Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Afrikan culture, Christianity and the Drum





We know that the majority of Black people in North America today are largely the descendants of people taken from regions now associated with the modern nations of Senegal, Mali, Gambia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia (aka upper Guinea); the southern regions of Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana and eastern Ivory Coast (aka lower Guinea); and the western regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola (Central Africa).  When we consider the size of the continent, these areas represent only about %15 of Afrika's total area.  Each of these regions produced empires rich in cultural traditions as well as smaller kingdoms and city states.  There is a common misconception that slaves were taken from Afrika.  No, people were stolen, sold and then later enslaved.  They were not dull brutes or blank slates lacking culture, waiting for white people to write upon them.  These were individuals skilled in arts and trades that colonial whites knew nothing about, such as brick making, rice cultivation.  Though a great number of slaves performed back-breaking manual labor on large and small plantations, many others were highly valued for their skills, even to the extent that they were often hired out by the slavemaster to work for other whites in the area.  (This was the status of the great skilled and literate revolutionaries of the 19th century such as Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner; this made them a real threat to the established order.  Perhaps this explains why slave revolts were so common, and why travel was forbidden during slavery: white security and the maintenance of the system demanded it.)  Slavery was a system with a clear process on how to break, maintain, and breed free labor.  (Though the now famous 'Willie Lynch letter' has been exposed as a hoax, the practices it describes were most definitely part and parcel of the enslavement process.)  Those who survived the middle passage were then subjected to the brutal process of enslavement which began when they were chained in Afrika to be sold off to Europeans to be regarded as nothing more than livestock.  So we are talking here about people of diverse origins and trades, with differences in status and age.  These are people who were loved members of a community, parents, sons, daughters, uncles, aunts, cousins.  They knew their family history and their cultural identity was intact.  In short, they were civilized peoples with their own languages, faiths, traditions, and concepts of law.  They were enslaved because of the need for cheap, skilled labor.  Their rich and highly developed cultures did not die out just because of a change of venue.  But it did bear the scars, the whips and the chains as it developed into a new branch of that same old Afrikan tree from which it sprung.  It was this Afrikan culture, taken from diverse groups from a relatively small area that is the soil from which Black culture grew into what it is today.  

Historical records tell us that Virginia was once known for the predominance of Igbo descendants among the enslaved population, and it is well known that the Gullah people of the Sea Islands are the descendants of Mande speaking peoples from the Senegambia region who were prized for their expertise in rice cultivation.  Records from 18 century Louisiana have revealed the presence of a large population of Yoruba as well as Bambara peoples from Mali.  Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, in her book, Africans in Colonial Louisiana, revealed that the municipal court of law in New Orleans paid interpreters to translate between Bambara and French.  The Igbo were also numerous, second only to the Bamana in Louisiana.  Prior to the British ban on slavetrading in the early 19th century, colonial America witnessed large populations of fully acculturated Afrikans who remembered everything from their previous lives as free, sovereign human beings in Afrika.  It was this memory of freedom that first had to be beaten and terrorized out of existence in order to make a good slave.  Though it has been often said, it still is true that we didn't get the blues until after we walked off the slave ship and into chattel slavery.  Leroi Jones writes in his masterpiece, 'Blues People', "Undoubtedly, none of the Afrikan prisoners broke out into 'St. James Infirmary' the minute the first of them was herded off the ship."  The blues came later as the culminations of the reactions of Black people and their culture to a series of traumas beginning with captivity and enduring through slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, lynching, discrimination and abuse by the dominant culture.  These first Afrikans surely had their own lamentations in their own tongue.  Even though the despair was surely there, there was no blues form to express it in this early period.  This would take generations to manifest, as the old generation of Afrikans died out and was replaced by those born into bondage in America who had no direct memories of the Motherland.  We can well imagine that the first trauma was of being captured, kidnapped and chained in Afrika, which led to the second trauma, the hell of the ma'afa (aka the 'Middle Passage').  It is clear that the ultimate trauma that welcomed these Afrikans was reaching the shores of the Americas.  For it was at that instant that the Afrikan was immersed in a foreign land, surrounded by aliens whose only intent was to use and abuse her.  At least on the ship there was the possibility of mutiny or at least suicide by jumping overboard.  In fact, the historical record shows that many ships were lost at sea and stories of noble Afrikans such as Cingbe and his comrades on the Amistad who overcame their captors to reach for freedom were not unheard of. 


In every one of the Afrikan cultures whose members were enslaved, the power of the word (written and spoken) was held in the highest regard and used with reverence.  Words were extemporized on the spot ('off the dome') and whole ancient texts and proverbs were memorized for recitation to music.  Drums, strings, and the rhythms played on them were central to their understanding of themselves and the cosmos.  Every song had its appropriate place and time for its performance, and every song told a story that became more profound the deeper one dug into its meaning.  Individual vocal styles were emotive and soaked in rhythm and the ancient call and response conversation between the lead vocalist and the people.  The Afrikans who disembarked onto North and South American as well as Caribbean shores were fully acculturated in every way.  They laid the foundation. In their cultures, the mark of humanity was for them one who had been raised in the ways of their ancestors and who acted accordingly through right words and deeds.  This was the cultural standard across traditional Afrika, before the forced introduction of Islam and later western Christianity.  Afrikan people created cultural traditions that were highly developed and marked by their civility and respect for the sanctity of human life.  Even though centuries of racist propaganda would urge us to believe otherwise, the long period of European and Arab-imposed chattel slavery was a massive setback for Afrikan peoples (from 800 AD until the 19 century or even later), arresting the natural progression of Afrikan culture as it had been developing for millennia.  As dub poet Mutabaruka says, "slavery isn't Afirkan history; slavery interrupted Afrikan history."  Afrikan civilization was invaded by alien savages (first the Arabs and then the Europeans) who set upon a concerted campaign to enslave, brutalize and destroy the memory of its past greatness.  Whole cities were laid to waste.  Shrines and monuments were destroyed.  Sacred artifacts were stolen and housed in large quantities in the museums of Europe.  Most of these items are still there.

Even though much was lost from enslavement, religion, language, kinship and mythology, not everything could be erased.  When Afrikans first arrived to the New World, all of this Afrikan culture was fully present in the minds and hearts of the people who were to be enslaved.  It took several generations for this to change.  In areas where there were large plantations, such as in the upper Mississippi delta, Louisiana, Arkansas and elsewhere in the Southeastern United States, Blacks greatly outnumbered whites and did not meaningfully interact with them on daily basis if at all.  (The obvious exception would have been domestic workers.)  It was only because of those who resigned themselves to at least the outward appearance of assimilation in the face of such terrorism, abuse and theft that the Afrikan element became subsumed or pushed under the rug.  Those who were too strong in their Afrikan culture were simply killed.  (Even in 20th century Mississippi the common sentiment was "kill a mule, buy another one, kill a nigger, hire another one.")  Prior to and for many years after the outlawing of the slave trade in 1807, Afrikans who were born in the Motherland lived alongside Afrikans whose families had been in North America for generations.  In fact, it was the en masse introduction of western, 'white Jesus' style Christianity in the early 19th century to Afrikans by slaveowners that ultimately diluted the stronger Afrikan element in many areas.  This was in addition to native-born Afrikans gradually dying out and being replaced by the succeeding generations.  Ultimately, it would be Black people's music which bore all the hallmarks of Afrikan culture that the slavemaster had so long attempted to wipe out completely by terrorism and conversion.

