following video: Ron Bartlett on Imus in the morning. Is he "a white guy pretending to be a black guy"? Or is he a white guy burlesquing a "white guy pretending to be a black guy"? I can't decide. So I think he's onto something. I'm an impurist, remember:

765 posts
Nov 23, 2009
6:10 PM
Out of curiosity, Adam, have you ever read Black Athena by Martin Bernal (I haven't)?
Kinda hot in these rhinos!
121 posts
Nov 23, 2009
6:12 PM
This may ruffle feathers but it sounds too much like the same rehash of arguements I heard from the white intellectuals from the 60`s that carried over into the mid 70`s and the overintellectualizing of the music can be a turn off. On the hand, my being of racially mixed parentage (my father being Filipino, my mother being Polish/Russian/English/Jewish and were married during WWII, a bad time for interracial marriages), I can relate to the music in ways some of you may not, as I have personally had racism rear its ugly head at me more times than I care to remember (maybe not the way African Americans have, but racism is racism regardless).
Barbeque Bob Maglinte
Boston, MA
CD available at http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/bbmaglinte

Last Edited by on Nov 23, 2009 6:15 PM
808 posts
Nov 23, 2009
6:47 PM
Maybe it's just me, but I can't remember any white intellectual in the 1960s or 1970s talking about how a total of six older black men paid him for blues harmonica lessons over the years, as I do in a chapter of JOURNEYMAN'S ROAD called "Whose Blues."

You're not ruffling my feathers, Bob. I truly don't understand your post. Please clarify: What does the "it" in your first sentence refer to? You might be talking about me, but you might not.

For the record, some of my arguments are taken from black intellectuals like Larry Neal. Some are taken from black intellectuals like Albert Murray. (Two very different approaches.) Some are taken from Elijah Wald. A lot of them are my own ideas, and they've taken time to evolve.

None of them are over-intellectualized. They're grounded at every point in my own experience as a blues performer.

I used to think I was against cutting sessions--too much aggression--but I'm beginning to think we need a cutting session here. Not a cutting session that features harmonicas, but a cutting session that features ideas.

Bob, you've made clear from your various posts on fine points of musical understanding--the way drummers keep beats, or don't keep swinging beats--that you've got a deep and finely-honed sensibility, one grounded in your long experience on the bandstand. You're an organic intellectual. Your ideas--and they ARE ideas--arise directly from your life. They're complex ideas. They're subtle. They're educational. I'd never say you were over-intellectualizing things. You've got ideas, and they're grounded.

My ideas, too, are grounded. I raise troubling points sometimes, but they're not borrowed ideas. Most of the ideas I have about the contemporary blues scene come from the decade that I was working the scene. They come from the musicians I've worked with, the gigs I've played, the conversations I've had. They also come from the reading I've done and the way in which that reading has deepened and challenged the understandings that I've taken from my experience. To the extent that my ideas extend to larger currents of black history and culture, they too have been tested by my experience in Harlem, in conversation with fellow musicians and academics. I'm not just pulling them out my ass. I certainly don't claim to have found all the answers. I'm always learning new things. Read James Lowen's SUNDOWN TOWNS if you want a mind-blowing book about ethnic cleansing in the lower midwest. Read THE ADVENTURES OF NAT LOVE, OTHERWISE KNOWN AS DEADWOOD DICK, if you want to hear a black cowboy celebrate American brotherhood on the open range. Read a whole lot of Larry Neal if you want to understand the blues. Read James McPherson's "Why I Love Country Music" and learn how some black people romance to hillbilly square-dance music. Read Debra Dickerson's AN AMERICAN STORY and watch a black girl from inner-city St. Louis become a Navy airman and Reagan-supporting bodybuilder before discovering that American racism didn't didn't care about all that.

My racial politics are impossible to neatly summarize, and I like it that way. To that extent, I'm as impatient with Larry Neal and his call for "the destruction of the white thing" in 1968 as I am with Living Blues and its self-description as "the journal of the African American blues tradition." I'm as impatient with white guys who put on hats and sunglasses and make a clownish joke of the blues as I am with overly serious antiracist white guys who talk about how black people are their "allies." But I'm less inclined than I used to be to simply dismiss them as fools. I try to figure out where they're coming from and offer them at least a little bit of compassionate attention.

