Whose Blues? Facing Up to Race and the Future of the Music
by Adam Gussow
Best Blues Book of 2020 nominee - Living Blues
Outstanding Academic Title (Music Selection) 2021 - Choice magazine, American Library Association
"As a Black musician who came to the blues harmonica during my time as a student of classical double bass at the Eastman School of Music, I have often reflected on the dichotomy between Black bluesism and blues universalism. The recent unrest surrounding the death of George Floyd and the changes prompted by the Black Lives Matter movement, along with the pandemic and the suffering it has caused so many musicians, has caused me to ponder this further. Whose music is it? Who profits from it? How does social media further disenfranchise (or promote) the Black artists who created the blues? How is the next generation of blues artists being mentored? Gussow has given us a book that is as timely as it is illuminating. He gives the reader and excellent framework with which to consider these questions and along the way gives a rich, informative, and often myth-busting history of the complex story of blues and race."
--Gene Dobbs Bradford, President & CEO, Jazz St. Louis
"There really is nobody else like Adam Gussow. A blues harp virtuoso and first-rate scholar who tempers critical acuity with humor and generosity to all, he cuts through the heated feelings and bad faith surrounding the uncomfortable subject of music and race in this soulful, bracingly clear-eyed book."
--Carlo Rotella, author of Good With Their Hands:
Boxers, Bluesmen, and Other Characters from the Rust Belt
"There are social histories, biographies, musicological studies, lyrical analyses, case studies, and much more, in the rich literature of the blues. In Whose Blues, Adam Gussow synthesizes all these treatments of the subject. It is the most interdisciplinary book about the blues that I have yet read. His historical grasp is magisterial, made all the more real by his having lived his shade of universal blues through playing the music.I found Whose Blues tremendously illuminating, a lens through which I could see my own life, and place in the history of the blues, in clearer detail."
--Watermelon Slim, blues musician
"[I]f you are looking for a book which will namecheck all the people that your guitar teacher has mentioned and will more or less confirm that the blues is this cool thing from Mississippi, this is not your book. Like most 'experts' on the blues, I too play guitar, have brilliant taste in the music, and can wax endlessly about the various styles late into the night. Which is why I really loved this book. It challenged me. It made me think about my own reaction to this music and forced me to abandon some romantic notions. The chapters on the three writers were brilliant. The chapter on mentorship is revelatory. This isn't a comfortable read if you are a long time blues fan but it is an important one. Your attendance at festivals and your LP purchases have political implications. You can't simply say, 'I love the blues but I'm not interested in identity politics.' You don't love the blues then, you love a performative notion of your own creation. What is happening in America right now is connected the blues and Gussow's book strikes exactly the right note for the world we find ourselves in."
Mamie Smith's pathbreaking 1920 recording of "Crazy Blues" set the pop music world on fire, inaugurating a new African American market for "race records." Not long after, such records also brought black blues performance to an expanding international audience. A century later, the mainstream blues world has transformed into a multicultural and transnational melting pot, taking the music far beyond the black southern world of its origins. But not everybody is happy about that. If there's "No black. No white. Just the blues," as one familiar meme suggests, why do some blues people hear such pronouncements as an aggressive attempt at cultural appropriation and an erasure of traumatic histories that lie deep in the heart of the music? Then again, if "blues is black music," as some performers and critics insist, what should we make of the vibrant global blues scene, with its all-comers mix of nationalities and ethnicities?
In Whose Blues?, award-winning blues scholar and performer Adam Gussow confronts these challenging questions head-on. Using blues literature and history as a cultural anchor, Gussow defines, interprets, and makes sense of the blues for the new millennium. Drawing on the blues tradition's major writers including W. C. Handy, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Amiri Baraka, and grounded in his first-person knowledge of the blues performance scene, Gussow's thought-provoking book kickstarts a long overdue conversation.
Adam Gussow is a professor of English and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi and a professional blues harmonica player.He is the author of five other books on the blues, including Mister Satan's Apprentice (1998), a memoir of his time as a Harlem street musician, which won the Keeping the Blues Alive award in Literature from the Blues Foundation in Memphis; Seems Like Murder Here:Southern Violence and the Blues Tradition (2002), which won the Holman award from the Society for the Study of Southern Literature; and Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition (2017), which the readers of Living Blues voted "Best Blues Book of 2017." Satan & Adam (2018), a documentary about his longtime partnership with blues master Sterling "Mr. Satan" Magee (1936-2020), is currently screening on Netflix.
More praise for Whose Blues:
"In an act of fidelity to the blues itself, Adam Gussow’s Whose Blues develops a 'devilish' or 'trickster' perspective, one that repeats the drive of the blues itself: to restore a fundamentally paradoxical and comedic aspect of the blues in order to vocalize what is sadly unspoken and repressed from everyday blues consciousness….Whose Blues seeks to bust open this silence, to make some noise, to support and intensify existing reasons for struggles for equality in the blues, but also to caution against unnecessary fights….[Gussow] writes as a blues harp player and a touring performer, but also as a man of deep reflection and 'man of literature' who cannot but critically observe, and intervene in, the contemporary blues scene.
"Gussow’s book is a powerful critique against compulsively repeated, white-supremacist disavowals over the bloody history of race/racialization/racism that originally gave rise to the blues. But the book is also a critique of how the signifier of race has become a 'fundamentalist' and ideological category itself, one that shapes the consciousness of individual blues musicians, as well as of the anonymous audience of blues listeners and fans world-wide…. Gussow's Whose Blues aims to carve a materialist path between two contemporary blues ideologies: 'black bluesism' and its skepticism, and 'blues universalism' and its idealism. Gussow’s hypothesis is that he can vocalize unspoken problems that have resulted in dividing the blues world into new forms of segregation—even into forms of auto-segregation (i.e., the 'essentialisms' of identity politics)."
--Ken C. Kawashima (University of Toronto, Department of East Asian Studies),
aka, Sugar Brown, blues singer and founder of The People’s Blues Liberation Army Band (PB-LAB), based in Toronto, Canada
"In Whose Blues, Adam Gussow tackles the provocative reality of the blues. He ties the music's tortured history with the current racial climate and adds chapters on the blues’ place in African-American literature and the Black Arts Movement. This is essential reading to better understand the power of the blues."
– Art Tipaldi, Editor Blues Music Magazine, andblues educator
"An insightful work that connects contemporary culture to an old-school genre."
"With Whose Blues? Gussow (English and southern studies, Univ. of Mississippi), an authority on the blues, adds to his extensive and noteworthy scholarship on the genre, including Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition (CH, Apr’18, 55-2795). Divided into 12 'bars,' or chapters, Whose Blues? addresses longstanding issues surrounding the blues and race. Incorporating some previously published scholarship, Gussow foregrounds canonical works from blues luminaries such as W. C. Handy, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston, among others. Gussow also does due diligence in dispelling myths long associated with the early days of the blues. His research on the early blues was exhaustive, and he succeeds in revealing several long-accepted baseline 'facts' as more myth than history. Above all, Gussow does a yeoman’s job of mixing discussions of decades-long changing race relations with the emergence and development of the blues."
--Choice magazine (American Library Association), announcing Whose Blues? as one
of the five best academic books about music published in 2021: an "Outstanding