Afrikans were in North America for nearly two hundred years before any white slaveowner had any interest in making them 'christian.'  This is because for centuries, the word was used to differentiate between the races without using the terms 'black' and 'white'.  It was automatically assumed that christian meant white in an era when it was widely asserted that Afrikans were not even human.  Thus no white person who wanted to preserve white privilege would have supported Black conversion to Christianity.  It wasn't until the middle of the 18th century that this began to change in what was then still the North American colonies of Britain.  Afrikans in both Virginia and South Carolina established churches in these states by the end of the 1780s and individual conversions were becoming more commonplace.  It was during the Great Revival of the early nineteenth century in which we find the origins of the tent meetings that led to mass conversions among Afrikan populations in bondage.  It is not incidental that this time period coincided with the Haitian Revolution and immediately preceded the historic slave rebellions led by Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner and Gabriel Prosser.  Afrikan spirituality such as represented by the mighty Boukman in Haiti was ultimately the abiding and deciding factor in Black unity and eventual victory in that county's famous liberation struggle.  Slaveowners in North America were well informed about events in Haiti and the birth of the first Black Republic from the ashes of a slave revolution scared them to death.  

This fear is why the drum was outlawed in every slave holding region in the Americas, since it was a deep connection to the people's recent Afrikan past and their ancestors.  Drums were literally carriers of the spoken word and could project this information over long distances.  There was a direct connection between the tonal languages of Afrikans and the tones used to communicate on the the drum.  Thus we see the condemnation of Afrikan traditions (spirituality, drums, language) among politically astute whites and mentally enslaved Black Christians as being from 'the devil.'  (Interestingly enough, a survey of traditional Afrikan religious beliefs show that the 'devil' was an alien concept introduced by Europeans.)   First and foremost, Christian conversion of Afrikans was a strategic move to ensure white security.  Salvation of the soul had nothing to do with it.  Indeed, any Black preacher with a congregation during enslavement had to be approved by a white man who also censored his sermon to make sure he stayed on message.  The more 'Christian' one behaved in reality meant the closer one was to mimicking the religion, culture and values of the slaveholding class.  In the twentieth century, this same slur of being 'from the devil' would be applied to the blues by Black and white Christians alike.  Being the most overtly Afrikan in its tonality, rhythms and singing style, it was viewed as a clear threat to the established order.  (I recall my mother telling me there was a juke joint in her small town in Texas, but she was forbidden by her devoutly religious grandmother to go, who called the blues 'knocking at the back door music.')  By circumscribing a people's culture and identity, the slaveholding class sought to enforce the status quo.  Black people internalized these restrictions such that even today it is common to hear 'educated' Black Christians talking about Afrikan culture and spirituality as being 'demonic', just as earlier generations condemned the blues as being 'sinful.'  Bluesman Big Bill Broonzy was right when he sang, "if you white, you alright; if you brown, stick around; but if you Black, get back brother, get back get back.



The Blues and the Roots


What is the blues?  Is it merely a style of music with repetitive chord progressions and particular singing techniques?  Or is it an expression of emotion put to words, music and rhythm?  Is it simply a musical style that anyone can play and master? Is it a 'feeling', or as has often been said, simply a 'good man feeling bad'?  Or is it essentially the music that grew out of the experiences of people of Afrikan descent in the Americas?  When we look at history, we see the music that came to be known as the blues arose from the long hell of slavery and later Jim Crow.  Does this history matter anymore, or is it just incidental in an era where large numbers of Black people know less about blues history than the average white hipster? Is it true that Black folk 'don't play the blues anymore', and if so, does that give others license to claim the house built by Black peoples' blood, sweat and tears as theirs?  Does blues exist in a vacuum by itself or is it part of something larger?  Is it art?  Or is it life?  Are the styles of playing blues music and the culture of the blues one and the same?  How can there be so many different definitions for what is commonly understood as merely a musical style?  Can anyone play the blues or is it deeper than a sequence of chords, no matter how expertly they are played?  Does Black heritage matter anymore when playing blues music?  By considering the history of the music and the people that made it, we can find answers to these questions.  Our ultimate goal is to understand the history of the music and the people who created it as it relates to how we understand the term 'blues' today.  The blues is a simple music, but the history behind it is not.

Ask anyone today what the blues is and be prepared for an answer that is determined by their identity, experience, upbringing, and historical awareness.  Yes, culturally conscious Black folk will claim the blues as part of the legacy of the Afrikan diaspora, but many of those who can't claim this heritage will argue that the history is incidental and anyone can 'get the blues.'  But is it that simple?  I get sad and then I can play the blues?  If I eat matzo and listen to Leopold Koslowski for six months, can I play klezmer just like the old masters?  And if I do, can I claim ownership of the music in the same way as an Ashkenazi Jew who grew up in that culture?  No.  Can I get upset or angry if someone from that culture says it is not the same thing?  No!  I can only own my experience and this is what I bring to whatever style I choose to play.  I can never claim the experience of the culture that gave rise to a music that does not represent my heritage.  I can walk in the front door, sit down and enjoy the decorations and the furniture, but at the end of the day, it is not my house.  I am a visitor.  Though many white blues aficionados will cry racism, this is the truth of the blues and its relation to Black culture.  Blues music can never be separated from Black culture and history.  It can reasonably be proclaimed that klezmer is the music of European Jews, without opposition.  It speaks to their cultural values and their unique history.  But why is it viewed as so controversial to claim that blues music is an Afrikan art form that speaks to Black people's experiences in North America?  Why is it so upsetting to some that Black people will want to lay claim to the products of Black culture?  The answer can be found in America's history as a brutal, chattel slave nation founded upon white supremacy, as well as the contemporary denial of these dynamics and how they have influenced attitudes towards Black people and the products of Black culture.  As Piedmont bluesman Jeff Scott once said, "To know the mystery you got to understand the history."  

ORIGINS

Ali Farka Toure famously said that to him blue is just a color, and that his music is older than the blues.  This was disappointing to hear for so many western journalists who were ardently trying to manufacture a ready-made story about the Afrikan bluesman who learned from John Lee Hooker records.  The blues was a reaction to the terrorism and dehumanization experienced by Black people in America.  However, Afrikan descendants were playing music in the Americas for more than two centuries before white people began to refer to it as 'the blues.'  All the major instruments used to play the blues, guitar, pianos, horns came into use in the twentieth century.  Prior to this time, enslaved Black folk and their immediate generations in the latter part of the nineteenh century played banjos, violins, fifes, saws, bones, washboards, jugs and in a few isolated and protected spaces (e.g. Congo Square in New Orleans), the drum.  Of course, this instrument of liberation was heavily banned when slaveholders saw how effective it was in the liberation of the Afrikan captives of Haiti and the founding of the first Black Republic in the Western world.  It was originally European Americans, not Afrikans, who called the strange, foreign-sounding music played by Afrikan captives and their descendants, 'the blues.'  In fact, when we look at the very term, we find that this expression was never used by Afrikans on the continent, and there was no concept of being 'sad and blue' in the way a European would conceive of it.  Indeed, even the very concept of 'having the blues' is a thoroughly English term used to describe a feeling of depression or delirium.  When English-speaking white Americans first heard the music of enslaved Afrikans, they remarked how uneasy the music made them feel.  The airs of the music were using different scales, notes and rhythms that were vastly different from European music.  We can safely say that none of these Afrikans ever began their music making by saying, "hey let's play some blues."  No, the blues is the product of African experience in America.  Bluesmen and women did not sing about Afrika but rather their experiences in the USA as Black people.  The blues represents an unbroken chain from the Black people of today to their ancestral music in Afrika.  It did not develop in a vacuum.  Cheick Tidiane Seck, the renowned Malian keyboardist and arranger of jazz and Afrikan music tells us that the foundation of Black music in the Americas is the work song.  LeRoi Jones underscored his point when he wrote,