The only thing I know for sure about the blues is that it--or they--is/are deeper than us all. The blues, whatever it/they are, always know where we live. When we think we've gotten beyond them, they find us. When we think we've gotten beyond our own evil history, they remind us that we haven't. When we brood about historical wrongs, they hand us a drink, play us a song, and tell us to do a silly little dance and shut the f--k up.

I'm okay with that.

I hear you: the overintellectualizing of the music can be a turn off.

And the refusal to allow the blues their full spectrum of resonances--including some deep historical shit that IS there, as you know from the bandstands you've survived with musicians who need not be named--can be a sign of fear. Why are so many people here afraid? Why shut the conversation down just when it's getting interesting? That isn't soulful. It isn't bluesy. It's sad.

I'll be happy to have a serious conversation about the blues. You contributed mightily to one of those, when the question was how drummers carry grooves. Your ideas about that subject was a gift to this forum.

Cutting session is open, guys. Let's talk about the blues. If you think what I've said in my long posts above is wrong, rebut me. If you think what I'm saying is partially true, tell me what part is true and what part isn't. Respond to my call in a way that does justice to us both. Bring on your ideas. But they've got to be ideas, not a reflexive distaste for ideas. If you can't stand the heat, it might be a good idea to step down off the bandstand.

Last Edited by on Nov 23, 2009 7:18 PM
188 posts
Nov 23, 2009
7:12 PM
@ Kudzu...Whoa, looks like I phrased my last post wrong-I wasn't aiming at you, nor anyone else on this forum! I was speaking of the type of 'player' one will inevitably cross in the blues world who has the self-appointed power to un-bonify(is that a word? It ought to be!)anyone 'playing the blues' as 'not worthy'. Sorry for any misunderstanding!

~Todd L. Greene, Devout Pedestrian

"listen to what you like for inspiration, but find your own voice"

809 posts
Nov 23, 2009
7:19 PM
No, I get you. You specifically said in your earlier post that you weren't talking about anybody here.
810 posts
Nov 23, 2009
7:22 PM
@Andrew: No, I haven't read Bernal. I've certainly heard of the book, though. I've skimmed Molefi Asante's THE AFROCENTRIC IDEA. I understand the impetus behind it, but it's not really my cup of tea. I can only imagine what Asante would think about this website.
126 posts
Nov 23, 2009
7:26 PM
Part of the argument goes you need a hard life to really understand the blues, and black people have certainly had a harder life than most in this country over the last century. But being immensely sad is not only the province of one race. Depression is real. I have had friends kill themselves.

Is is an issue of materialism? Old blues guys were poor. Surveys show that the poorest 1/5 of people are just about as happy now in the US as they were in the 1970's, even though the poorest 1/5 (at least those not so down and out they could actually take a survey) now have about as much as the middle class did in the 1970's. The weird thing about this is the richest report being happier than the poorer people, but they have gotten way way richer since the 1970's and they are not happier than they were either. This leads me to believe that many in the top 1/5 of wealth are unlikely to be able to play the blues because they simply cannot empathize with the emotion of others.

I have played many times over the years, but don't remember many times very specifically. In my early 20's my parents called and told me my boyhood dog had died. I went in the bedroom and played the blues on my harp. A kid raised middle class and white in the suburbs. It was real, I still remember how it felt. It was not being played for anybody, it just came out as pure emotion. I am pretty sure that is the blues regardless of who plays it if they play it that way.

this thread is certainly making me think.
277 posts
Nov 23, 2009
7:51 PM
Let me draw a metaphor:

There's a guy who knows electronics very well. He can and does build fine radios in his hobby room. He happens to love (fill in the space)genre of music.

There's another guy who also loves that genre, and he buys fine radios to listen to it. He knows nothing about electronics (except how to play his radio) and doesn't care to.

Well, the first guy certainly does have the advantage of having two loves (the music and the electronics), but the second guy's capacity to love the music is in no way compromised by his ignorance of electronics.

