How does one talk about the blues? First, be honest:
How do I — as a white person, a music person, a 21st-century person, and a city person — talk about the blues?
There’s an intense amount of exoticizing and identifying that happens when white rock kids talk about and play the blues. Often we talk about how “real” the blues are, how “universal,” how “anyone can have the blues” without recognizing that we really don’t know what it’s like to experience the world–and more specifically, the music world–in the way that black American musicians did, and do. We live in a racist culture, and white artists often benefit from putting forth blues music in ways that the black artists who invented it never did or have.
The argument usually goes like this: On the one hand, music is universal; the feelings, emotions, and unspeakably musical connective threads sewn into this music can and often do transcend the music’s troubled history and the listener’s particular demographics. And the revolutionary power of music itself, its profound and mobilizing effect on us as creatures who respond to song, may in the end be more effective at addressing issues of race than talking about it. On the other other hand, is it really okay for white folks to keep benefiting from this stuff, paying “homage” to it, romanticizing it, and pretending we know where the heck these guys were really coming from?
Jack White, I’m looking at you. Led Zeppelin, every song you ever did was a Willie Dixon song and he didn’t get nearly as rich or famous for writing them as you did for playing them. People instantly respond to examples like these saying, but they’re the best! They are pure talent and that’s why they are so successful! So mistake me not: I’m not diminishing the contributions of these white musicians; I think both of them are pretty remarkably good bands. But I think, to different degrees, both those artists have profited from the work of less famous, black artists in disproportionate ways, ways that don’t always make me feel okay.
This is dissertation, flame war, lifelong discussion stuff: the history of white folks and the blues. Particularly since the “folk revival” of the 1960s and all the “field recordings” made by white middle-class college students of black poor blues musicians that were pressed on wax. I can’t do this issue justice in this space, but I want to bring it up, because I feel that often white folks go wrong by simply failing to talk about it– failing to recognize that American music comes from and continues to exist within a complicated racialized context and history of appropriation. Hence it is received in that context, too.
So. How do white artists and critics and fans acknowledge the long history of white artists appropriating and emulating black artworks while still appreciating the music of those artists? How do you talk about musical influence and acknowledge privilege, too?
I don’t know. But I think it’s important to bring it up here. Really important. The history of American popular music hinges on this relationship between black and white artists, and how they interact. Call it stealing or homage, evolution or study, anthropology or family. Call it all those things, because it is all those things.
And also remember to call it music.
And try to call out problematic shit when you see it. So I’m going to call out the guy who wrote the Yazoo liner notes for this record.
Here is a sample:
Davis has the uncanny ability of being able to play proficiently in any key. His most unusual arrangement conceptions are found in those songs placed in the key of F.
It’s hard for me to tell when Reverend Davis’ style matured. The 1935 recordings have a rough vocal quality about them but a very competent guitar sound.
While clearly coming from a place of reverence and music-nerd dissection of technique, there is a something about the perspective here that creeps me out. It’s downright anthropological. Which is fine, I mean, that’s a legitimate (if boring) way to talk about music: musicians as cultural anthropological subjects. But to me this smacks of the musicology equivalent of describing a black man as “so articulate!” as though that’s something remarkable for a black man to be: “Davis is competent at guitar, isn’t that great?! How mature (for a backwoods, blind, poor, country-livin’ black man).” Yes, how mature for a person who is an expert at it, how amazing that a masterful and influential composer and performer of this type of music we all so adore is good at playing this type of music. “And he’s blind! and he can play in keys!” How cute!
[And I'm not a music theorist -- I play bar chords on the guitar, and about 8 of them. But it's news to me that playing in more than one key is something to be singled out for surprised praise. Please correct me if I'm wrong, music geeks.]
I just don’t think the Yazoo guys would have written this way, so academic and condescending, about a white artist. Can you picture a dissection of the unique fingerpicking technologies employed so maturely by Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie? Or take John Fahey, who was making folk music at the time this record was pressed and was listened to by similar audiences. No one talks about John Fahey like they’re surprised he’s sophisticated and complex and can play in more than one key. (In fact, the opposite often goes for white artists: they are talked about as being “down home” or just “down and dirty” as positive things if they play music like Davis’.) Fahey got to write his own liner notes, because he got to be in charge of his own stuff. Not because he was more competent than Davis, but because he had the access and resources and respect to be a power player at an independent record label, thanks in part to the privilege of being a white guy.
Context is a lot. The conversation was different then. Music geek conversation was different then, too. I’m maybe getting all offensive on this guy’s liner notes just because it makes me feel uncomfortable as a white person who’s trying not to be an asshole and I don’t quite know how not to be. No one can say that the folk revival movement didn’t mean well. While giving us some amazing recordings of terrific previously unheard-in-mainstream-white-American-music artists, many of these folks were in fact trying to give credit to the black roots of popular folk and rock. Which I appreciate. But they might want to have taken a little bit less of a condescending tone when they talk about black artists who basically invented what we now know as rock ‘n’ roll. Just saying.
And here’s a question more immediately for me, for this blog: How can I talk about race and not let it be the whole conversation? I just spend 500 words I could have spent talking about Reverend Gary Davis — his life, his talent, his skills, his sound — talking instead about the white guy who wrote his liner notes. I apologize. I’ll let Reverend (and he actually was a reverend) Davis speak for himself now. And there are more of these 60s/70s blues/folk revival records in my collection. So let’s talk about it more, while we figure out how to talk about it, okay?