"…the music which formed the link between pure Afrikan music and the music which developed after the Afrikan slave in the United States had had a chance to become exposed to some degree of Euro-American culture was that which contained the greatest number of Africanisms and yet was foreign to Afrika.  And this was the music of the second generation of slaves, their work songs.  The Afrikan slave had sung Afrikan chants and litanies in those American fields.  His sons and daughters, and their children, began to use America as a reference.  The work song took it own peculiar qualities in America for a number of reasons.  First, although singing to accompany one's labor was quite common in West Africa, it is obvious that working one's own field in one's own land is quite different from forced labor in a foreign land.  And while the physical insistence necessary to suggest a work song was still present, the references accompanying the work changed radically….the lyrics of a song that said, 'After the planting, if the gods bring rain, / My family, my ancestors, be rich as they are beautiful,' could not apply in the dreadful circumstance of slavery." (Jones, p. 18-19)


Jones is on to to something when he asserts that the blues is a living relic of the Afrikan's long journey of identity from free man, to captive and then slave to something not quite approaching a true citizen, though definitely not respected as a human being.  He reminds us that "Afrikans were thought of as beasts, and there was certainly no idea held among the whites that somehow, these beasts would benefit from exposure to the Christian God.  As late as the twentieth century, there have been books "proving" the Negro's closer relationship to the lower animals that have been immensely popular in the south." (Jones, p. 32)  It is also worth noting here that the well-known three fifths of a person designation in the constitution was never stricken from the text of that document.  Indeed, even in the 21st century, Afrikans' claims to being citizens are at best tenuous if one only considers the history of their treatment by the criminal justice system.  At the root of blues music and culture is the result of a determined reaction to the terrible circumstances in which Afrikans in America found themselves, a gradual unfolding of their responses to the reality of American chattel slavery, the dashed promises of Reconstruction and Jim Crow.  Spirituals did not properly emerge until the widespread efforts at Christianization at the beginning of the19th century, which was in truth a concerted effort to replace traditional Afrikan memory and culture with the concept of a white sky God in which one must die in order to experience salvation.  Christianization of Afrikans was first and foremost about control and the maintenance of slavery.  Heaven was always in the sweet by and by, long after slavery had robbed the Afrikan of his very life and had made the slavemaster that much richer.  Christianity was very good for business.  (For the white slaveowner, it was never about saving Black souls, but his own security.  Even the Black preacher's sermon had to be approved by the slavemaster, lest he fuse the Christian concept of salvation with the human longing for total liberation on Earth and thus inspire the congregation to revolt. Christianity also provided a limited form of social status among slaves, favoring those who accepted (at least on the surface) the white man's God with extra food, clothing or petty liberties and increasing their esteem (and jealousy) in the eyes of the other captives. 

In this sense, Christianity fit well with the divide and conquer schemes of the oppressor.  So it is not surprising that the first wave of conversions occurred among house servants of the late 18th century, as they were the one group who lived their lives in close proximity to the ruling white class and mimicked their ways to improve their standing vis a vis other enslaved Afrikans.  This group historically went to great lengths to demonstrate to their masters that they were better than the lowly 'field nigger' who was scorned by both slavemaster and house slave.  It was always the rough field hand who retained the most Afrikan cultural traits and manners that were despised by their brothers and sisters in the 'Big House' as being backward because these Afrikans did not wholly swallow the poison of the white man's religion and dared to hold on to the most meaningful aspects of traditional spirituality.  The 'superstitions' and 'witchcraft' that characterized these non-Christianized or unassimilated Afrikans' spiritual life was something that many house servants sought to avoid, given the fact that in slave society, everything that was Black was demonized and everything white was deified.  Any hint of status, however small or insignificant, could only come from association with white Christianity.  So it is that the Afrikan who had been 'refined' by the acceptance of the white man's religion and culture looked down on those who insisted upon engaging their reality from an Afrikan perspective.  In modern times we have witnessed 'respectable' Black Christians who readily malign the traditions of their ancestors as being 'satanic' or 'devilish', if only because white people did not approve.  The same dynamic was at play whenever a Black Christian denigrated and refused to acknowledge the heritage of the blues as being nothing more than "the devil's music."  There were always potent reminders of Black folks' roots in a foreign culture that could not be ignored, if only because this culture would not die, even when planted in hostile, alien soil.   This is the soil from which the blues grew and gradually took shape, a continual process that began with the first Afrikan captives and is ongoing even today.  Also included in this slightly more privileged class would be laborers skilled in various essential trades (e.g. foremen, horse wranglers, carpenters, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, cooks and others) whose worldview was more expansive than the average field hand, if only because the psychological effect of having valued knowledge and a limited degree of freedom expanded their understanding of the white world and the possibilities available to them that were not enjoyed by other Afrikans.  A great number of these individuals were fully literate at a time when it was prohibited to teach a slave how to read.  (Mighty insurrectionists such Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner and Gabriel Prosser all came from this class of men.)  



The first popularizer of the blues was Memphis bandleader W.C. Handy, a guitarist and cornet player who was employed in the northern Mississippi town of Clarksdale.  One evening in 1903 he missed his train at the small town of Tutweiler and fell asleep.  As Handy wrote in his biography, "A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept.  As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar…the effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly. 'Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog,' the singer repeated three times, accompanying himself on guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard."  [note:  The song refers to the town of Moorhead, Mississippi, where the the Southern and the Yazoo and Mississippi railroad ('The Yellow Dog') intersect.]  Blues music was already a hallmark of Black culture and Handy's publication of Memphis Blues in 1912 and St. Louis Blues in 1914 increased its popularity, moving it from its obscure rural origins to the attention of a wider audience.  It was during these years immediately prior to WWI that rural Black southerners began their exodus to the northern cities, spurred by the rapid industrialization.  The catalysts were the promise of well-paying jobs in northern factories as well as the increased freedoms they hoped to enjoy.  Luxuries such as walking about town after ten p.m and the integration of public transportation were important drivers of this massive, voluntary displacement of southern 'negroes' to the growing cities of the north.  At this time, the south was still firmly entrenched in the agricultural economy, where the value of a Black man or woman was directly related to their labor and the benefits the white economy derived from it.  The short-lived elation brought about by Reconstruction was crushed by the alliance of convenience among whites where poor whites were politically empowered by the planter class to be used as a buffer zone and a means to control the Black population and their increased economic aspirations.  As LeRoi Jones writes, "the South would always remain in the minds of most Negroes, even without the fresh oppression of the post-bellum Jim Crow laws, the scene of the crime."  (Jones, p. 95)  Those who had left the South often regarded it as a place to escape from, such was the intensity of the lynchings, abuse, and disenfranchisement imposed by wealthy whites and effected by their poorer white brethren as a means to maintain a new social order where the Black man would be made to know 'his place.'  The terrorism and destruction suffered by Blacks at the hands of whites in cities like Wilmington, Tulsa's 'Black Wall Street' and Rosewood in Florida attests to the fact that even when Black folk kept to themselves and developed their own economies they were seen as a threat to be eliminated by their white neighbors.  In these incidents, fear of the economic power of Black communities ran in tandem with the racial hatred that had been a part of the white American psyche since the inception of chattel slavery nearly four hundred years prior.  The despair that came out of these experiences was chronicled by the blues; it is no mere coincidence that this new Black art form came about during these turbulent times as a way to give meaning and expression to the pain Black people were subjected to.