Last Edited by on Nov 23, 2009 7:52 PM
122 posts
Nov 23, 2009
8:25 PM
Before this appears like it may turn into a flame war, up here in Boston, most notably Cambridge, which is a large area of intellectuals, hearing the arguement was at one point, almost a daily occurance that after a while, it was like beating a dead horse and was at times easy to get sucked into and one can tire of it. Am I taking shots at you Adam? No way. It just gets a tad stale and at times overly fanatical where it can get out of hand, like the bickering between overblowers and non overblowers, or chromatic and diatonic, or politics, etc.....
Barbeque Bob Maglinte
Boston, MA
CD available at http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/bbmaglinte
103 posts
Nov 23, 2009
8:57 PM
Here's my take:
1) Please don't wear your BLOOZE HAT. You look like a douchebag. And when you really can't play on top of that, you are a douchebag.

2) I am a middle-aged, solidly middle class, suburban Midwest transplant to the Deep South. I can try to empathize and attempt to understand the most ugly parts of black experience with racism (it is still ugly and pervasive, I believe, but veiled) but I can NEVER really know it. Really.

3) I've never done a deep-dive on the complete meaning of "I Got My Mojo Working." If I were to guess, I think Muddy (or the original writer who wrote it the year before Muddy cut it I think) could be trying to say something about acceptance. Like, "I am really working my thing, I'm at the the top of my game and you (White People) act like you LOVE me. But you really don't love me. I'm doing everything I can do to be loved (accepted, tolerated) by you. But it just don't work on you." ? I dunno. I DO know that when I play it with my band, wherever we go, whomever we play it for, it's a goddamn PARTY song and we blow the f*cking roof off with it. EVERYBODY shakes their damn ass as hard as they can and they do the call and response thing with us.

That's all.

Last Edited by on Nov 23, 2009 8:59 PM
4 posts
Nov 24, 2009
3:26 AM
This is some great food for thought…

I am by no means any sort of expert, but I feel like sharing some of my thoughts.

My music tastes were largely formed by the stuff my father listened to, and as such I was introduced to the blues at a young age. When I started getting a bit more serious about my guitar playing in my teens I started taking lessons from a local blues guitarist (I’ll never forget my first lesson with him. I was immediately struck by how different he thought about music and was dumbfounded by how he created such feeling out of his beat up cherry red telecaster). At that point I couldn’t tell you why I liked the blues. I just ‘felt’ it more than any other music. Life and some other stuff happened and my guitar playing was forgotten for a couple of years. Cue about a year ago when I started to seriously explore the world of the blues harp… I got totally engrossed in the history and stories of these players and the blues scene…. At which point ideas started bouncing around in my head regarding my attempts at playing the blues and why it struck a chord within me…

I am part of a generation of South Africans who still very much live with the ghosts of our apartheid past (I was about 10 when apartheid finally ended, so I really missed most of it). While our 15 year old democracy has come leaps and bounds, you have but to open a newspaper to see that the wounds from the past are still far from being healed. This is the frame of reference with which I started my journey into the blues… and it is this frame of reference that left me feeling unqualified… not to play, but to have the blues (to really “get it”).

The disparity between rich and poor in South Africa is on a scary level. Being young and white with a university education means that I am firmly on the one end of the spectrum and despite some issues/hurt that I might have had growing up I have admittedly only glanced at the other side of the spectrum from behind our fences or driving past the squatter camps. This has however given me enough insight to start to appreciate just how much the “ blues conditions” as Adam puts it must have contributed to the blues. If there are any similarities between the “heroic period” and the relatively recent history of the South Africa that I grew up in and know, the “conditions” are pervasive on every single level of your existence. There is no escaping it. To ignore it in the music would not do the music justice.

As to why the blues struck such a chord within me, I’m still not sure. It resonates with/within me for some reason, with the way I get sad/happy/angry (the same way that my Bb harp resonates with/within me more than my A for example).

