Has it ever been disputed that Blues is Black music? Corey Harris seems to think that fact has been lost on modern blues musicians and listeners. He seems to believe Blues are not authentic if they aren’t played by Black people, and he doesn’t like it when White people imitate the Black Blues musicians. Corey recently wrote an essay for his blog titled “Can White People Play The Blues ?” I encourage everyone to read it at least twice. There is a lot to digest in Corey’s thoughtful and passionate piece and I agree with much of it including his disdain of the modern Blues genre’s tendency to imitate and regurgitate what came before. However, if what came before moves you and you feel it, and can relate to it, who is to say you are not authentic? As listeners I think many of us can tell when someone is pretending. However, Blues is not a lucrative music scene. You have to dedicate your life to it if you want to succeed. There really isn’t much room for those without passion. Still, there are many who seek to relive what they think was the heyday of the music, play note for note versions of “Got My Mojo Working,” and name drop Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters every few minutes. In part, I think Corey is railing against those who do so without any understanding or regard to its origin because he sees them as empty imitators, and he may be right.
Personally, I have been enthralled by Blues and its history for about 30 years. It was those damned White guys who brought me into the fold too. Stevie Ray Vaughan, Led Zeppelin, Cream, The Allman Brothers Band, Johnny Winter, and even Cinderella drew me into the music called Blues. I went backward from there and discovered a world of music rich in history and influence. Even as a teenage fan, I knew it came from Blacks, but I never in my life thought I shouldn’t play it because I’m White. I certainly never expected, as Corey suggests, asking permission from a Black person to play Blues. I came from a mostly white rural area. The only Black person I knew was into Rap and didn’t seem to know anything about Son House. That subconscious sense of entitlement may be his whole point about White Blues vs. Black Blues. I never saw the music as Black or White. Just because it was born of Black tribulations doesn’t mean others can’t relate to it.
I also get Corey’s stance that culture informs the music, but sometimes the music of one culture can resonate with people in another, especially where similar circumstances allow the feeling of the music to penetrate the soul. And while a culture can lay claim to the creation of an art form, it does not own it. Art, including music, is uniquely human and is for all people, everywhere, and it moves us all differently. After World War II, the poor children of war-ravaged England found the Blues at the time blacks in America were turning away from it and getting into Motown and Soul music. The postwar generation stood in line for food, saw their parents work exist as unofficial indentured servants in dank factories, and saw their future as little more than taking their parents place at the factory. their future was one of poverty, debt, and death. By the time the kids like John Mayall, Eric Clapton, and Keith Richards brought British Blues to American shores, most blacks had moved on from this music they supposedly own. The mostly-white hippies of America were looking for escape from the ravages of another war, this time in Viet Nam. They turned to music that soothed their souls and in many cases it was the amped up British Blues of Cream and The Rolling Stones among many others. To their credit, these bands loved the black artists and talked about them consistently which led to a Blues revival in the United States. The children of a burned out Britain could relate to the messages in the Blues songs and wanted to meet the kindred spirits who created them or knew those who did. The British Blues movement made White kids aware of one of America’s finest creations. It’s a shame and a sin that it happened that way, but I for one am glad it did.
Corey Harris seems more than incensed that Whites imitate the Blacks by dressing like them, singing like them, and acting like them. Of course white blues players will copy the original Black musicians. But this isn’t exclusive to White people. I’ve seen Black Blues artists who model their presentation after the greats, but in those cases it’s considered traditional. Black musicians created the template. Naturally, if you see something you like and you want build a similar item, you’re going to use a template, or blueprint. From cars, to homes, to guitars, and songs, there is nothing new under the sun. Everything has roots in what came before. As human beings we share a common history. Some of us have experienced that history in different ways but it affects all of us.
Corey Harris asserts over and over that Blues is Black Music, however his essay hints that inversely, Black Music is Blues as is everything that came from it. Does Mr. Harris mean that Blues is one facet of Black Music? Harris states that Black music “has never stood still, it has never stopped evolving and changing. Whatever happened to Black people, happened in the music. And since Black culture is obsessively fresh, as soon as the new influence became standard, a new standard was applied.” Yes, Corey seems to be examining Black music in his essay and Black music has changed a lot. In the 50’s and 60’s it changed into Soul and Rhythm & Blues. In the 70’s it became Funk, and in the 80s, Black Music became Rap. Still, many performers sing and play R&B. They didn’t have the same experiences as Ray Charles, so Black or White or any race, do they have to ask Ray’s permission to play R&B? Simply because a style of music has been left behind by its creators doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed, performed, or further developed. Among Mr. Harris’ issues with Whites playing Blues is the idea that Black Music evolves while Whites are nostalgic about Blues and don’t do anything new with it.
But Blues has evolved. However, I get the feeling Corey doesn’t like how it has evolved and changed. He says it needs to be sung to be blues but then says modern blues has turned into guitar hero worship, which is clearly contradictory since it is a change. Mr. Harris seems concerned that Blues is no longer focused on individual singers accompanying themselves on guitar or piano. He seems disdainful of the front man formation of modern Blues bands that highlight instrumentalists. This too is an evolution of what Muddy Waters started when he formed the first electric blues band. Maybe the key word there is electric. Electricity provided amplification. Suddenly those without good singing voices could express themselves through amplified instruments. The means of expression evolved and expanded. Should we discount the genius of Hubert Sumlin because he wasn’t a singer? Isn’t it a good thing that more people can express themselves musically and connect with an audience without ever muttering a word? Right there is proof that blues in universal and transcends language, culture, and circumstances.
Mr. Harris umbrage at calling Blues universal though, as if universal is a White concept and Whites control what is and what is not universal. The truth is that universal is merely a word used to describe the phenomenon experienced by so many, a feeling evoked by songs sung over a one-four-five chord progression. Most human beings, regardless of race, creed, or color would be moved by and could relate to the songs of the Blues. The world wide appeal of Blues is proof. And as Corey says, Blues comes from the music of Africa. Humanity, too, sprung forth from Africa and spread all around the world, just like the Blues. Blues has a rich history and it can be shared and appreciated people of all colors and cultures. We need to be a culture of Earth and stop focusing on all our differences. The music we love and the people we love all have their distant origins in the same place. When you limit yourself to seeing everything in terms of Black and White you lose sight of all the other colors of the Universe and your experience on Earth is greatly diminished.
So, should Corey Harris play Blues? Even after reading his essay several times, based on his own words I’m still not sure. There are contradictory arguments that might preclude him from doing so. He didn’t live in the same conditions Son House did. He doesn’t live in the same time period he describes as Blues Time. He grew up outside Denver and graduated from a New England university. But he is Black, and I think we all agree that Blues is Black music. He has studied the history of Blues, lived in Africa, sang on the streets of New Orleans, and has been recording a fairly traditional form of Blues since the 1990s. As a Black man he has faced obstacles I, and many of you, never will. I cannot know his struggle, and likewise he cannot know mine. I personally don’t care what color he is, but at the same time I don’t discount it. In fact I’m glad a Black person is playing Blues. Much of his essay comes back to the idea that Whites discount the Black struggle and the way it formed Blues music. On this we agree. Everyone who enjoys Blues should delve into the history of the music and the culture it came from. That knowledge will certainly increase your understanding of Blues and probably enhance your enjoyment. It will bring you closer to the music and expand your sense of the history that goes along with the foundation of songs upon which all of us stand. Yes, Corey Harris should play the Blues. And so should you no matter what your skin looks like. Remember where it came from, but make it yours.