Something new was growing from the same tree, the same roots and the same soil as before.  It was a long time in coming.  When Charley Patton wrote 'Pony Blues' in 1916, this was a new music, a young man's music.  It was not his grandfather's music.  No doubt the elders of his community at Dockery Plantation had vivid memories of the horrors of slavery and the disappointment of post-Reconstruction, where within the span of a few decades Black people briefly gained a measure of political power before it was quickly and savagely eliminated. (Indeed, in many hamlets of the South, the conditions that existed in slavery changed very little, if at all.)  Many Black people of this generation were also staunch Christians and most likely frowned upon this new secular movement which graphically described the Black man and woman's present reality instead of offering a vision of a heaven where, as the spiritual said, they could 'lay their burdens down.'  In the span of a few generations, Black music in America had transformed itself from old Afrikan melodies, dances and rhythms retained from the homeland, to spirituals and shouts and the religious music of the Great Awakening found in the Sankey and Methodist hymnals, and finally to the blues.  As has always been the case, the music of Black folk displayed a constant ability to change according to the material and spiritual circumstances confronted by Afrikans in America.  Jones reminds us that "rhythmic syncopation, polyphony, and shifted accents, as well as the altered timbal qualities and diverse vibrato effects of African music were all used by the Negro to transform most of the "white hymns" into Negro spirituals  The pentatonic scale of the white hymns underwent the same "aberrations" by which early musicologists characterized African music.  The same chords and notes in the scale would be flattened and diminished.  And the meeting of the two different musics, the white Christian hymn and the Negro spiritual using that hymn as its point of departure, also produced certain elements that were later used in completely secular music." (Jones, p. 47)  

What we begin to see when we look at blues history is that the music did not suddenly emerge fully formed but rather was the product of a process where outside influences, traumas and aspirations were absorbed and profoundly altered according to an African way of looking at the world.  The country blues of Charley Patton's youth prior to WWI had been drastically changed once the era of the classic blues singers such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey dawned in the early 1920's.  What once was a rural music played on banjos, guitars and fiddles became an urban music whose instrument of choice was the piano.  This new creation developed right alongside the earlier forms that spawned it.  W.C. Handy's biggest contribution in this ongoing transformation was that he packaged the blues for a newer audience during the time of the society and dance bands that did not play this obscure music of the common Black man in America prior to Handy's interest in the music.  The influence of the 19th century minstrel shows and later, the Negro theater, was profound, introducing new instrumentation such as strings and horns into the music, and it was also at this point that the concept of the professional blues singer emerged.  Thus the era of the development of the classic blues where singers and orchestras were paid for their blues performances had begun.  Prior to this time, blues was an individual, secular music.  It was not 'performed' per se, rather it was sung for pleasure, to pass the time or to relate important events, ideas and people.  And no one thought of making a 'career' in the blues as one might do today; singing the blues for money was unheard of.  The era of the 'classic blues singers' of the nineteen-twenties heralded a new age where the music began to be performed and commercialized by a nascent white owned record industry.  Blues also represented a means of survival by operating like a pressure release valve for all the abuses suffered under white domination.  By singing the blues, a Black man could express himself and present his worldview frankly and in his own manner of speaking.  Modern bluesman Little Milton summed it up best: 

"W.C. Handy created sequences — verse, chorus, et cetera. But the old timers didn’t really play that way. John Lee Hooker, he didn’t play by bars, he didn’t count — he just made a change whenever he felt like it. He didn’t necessarily rhyme all his words, neither. Whatever he was thinking, whatever came up, that’s what he was singing. I think Handy was trying his best to make the songs seem as professional as possible, yet also simple to play, so he put bars to the music where you could count. Twelve bars with a turn-back."


It wasn't until the music was marketed as race records to Black folk in the period after the first world war that this term began to be used to market Black people's popular folk music.  There were other styles of Black secular music, but the blues as standardized and popularized by W.C. Handy became such a money maker (for the white controlled record industry) who exploited this distinct cultural movement so that before too long this term became a general term for the music of southern Black folk.  It was fueled by the white record industries' realization that Black people would gladly pay good money on a weekly basis to hear the latest hit record (Black folk are still doing this, even in the post-blues, internet era).  It is remarkable that this one term, 'the blues' encompasses all the different stylistic and regional variations of the music, from Northeast and Southeast Texas, to Southern Louisiana and New Orleans; from the Florida panhandle and Alabama to Mississippi; to Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland; and to Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and Missouri.  Every region had its own blues flavor, its own blues tradition.  Wherever there were Black people who labored with their bare hands we find the blues.  When we hear the down-home blues sound of Malaco records artists and the uptown sounds of Chicago Blues, the Piedmont Blues of the Southeastern states and the Delta Blues of Mississippi, we can tell there is a big difference between these styles, even today.  Geography and local circumstances directly contributed to the development of original, local blues styles.  Before too long, the phonograph record propelled these regional styles beyond their immediate borders, influencing blues singers in neighboring areas.  A man could learn the style of another without actually having to sit down with him in person.  There is a reason why Robert Johnson's 'Hellhound on My Trail' sounds so similar to Skip James 'Devil Got My Woman': Johnson had heard the record.  This was contrasted with his performance of Son House's 'Walking Blues', which Johnson learned directly from Son House, one of his biggest local influences.  Indeed, bluesman Honeyboy Edwards once told me that Robert Johnson could play popular show tunes, tin pan alley numbers and jazz songs that would not have been popularly known in their native Mississippi without the aid of the phonograph.  Such was also the case with many of the early bluesmen, also known as 'songsters', like Mance Lipscomb, who regularly played non-blues songs such as 'Shine on Harvest Moon' and 'Frankie and Johnny', interpreting them with a blues sensibility.  The new technology of radio played the same role, introducing new music beyond its geographical confines.






Although nowadays when people think of blues, a guitar immediately comes to mind, the music was never confined to one particular instrument.  One could play the blues on anything: mandolins, violins, horns, pianos, harmonicas, pan pipes, washboard, jugs, spoons, bones, saws and diddley bows have all been used to play the music.  Like any complete art form, it is bigger than the instrument it is played on because it is complete unto itself, a way of looking at reality  through the life experience of Afrikan descendants in the New World.  Blues is the style and the soul within the music, the rhythm and the sway, the word, the sound and the power.  When we realize the vast difference between the various blues styles, it is obvious that when we say 'the blues' we are talking just as much about a song form as we are a style of making music.  This communicates to musicians playing with one another what to expect when playing a song.  Any proficient vocalist need only say 'play a slow blues in B flat' and the roadmap is made clear.  They already know the characteristics of the music they will make: it will be repetitive, have a 'groove', the lyrics will follow a certain form or meter, seventh or dominant ("blue") notes will be prominent in the arrangement, and so on.  The music still bears the mark of W.C. Handy, no matter where it is played.  This is just one meaning among several that are applied to the term.  In fact, the term has been used in so many different ways such that nowadays it has actually become confusing.  When ones talk about the "blues" what are they really talking about?  Are they referring to the blues music industry, which since its inception has relied on Black talent to exploit but who have been historically excluded from the immense profits this culture has generated?  Or are they talking about the Black musical art form as it exists among Black people?  Or is it a simply a reference to any music played in a style that could be called blues because it is guitar based, repetitive and features seventh chords and other hallmarks of the music?  Or yet still, is it a reference to the music itself: the lyrics, the actual song forms (e.g.AAB, AB) that make a blues song?  Or is it just a look, a style or an attitude expressed in music?  These are the questions that we need to answer.