Adam, you wrote: “And the blues is some serious music. It deserves the best we can give it.” While I’m still but a couple steps into my journey, I think those words will stay with me as I venture on, hopefully paying some dues as best I can on the way.
769 posts
Nov 24, 2009
3:46 AM
People who don't know Bernal,
Black Athena basically posits an African (or rather Black) origin of all Greek culture. Early in the 20th century people believed, in a simpler way, that Egypt was the source (via Crete) of much Greek culture, but that idea was refuted early on. Bernal re-invents this but politicises it heavily. For a start Egypt becomes Black Africa, rather than merely a part of the African continent, whereas the Egyptians were never black. Even today in Cairo the servants of the rich people tend to be Nubians. Much early Greek culture had its origins in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, and of course, the Iraqis are "blacker than us" (Mel Brooks quote), so Iraqis become "honorary blacks" for the purposes of people such as Bernal (Ironic, given the current, and past, wars in the Middle East. Also I'm ironically using an inversion of a[n old] South African label for Japanese diplomats - 'honorary whites').

But also there's this misconception (not only in Bernal) that the Ptolemies (i.e. Cleopatra VII) were black - they weren't, they were Greek! They were all descended from Ptolemy 1 who was one of Alexander the Great's generals. There are not many people in the world who take Bernal seriously nowadays, but if one had all the time in the world, one would read him and see how he relates to the politics of the question of who owns the blues.

I say all this, admitting that it's what I've gathered in passing, and I doubt if any of it is new to Adam, but if he knows more and has anything to add, I'd be glad to have any of my misconceptions corrected.
Kinda hot in these rhinos!

Last Edited by on Nov 24, 2009 4:14 AM
214 posts
Nov 24, 2009
4:00 AM
Other South Africans on this forum? Welcome, my china.
Me I'm from Cape Town.

But Rikus, while your comment resonates with my own life history, it runs the risk of conflating the experiences of the US South (that gave birth to the genre of music we call the blues) and different experiences of poverty and oppression of the black African majority in SA. As well you know, THOSE experiences found expression in myriad other ways. It does injustice to all involved to lump them together.
771 posts
Nov 24, 2009
4:16 AM
Even black politics is being appropriated by whites, how ironic is that!
Kinda hot in these rhinos!
5 posts
Nov 24, 2009
4:49 AM
Hah! What a nice surprise! I am also from Cape Town (just check out the Harmonica Players map :D ).

I definitely had no intention of lumping the two together.

What I tried to get across was that I have had a glimpse of the impact of poverty and oppression in South Africa and how it pervades the lives of those affected thereby. That aspect I suspect would be shared by both. I did not intend to draw any comparisons between the experiences or the expressions of those experiences. I just imagine them being equally deeply seeded in the respective cultures, to the extent that there can’t be any ignoring of it in the music.

But like I said, I really am no expert on this stuff. These are just some thoughts rolling around in my head that I wanted to share, to hopefully add to and take part in the discussions. I mean no offence. I just want to learn/grow.
127 posts
Nov 24, 2009
7:48 AM
Can you South Africans comment on parallels between the African music scene and the US blues scene that preceded it by a few decades? Even to the point of a white musician appropriating the music and making a bunch on it (Paul Simon)?
Delta Dirt
50 posts
Nov 24, 2009
9:54 AM
Same old carpetbagging,politically correct,psuedo intellectual,feel your pain,self hate,no pride,dissect it to the point of nonsense,crap, ive heard for fifty years....... So get in A baby and lets rock.
275 posts
Nov 24, 2009
10:56 AM
@Elwood- I believe you misunderstood my post.In no way was I saying forum members were tight assed purists or as someone else said, blues Nazis.Actually it was directed at Adam,but with tongue firmly embedded in cheek. That was then,and this is now. He'd be the last person I'd accuse of being a "blues Nazi".
215 posts
Nov 24, 2009
11:26 AM
@walterharp, that's an interesting question. It's probably worth a seperate thread - watch this space.

@Tuckster, if I got the wrong end of the stick I apologise.

@Delta Dirt... If 50 years (and 42 contributions to this thread) have done nothing to shift your thinking on this topic -- or elevate it beyond "get in A baby and lets rock" -- then perhaps it's best to let this one be. How this relates at all to self-hate or absence of pride I cannot imagine.
652 posts
Nov 24, 2009
11:42 AM
An lot of this debate seems to not be so much about 'who owns the blues?' but, rather, 'does it really matter?' Delta Dirt's view would seem to fall into the latter of those statements.