There is a popular t-shirt worn by blues fans that says, "Not Black, Not White, Just Blues."  Though I have never seen a Black blues fan wear this shirt or share this sentiment, I am sure there is a Black blues fan somewhere who agrees with it.  It is sort of the blues equivalent to "All Lives Matter."  Both are simple, yet ignorant phrases designed to serve an agenda that ignores Black value and throw water on the fire.  It denies the origin of the music and at the same time ignoring the very real impact of white money, control and participation.  It implies that culture and heritage have no place when it comes to blues, that no one culture or group can lay claim to it.  We have often heard it said that the blues is 'universal', that 'everyone gets the blues.'  But this is misleading.  When we look at European rhetoric about its own culture, one enduring, yet baseless argument is that only it can claim to be 'universal', while other cultures are viewed as 'minority', 'parochial', or 'local.'  There are of course basic commonalities shared by all human beings.  But differences in food, spiritual concepts, marriage and many other hallmarks of culture can not be glossed over.  There are clear similarities shared by the world's cultures, but differences between them are by no means 'universal'.  For example, Afrikan societies had no word for jail, but Europeans did; in Medieval Europe bathing was considered unhealthy, while Afrikans' everyday spiritual traditions were the embodiment of the idea that 'cleanliness was godliness'; after cutting their hair or nails, Afrikans would ritually bury it.  Literally throwing a part of one's self into the trash as Europeans did was thought to invite misfortune.  One can say confidently that humans around the world are nearly genetically the same, but human culture and traditions vary widely.  So saying that one 'has the blues' is quite different from asserting that one feels a kinship or a connection to the history, people and culture of the blues.  Loving the music is exclusive of understanding or relating to the circumstances behind the development of the music.  The bigger issue is that the deep feeling that is the blues has been trivialized to the extent that one can claim to know what the blues is but have no consideration for the profound feelings of loss, displacement, alienation and abuse that was Black people's everyday lot in the Western world under slavery and Jim Crow.

More thoughts on the blues coming soon....

Monday, June 1, 2015

Excerpt from Jahtigui: the Life and Music of Ali Farka Toure, 'Defenders of the Faith (pp.10-14)

It is 2002 and I am in Niafunke to record an album called “Mississippi to Mali”, a collaboration with Ali Farka. It is March, one of the hottest months of the year. One day I decide to take a walk around town after eating lunch. It is a dry, cloudless day. The unpaved streets explode in clouds of ne dust every time a car, motorcycle or donkey cart passes by. I can taste it as it mixes with the scent of cooking from unseen, mud-brick courtyards and distant brush res. I see the tents of local Tuaregs, their occu- pants resting languidly in the shade. A small assortment of goats, chickens and donkeys amble about, going nowhere fast. It is as if they too are trying to preserve their energy as they navigate the desert sand under the hot sun. I walk into a small store owned by Tuareg merchants. There are two young men inside, one behind the counter of the sparsely decorated interior. One is dressed in the tradi- tional blue turban and long boubou, while the other wears a western collared shirt and pants. They look like they are related, with their olive skin, straight brown hair and seri- ous, somber faces. This store is housed inside an old ship- ping container. I look on the walls and see the basic staples of canned foods, personal care products, simple household items and the ubiquitous boxes of imported Chinese ‘gun- powder’ green tea. There is even a brand, “Tuareg” which comes in a small, green, cube-shaped box. The drawing on the outside depicts two blue-turbaned men mounted on camels with a panorama of endless dunes stretching out behind them. On the box it says “qualite superior...produit de chine.” 

The young men give an understated response to my greetings, their eyes showing no sign of pretense or smile. They would win any staring contest with their stoic demeanor. They are matter-of-fact in their interactions, showing no outward motion or unnecessary chatter.  Looking me over, they ask where I am from. I tell them I live in Virginia, USA and they are cordial but uninterested. There is one long swathe of midnight-black fabric. They catch me looking at it with some interest. I don’t even have to point to it. Within seconds it is unfold- ed before me to examine and I begin to negotiate a price. Seeing that I am a foreigner, they give an extremely high rst price, an amount that is much more than the average Malian would imagine paying. I do my best to bring them down, with little success. These are typical of the turbans seen throughout the desert, worn not only by Tuaregs but also Songhai, Peul, Bambara and other ethnic groups for protection against the harsh elements and for warmth in the cold desert night. As we negotiate back and forth I see another advantage to the turbans: they cover the entire face except the eyes, hiding emotion and expression. This makes the deal less friendly and more like straight business.


In Africa, negotiation is a game played every day, like poker. Also like poker, the ability to hide one’s emo- tions during the game is a prime advantage. I haven’t made any real progress negotiating with these stone-faced brethren. As I am about to pay, I hear a familiar voice at the doorway. It is Ali Farka. He is all smiles and warmth and greets us all. He enters the small, dusty shop, immediately buys the black turban and gives it to me as a gift. His very presence has changed the mood inside this tiny shop. I see that the Tuareg brother wearing the tur- ban has unwrapped it, showing his face. Both he and his brother are now grinning happily. I have never seen such a quick transition from stone-cold poker face to warm smiles as I did on that hot day. That day I learned that there was something special about Ali Farka Toure in the way he could make people comfortable. He did it with humor, simplicity, kindness, and a spirit of comraderie that you could hear in his voice when he spoke. He was both noble and a man of the people. He didn’t like fancy things nor was he ostentatious. He lived a simple life and he worked hard for his family, his culture, his community and his na- tion. The proof is in his music and the power of the words that he sings.



I recall a hot day in the courtyard of the Hotel Campe- ment, owned by Ali and operated by his cousin Berte Toure. I am here with a recording engineer who has traveled with me from Virginia. We sit on white plastic chairs listening to hip-hop on a portable cassette player with three young Bambara men from Niafunke. There is a doorway to the courtyard of the hotel in front of which people on the street would pass to and fro. A few passersby stop and reverse to get another curious look at these two Black dreads from the USA bobbing their heads in unison with the local youth. The song, “Oochie Wally”, by Nas’ brother Jungle, is a hit in the US. But hearing it in a remote desert town on the banks of the river Niger redenes the meaning of ‘hit’. The doorway is like a window to the outside world of the dusty streets of Niafunke. Watching the doorway as the world passes by gives us a brief snapshot in time as people, goats, donkeys and chickens walk back and forth. Small brown and multicolored margoya lizards scurry across the dry ground and on the walls, stopping to do push-ups as they inate air sacs in their throats. A slightly-built Tuareg man wearing ip-ops and a blue turban with traditional shirt and pants stops in the doorway and then comes back a few minutes later to get a second look. He walks into the courtyard, greets everyone with one, quiet word, and sits down. This Tuareg brother is checking us out.