Personally, I tend to agree with him. However, the only danger I can think of with that view off the top of my head is if you - I mean 'one' but am trying not to sound prissy - is if you engage in romantic fantasies about being a bluesman when you don't really know what that means in the context that's been expounded at length above.

Often on here, Adam and others talk about the 'blues focused life'. To be honest, I've never really understood what is supposed to be meant by that, at least in the context of us sitting comfortably, typing away in our centrally heated homes.

I've been homeless before, and I've busked for my beer and smokes. I've slept in a bus depot and had a shoe - one shoe - stolen in the process. I've bought 24 hour rail tickets just to keep warm. In short, I've been like one of those dispossesed men of the past who developed the art form.

Does any of that give me any more 'blues credentials' than anyone else on here? Of course not.

If I've understood the argument so far, it appears that some people feel that there may be an obligation to understand the blues' past in order to do it justice in the present.

I can't subscribe to that. Some people choose to examine music's socio-political background as a scholarly pursuit, and it's a noble pursuit. The rest of us just want to knock out a few ditties, have a beer and a laugh then go home again. The World is plenty big enough for both camps.

I hope I've not twisted anyone's views; I didn't have the time to re-read this very long thread.
YouTube SlimHarpMick
696 posts
Nov 24, 2009
1:03 PM
I think, a lot of this discussion of "who owns the blues" or "who is allowed to play the blues" or whatever, is just a country confronting and dealing with an ugly past. (Somehow in the same category as this sometimes incomprehensible N-word dilemma that the US society is caught in).

At one point you'll realize that music is just music - as a result you'll stop trying to own the blues and you'll own the blues.

My credentials to this opinion is that I live in a country with a f-ed up psyche due to its f-ed up past (whereas the discussion was led much more intensely than the US dealing with it's black past). But then I have the observing foreigners perspective...

The society and its individuals have to separate the anxiety from the matter to find peace.

Just my 2 cents.

germanharpist on YT. =;-)

Last Edited by on Nov 24, 2009 1:07 PM
280 posts
Nov 24, 2009
1:55 PM
"I think, a lot of this discussion of "who owns the blues" or "who is allowed to play the blues" or whatever, is just a country confronting and dealing with an ugly past."

Maybe there is something to that, but I'm not feeling that way about it. I simply feel that knowing the history of the blues is only of academic interest and is in no way important to enjoying or playing the music.

I'm part Irish, but I don't need to know anything about my ancestors to enjoy Celtic music. For all I know, they might have been indentured servants, but I'm not going to tell anybody else, "What the heck are YOU doing playing bluegrass music??!!" It means nothing to me. (I'm assuming a history that may not be correct, but y'all get my point.)

Last Edited by on Nov 24, 2009 2:24 PM
310 posts
Nov 24, 2009
2:39 PM
Sweeping generalizations never really lend credibility to any discussion I read on the internet. Lumping all non-blues musicians into a groove-incapable mass of musical morons is an unwarranted insult, in my opinion. Likewise, giving two hoots for what someone wears without knowing anything about why they wear it seems superficial and condescending to me. My guitar player wears a certain hat in honor of his dead brother who od'd in the 80's, for example.

Unfortunately, every internet discussion i've ever read that turns into a mega-thread, like this one surely will, eventually includes things that make me want to stop reading. That doesn't change my level of respect for previous posts i have read with valuable information that proves true when tested. Let's face it...plenty of forum babble doesn't pass the litmus test.

It does, however underscore the reality of human interests driving agendas... in some cases, the desire to win an argument. When there is no "winning side" to a discussion, eventually you reach a point where history and actual experience have to count for something. There is also no discounting the reality that someone may wander into the world of blues musicians today, maybe ten minutes ago, and know none of that.

The level of historical study each individual decides to undertake will eventually move them to one side or the other of the discussion, and only a decision to remain squarely in the middle allows me to see both sides and want to read more.