The desert sun beams down on us all. Intense brown eyes look us over from behind the Turban that cover his young but weathered face. He sits quietly for awhile, observing the strangers who have come from so far away. Then he begins to bob his head to the boom-bap just like the rest of us. No manual necessary. After a while he says another quiet word and exits the doorway through which he had come. Hip-hop is big everywhere you go in Mali, just as it has taken over the rest of the globe. Here, this Black art revolution from the south Bronx is loved by the youth like a long lost twin brother. Africa is the cradle of the beat and the spoken word, and hip-hop is but the latest manifestation of the ancient tradition of rhythm and rhyme. It comes from a different recent history, as the culmination of Africans’ exodus from the Jim Crow and lynch- ings of the the southern states to the discrimination, crime, and economic desolation of the inner cities. But it can still come home to Africa and be recognized like a prodigal son. Africans recognize that Black music is African at its core; they love the music regardless of style or national origin. In the near future this music will be under attack in the land of its birth. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Sitting in First Class with Nina Simone



It was 1996 and I was on tour with Koko Taylor, Kenny Neal, and Lonnie Brooks in Europe. One day we all boarded a plane in Marseilles, France to fly to Paris. I noticed a regal, older African woman in traditional dress made from beautiful indigo blue fabric and head wrap  sitting in first class as I made my way back to my seat in coach. She had a strong spiritual force about her that I could feel.  When I got in the back of the plane there were no seats left. Just then a flight attendant tells me that there is only one seat left in the plane but it is in first class...and it is next to Nina Simone! The flight attendant says she would have to ask Ms. Simone if it would be alright.  So we walked back up to first class and the flight attendant explained the situation to her.  Her reply: "It depends on how charming you are." She smiled at me and I was a little bit in shock. It turns out that she was the royal elder that I sighted upon boarding. I sat down and it was immediately like family.  We drank orange juice together and for the next hour and a half she told me stories about being the only sister in Julliard way back in the fifties and the struggles she went through to gain respect. She said that she practiced so hard to become a great pianist.  She talked about knowing Michael Jackson (she could impersonate his voice very well) when he was a little boy and her family roots in South Carolina. Her daddy was Gullah ('geechee').  She was funny, warm, beautiful, loud, charming and was not afraid to curse out loud or sing when the story required it. She was down.  She was real.   She had been living near Marseilles, France and was on her way back to the States to visit her brother in New York. The most amazing thing about this encounter is that when we were about to land in Paris we came very close to hitting another plane that was taking off from the same runway. I looked out the window and could see the other plane directly below us.  It was close!  Our plane's pilot had to make a sharp turn and a steep climb to avoid a disaster. Everybody, even the flight attendants looked scared shitless. Not Mama Nina...she kept talking to me like we were sitting in the park on a sunny day. She ain't skip a beat! I will always remember our Black Empress of song...Nina Simone. Respect!

My First Tour With B.B. King


When I first went on the road with BB King, it was like a dream come true. That first tour was in the winter, and I remember it was COLD and we covered a lot of miles. It was me, and guitarist Jamal Milner in his Toyota pickup truck, playing big and small cities in the Midwest...seemed like the whole Mississippi valley on both sides. It was a real race everyday to keep up with the big tour buses. We ate freeze dried noodles for lunch and had one hot meal at the show, for which we were very grateful.  Every night after the show we would talk with BB in his dressing room and it was just like family. He would tell  stories about his cousin Bukka White, and going to New York for the first time. He had the same manager as Louis Armstrong and could do a perfect impression of the way Satchmo talked. He said Satchmo cooked red beans and rice right there in the dressing room backstage!

He also talked about his first tour, where he and the entire band used Greyhound buses to get around. If they couldn't find a Black hotel, or some friends along the way, they would have to just wait until the next bus came along. It was not safe for Black people in the south and one could easily get killed over nothing in a little town. If you were hungry, you couldn't just go to any restaurant. You had to find a Black neighborhood or you wouldn't eat. My mother would also tell me  stories about being scared to stop in towns, in a time before highways, where Black people could be lynched and nobody could do anything about it. I think BB knew that we were racing just to make the show time and keep up with the buses. This was his way of letting us know that we should be thankful that we could just check into any hotel and go to sleep without worrying about being terrorized, arrested, or worse. This ancestor was one of many who paved the way for the rest of we Black blues children, players of all types of music! They all struggled so that we might rise! So we give thanks....This is his first bus that he bought after making it big.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Can Black People Write About the Blues?


When I published the last blog, "Can White People Play the Blues?", the reactions were immediate, varied and extreme.  What was most interesting to me is the range of reactions of those (mostly white) people who were clearly offended by the mere question.  When the blues was a young art form, there was no need to ask the question, since very few white people valued Black music or were even aware of it.  Fast forward one hundred years later to the present and we see white people all over the globe playing blues.  There are thousands who play it very well and earn good money doing it.  However there are also many Black, white and others, fans of the art form for whom the Black expression of the blues is preferred.  The essay I wrote addressed what many in the blues music industry did not want to talk about, at least publicly.  As usually happens when one addresses the elephant in the room, a host of other issues came up which provided a window into the thinking of those who left their comments.  Here I will discuss some these reactions, the issues that they raise and what this means in terms of perceptions of Black people, their history and culture. 

Right off the bat, several readers felt free to comment on the post without even reading beyond the first paragraph, saying that it was 'racist' to even ask such a question.  After reading the hundreds of comments (positive and negative), I was reminded of the reaction to an editorial from 1990 in Guitar Player magazine written by Lawrence Hoffman, a white music professor and music critic.  A few years later music and literary critic Paul Garon wrote an essay, "White Blues", which explores the outraged reactions to Hoffman's editorial.  The reactions to my essay were very similar.  He observed that most readers took one of the following positions: 1) It's racist to speak on the issue or hold a position that goes against the majority. 2) Suffering is universal and whites suffer, too, e.g. those whose parents died in concentration camps, those who grew up poor, or those who have struggled in any number of ways.  3) Ability is beyond racial barriers, and that music 'has no color.'  4) Black people didn't want the blues anymore (because they don't play it) so now whites and others have come to save it from obsolescence or extinction.  In their eyes, they are the ones 'keeping the blues alive.' 

Many white people's reactions to my essay were angry, fervent objections to my line of reasoning and even questioning my upbringing and my 'right' to play the blues.   One wrote that the author had a privileged upbringing and was raised by a white family, which I found very amusing.  Another commentator wrote that the author of the essay was an 'asshat'(!).  He went on to write that "any style of music can be played by someone from outside of that region and to expert levels."  His indignation was strange to me because that was one of my points, clearly stated in the essay.  Many white people already play the blues very well, and for certain historical reasons they did not need to ask anyone's permission to enjoy the music.  It was never written that white people were not 'allowed' to play the blues.  Yet, this is how many, in their defensiveness, interpreted the essay.  Even if someone were to demand that everyone fill out permission forms, such an exercise would be as silly and pointless as it would be impossible.  The point still remains that playing and singing are different. There is a difference between expert playing and mimicking the vocal styles of a culture, trying to sing 'black.'  One is much easier than the other.  So what is the solution?  Play music but respect the origin and don't deny the history.  Be yourself and express yourself.  You can't run from who you are; your individual, family and cultural history matter.  The ancients taught man to 'know thyself'.  An unnamed old bluesman once put it another way, "whoever you is, be dat."  Play what you want, but be who you are.  And don't forget to respect the source.