You see...I am the new guy, without history, evidently without a groove, wearing a hat and even sunglasses, if it is outdoors in bright sun.

I am a musician as well as a sound technician, in demand for both services in my local area. Before March of this year..i played folk and rock.

On this forum I am nobody, yet I see many perspectives. Some I find offensive, some I agree with, some I could care less about either way. For me, nobody here even existed at this time last year. Yet, everyone has taught me something. Even if I generally disagree with the delivery or an individual's opinions stated elsewhere, I learn something from every thread i click on. Granted, some have taught me very little, but a little is still something.

I have the blues. I have permanent symptoms stemming from electrocution as a teenager, financial reversal, crummy cars due to financial reversal, friends that let me down, the list goes on and on. I don't feel like a poser, purist opinions to the contrary. I think everybody should learn everything possible about whatever you are doing as your "favorite hobby" or profession, or flavor of the day.

A day I fail to learn something is a day i have wasted.

My unsolicited .02
465 posts
Nov 24, 2009
3:11 PM
In one very real, and somewhat ironic sense, the blues belongs to those who buy the records. Equally ironically, those that made the records (ie. the artists) lost their control over it the moment it was recorded. The moment a record exec and a disk jockey were allowed to sell it, the blues moved from a personal context, to a public arena. The legacy of that move is something we all seem still to be dealing with, be it emotionally, academically, socially, monetarily, etc.

Please don't misread this. It is not my intent or desire to intimate that blues artists "sold out" in anyway. They were capitalizing on their talent in the best way they could, and rightly so. I'm only saying that as soon as the blues--as a music and a culture--was put up for sale, by default it became the property of anyone who wanted to buy it (at least those aspects of it that were, indeed, actually put up for sale). Is that the whole story? Certainly not, but it's an aspect that I haven't seen posted here or even written about much,a nd I thought I might bring it up.

"Ownership", however, is a slippery and transient concept, and I'd rather not prolong a discussion of it because it's clear that it won't lead anywhere. I'd actually rather hear a discussion about blues agency. I'm talking about an anthropological term here, not about an office of people who advocate for the blues. I'm talking about Blues habitus, the structuration of blues discourse, and how blues objects themselves (songs, myths, talismans) are imbued with a kind of ambulatory power to create. Now if this is sounding very academic, well, it is. I'm an academic, and an unapologetic one at that. These terms may be dense, but I feel that they are needed to discuss certain aspects of human sociality that are very difficult to discuss in plain language, but which are very important issues none-the-less.

So what do I mean by a "blues habitus? Habitus can be understood as the pattern of daily life that itself structures patterns of daily life. In other words, it is recursive, and both reinforces and is in turned reinforced by the things that you do every day, and which you consider to be "normal". Those things can be called practices. Habitus is a long-term social construct which subconsciously (actually, "preconsciously") limits the scope of action one can perform within the bounds of socially acceptable behaviors.

So is there such a thing as a blues habitus, a system of blues practice? If so, must one live within that habitus in order to be part of the blues? Is the blues then a social structure, or a complete sociality itself?

This is the discussion that I would like to see...
Super Awesome!
The magnificent YouTube channel of the internet user known as "isaacullah"

Last Edited by on Nov 24, 2009 3:31 PM
655 posts
Nov 24, 2009
3:13 PM
I think it was jonsparrow that first posted this here...

I love hearing what Son House and Bloomfield have to say on this. I especially like what Bloomfield has to say from 6:36 onwards

"If he was a planaria, a tunafish sandwich, Butterfield would be into the blues"
216 posts
Nov 24, 2009
3:17 PM
Don't want to get sidetracked (like congaron says, this is a mega post) but the short answer is - don't think Paul Simon was copying Johnny Clegg when he did Graceland. The link is that they're both white musicians working within the Mbaqanga musical genre. Beyond that I don't hear a significant similarity in their songs.

It's my belief that the Graceland sound owes much to the guitar work of Ray Phiri and the bass of Bakithi Kumalo.

[The official story behind Graceland says Paul Simon got the idea when he heard a recording of the black South African band Boyoyo Boys]

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