The essay was not about granting anyone permission to play anything and it acknowledges that there are many non-Black performers who play well in the style.  What it does say is that heritage and culture do matter in music.  These things can not be faked.  We bring who ever we are to the music that we play.  That is reality.  Music is not some magical realm where we leave our identity, our histories and unique experiences at the door and where culture doesn't matter.  This means that although he is a superb guitarist, the music of Eric Clapton will never be the same as B.B. King.  This is not to dismiss Sir Eric, nor any of the other non-Black guitar players who have found a musical home in the blues.  It is saying that since their experience is different, the music they make will also be different.  Playing in a musical style from a particular culture, even at expert levels, will never be the same as an expert player who is from the culture.  Moreover, as the blog points out, singing well in a musical style from a different culture is another matter entirely.  Many want to mimic Black accents and intonation in an attempt to sound 'authentic' (whatever that word means).  The point is that culture as well as individual and collective experience do matter.  Of course, many pointed out the few Black players who play country or rock music as if to say this is the same scenario.  Shouldn't they be asking for permission?  They seem to forget that both of these styles of music are also built upon the blues!  In any case, I doubt we will ever witness a scenario where Black country musicians rise up in arms because someone in Nashville says country is white music.  Why?  Their participation in the music is not dependent on denying the history of the music.  They neither gain power by denying the history nor do they lose power by admitting its origin.  This means that although the great Charley Pride is an amazing singer, he can not seek to control or define the genre for white people.  Black audiences do not support country music, Black promoters, agents, music writers and musicians have no control over the genre, nor do they want any.

In fact, there were many positive and thoughtful comments and inbox messages from those who took the time to read the entire essay.  I also received several defensive and angry inbox messages on Facebook where people told me their life stories as if to prove they had a right to play the music.  A frequent attitude was 'how dare you tell me I can't play the blues' as they detailed the suffering that they or their people had endured in life.  It was almost like they had to prove that they met a quota.  One commentator said the entire article was 'racist garbage'; 'ignorant' and 'woefully out of touch' were also words used to describe the essay.  A blues lover in Eastern Europe wrote that the article was 'pathetic.'  Yet another defender of white blues rights said that the entire piece was about 'hating whitey' and that I was a 'meathead.'  One said plainly that I was a 'bigoted asshole'.  Yet another irate reader said my essay was as 'racist as a Klansman.'  Adam Gussow, a well known white blues musician and academic penned a lengthy open letter online that strenuously refuted my essay and then proceeded to suppose that I was a bitter, lost and  'angry' Black 'separatist' who is on a 'jihad' (his words).  In short, some people -- white people -- took it very, very personally.  I had touched a hot nerve!  

What was interesting is that in a country that is supposedly delighting in being 'post-racial' (rampant police murder and abuse notwithstanding), almost all of the negative responses and promoters of white blues came from white readers.  All of the insults and knee-jerk claims of 'racism' came from white males.  Out of hundreds of comments, no black people objected, save for one, who was actually a very proud champion of white blues players.  This is the irony that no one seemed to notice: white men calling a Black man a racist for writing about white people playing Black music.  It is still viewed as extremely provocative -- even threatening -- for a Black musician to declare that Black music and culture is a reality and to address the history of the music from a Black perspective.  But does this same standard apply to musicians from other ethnic groups?  I don't think so.  It is not seen as threatening when a European declares that opera is European music.  It is a statement of fact.  When a white Appalachian musician declares bluegrass to be white music he is not wrong.  (Even though Bill Monroe was heavily influenced by Black music).  In both examples the music comes out of a particular culture and history, and if they talk about the music from their perspective it is accepted as normal.  There is no threat.  Why?  These musics did not come from an enslaved people and this makes the history attached to the music is easier to deal with.  The simple conclusion is that even in 2015, many would rather enjoy the blues on their own terms without having to deal with the history.  Moreover, many white people are tired of talking about 'race', which is seen as either a Black problem, preoccupation or obsession.  It is uncomfortable because it threatens their privilege, which is still based upon skin color and ethnicity in a world where Black is always bad and white is necessarily always good.  Denial is more comfortable.  That is until someone brings up the issue.  However, the issue will always come up…there is nowhere to hide from it.

I have learned a lot, in a short amount of time, about white people's often unspoken perceptions and assumptions of Black people and culture in America today.  "Blues is Black Music! Can White People Play the Blues?", this simple statement of musical origin  (Daniel Atkinson calls it Black Sovereignty) coupled with a straightforward questionhas rubbed salt in the always festering wounds of American slavery, racism, white supremacy, and the widespread white denial of the effect of these historic realities on Black people and their culture.  Indeed, many responded as if they had been personally offended or threatened.  Apparently, it is racist (for Black people, in this case) to talk about race, history, culture or to even mention any differences between groups of people.  The intensity of the reactions was as if they thought someone was going to come and 'steal' back their blues to return it to Black folk.  Common sense tells us that this is impossible.  So why do certain people come to talk about music as if it is real estate or jewelry -- property?  How does a claiming an origin become a threat, a political statement that moves people to the point of anger?  The short answer is that America has never dealt with slavery and its legacy, preferring to coast along in denial.  Along with the legacy of slavery is the deep need to control or monitor what Black people say or do.  The unspoken rule is that Black people can speak about Black music but only in a way that is not uncomfortable to white people.  Any discussion that becomes uncomfortable evinces either outright denial, feigned innocence, ignorance, aggressive personal attacks and insults, even threats of a loss of livelihood in the industry.

This episode has raised some interesting questions:  Who defines who is Black?  Obviously, Black people do.  At the same time, however, many white people have their own criteria of what it means to be Black.  It doesn't seem to matter that Black people have already defined it for themselves.  We already know what blackness means to white people who are raised in a society that devalues blackness are worships everything white.  Frequent objections to the essay simplistically pointed out that 'music has no color.'   But isn't blackness more than just a matter of skin color?  It is also a heritage, a history, a way of eating, speaking, fighting, loving, cooking, worshipping and making music.  Where do Black people have to be born to be considered 'real' Black blues players?  What types of Black people are 'allowed' to play the blues, according to white blues fans? Are white people now the sole authority on the blues, now that we Black folk have 'given it up'?  Can Black lovers of country music claim to be the sole authorities on country music now that Nashville has sold its soul and ignores traditional country music?  No…  Yet the same people who claim the power to define what is and is not blues will say that it belongs to everybody and that 'nobody owns' the music.  Why is this so? Who left and made them in charge?

Many of the negative reactions (there were many positive messages) avoided considering the question at all, instead questioning the author's 'authenticity'.  Detractors who took this approach pointed out that being raised in the suburbs in Colorado (as was the author) somehow disqualifies a Black person from being able to claim the blues as his heritage, and that no young Black person today knew about picking cotton.  One proudly stated that Robert Cray was as 'black' as he is (strange, since he was born in Georgia).  My good friend Taj Mahal was raised in Massachusetts. Is that not 'blues' enough?  It actually never occurred to me that being born and raised in suburban Denver to parents from Texas and Kentucky meant that I couldn't play blues.  Growing up among elders, going to Texas for funerals and family reunions, church, house parties, cook-outs, and hearing B.B. King play when I was 11 years old…eating the food Black folk from the south love to eat (in abundance!)…this is where my blues comes from.  I grew up hearing stories from my mother and stepfather about the terrorism and oppression of the south and the racism they experienced since migrating to Colorado.  There was an uncle who was lynched, a grandfather who escaped from a Mississippi labor camp, and aunts who worked as cleaning ladies for nearly their entire lives.  I was raised by a single mother who taught school for a living (hardly the road to riches or middle class comfort) and who instilled in her two children the importance of education and service to others.  Her father was a country school principal who was secretly the 'Lone Star State' correspondent for the Chicago Defender (in a time when having a copy of the newspaper could get a Black person killed).  When I was younger, I spent a good deal of time with my two great aunts as well with as the woman whom I called grandma, a sweet elder lady from St. Catherine, Jamaica named Mrs. Clara Harris.  The love, stories and faith of these mighty Black men and women nourished me like home cooked food.  If I am honoring my family, my ancestors, and the stories that I have been told through the music, then why should I care what a stranger thinks about my 'authenticity'?  I am what I am.  You can move to the suburbs, but you will still be Black.  Isn't it great?  Blackness is forever adaptable, no matter where it is found.  As the proverb tells us, "The roots of a tree cast no shadow."

Another amusing opinion that came to light is that Black people who are not from Jamaica should not play reggae.  This came as a retort to the question in the title.  I find this point interesting and ignorant at the same time.  Why?  Reggae has always been a music of Black liberation.  And even though Jamaicans have and continue to define the art form, it does not only speak to Jamaican or West Indian reality, but to the reality of Afrikan people around the world.  Reggae remains a Black music that speaks to the historical reality and liberation of Afrikan people.  Literally millions of Black people in Afrika, the Americas, Europe and around the world play reggae not because they think they are Jamaican, but because the music speaks about the Black experience, 'the story that has never been told.'  Reggae music is a musical and political force across today's Afrika and artists such as Tiken Jah Fakoly and Teddy Afro are the proof.  It honors the ancestors and those who died in the struggle.  It calls out wicked governments and corporations that continue to oppress the downtrodden.  Black men from Papua New Guinea to Philadelphia use reggae to sing about their lives as Afrikan people struggling against unjust systems.  But here again we see people who are not Black aggressively applying their standards to Black people, defining who is and who is not Black enough by some litmus test that only they control.  Those who will not conform to these standards are treated like a threat and are isolated.  To a white (or other) person who is ignorant to the connection between Afrikans in the diaspora, someone who has never lived and traveled in Afrika, the idea that Black people share common culture and struggles around the world is no doubt difficult to understand.  The truth is that the Afrikan diaspora is real to millions of Black people around the globe who want to maintain their identity by defining themselves, for themselves.  And the best part about it is that no one is waiting on Europeans or anyone else to do it for us.

Isn't it the highest form of arrogance for a white person (or anyone else) to tell any Black person about how they should be Black?  Imagine myself, a Black man, telling a Chinese man that he is not Chinese enough by my standards because he wasn't born in Beijing!  I would be laughed at, and rightly so.  Actually, I got a good laugh at several of the responses to the essay.  Obviously, there are quite a few people who love Black music but have no particular love for the people that make the music.  Moreover, while loving the blues, this music that 'belongs' to 'everybody', some listeners somehow manage to deny the history of the people that made it.  But who does this 'belongs to everybody' attitude serve?  It doesn't serve the Black musicians, who must vie for an ever shrinking piece of the economic pie.   This is especially true of those few Black blues elders who are still playing the music.  The reality is that white people do own the blues in a very real, economic sense.  Record companies, promoters, booking agents, audiences, blues societies and organizations are and have been overwhelmingly white since the very beginning of the 'race record' (music marketed to Black people) industry.  Today, when white promoters advertise a blues act, they don't have to do any direct advertisement to the Black blues lovers in their locality.  This is because in most blues markets, it is the tastes of the white fans that determine financial success.  The only blues market where Black people make up a majority of the fan base is in the deep south, where 'soul blues'  artists like Johnny Taylor, Bobby Rush, and Denise LaSalle still enjoy a strong following among Black people.  Obviously, the music these artists make still speaks to the reality of the Black audience, or they would not support it.  Yet, people still repeat the claim that 'Black people don't play the blues anymore' to justify their assertion that white people 'saved' the blues.

But this smaller (Black) blues market exists within a much larger blues industry in which Black artists and audiences are no longer the majority.  And this larger blues music industry caters to the tastes of those (mostly white people) whose dollars keep it running.  So in light of this reality, where does the anxiety over 'ownership' come from?  Since white people already make up a large majority of the blues' buying public, and are in decision-making positions throughout the industry, why the controversy over the opinion of one Black musician?  Black people have no real ownership in the blues music industry, having a position more akin to a sharecroppers who produce the crop but who have no economic power or control over the industry.  For decades, large, white-owned record companies have made millions selling Black people their own music.  We don't need to chronicle the historic exploitation of Black musicians here; that has already been done elsewhere.  The point is that economic control is not enough.  There are those who also want to dictate to Black people who is or is not 'blues' enough, or who has the 'right' to play the music, according to their standard.  They are the self-appointed gate-keepers, now that Black people 'don't play the blues anymore.'  In this environment, the 'objective' word of a white 'blues expert' or 'blues scholar' is given more weight than the Black musician who actually lived the life and plays the music.  Blues scholarship in this way becomes another effective instrument of control by having the 'final' word on what is essentially a Black story.  This was made very clear when at one point in the lengthy thread on social media, a commentator bemoaned the absence of any 'certified' blues 'scholar'  who could settle the debate once and for all.  As the ancient Afrikan saying goes, "until the lion tells his tale, stories of the hunt will always glorify the hunter."  In the years to come, the lions will tell our story.  It is our responsibility to the next generation.


Only a culture obsessed with control will demand submission to its interpretation of the music above all other viewpoints.  A culture that has its roots in treating Black people as property, servants, wards or inmates to be managed will be predisposed to take the same attitude towards the music, reserving the sole right of definition and calling all the shots, now that the music 'belongs to everybody.'  Obviously, when Black people claim the blues as their particular cultural heritage, this is a threat to the claims of those in the 'everybody' camp because it is a direct challenge to their whitewashed reality.  In terms of power, it represents a loss of control on the psychological level.  The history of the blues as it is interpreted by white people does need a Black presence to validate it.  But this must be in the service of the new narrative, in which white people wield the power in the blues industry as the decision-makers, promoters, agents, record companies, audiences, musicians and singers.

 This means that in today's blues music industry, Black people are seen, their music is loved, but their voices are not heard unless they agree with the narrative that says it belongs to 'everybody.'  Anyone who challenges the 'everybody' camp (such as the author) is threatened with being blacklisted.  But if it belongs to everybody, then why can't any Black person declare that 'blues is Black music' without a severe backlash?  Is this is the same 'everybody' who said the Indians land was open to all because the Red man didn't put up fences everywhere?  One commentator to blog post wrote, "I don't believe that anyone can own land.  It scares me to think that there are still people out there who think that there could ever be an original owner of any land."  This man must be scared out of his mind all of the time.

But is the industry 'the blues', or does it go much deeper than that?  The industry controls performed and recorded music, yes.  But it can not control the souls of Black folk.  It can not ultimately decide how Black folk express themselves.  It can only pretend to define their experience for them.  But the definition only has power if we accept it.  Black people must define the blues for themselves without apology.  The blues is not about a particular instrument or even a particular way of dress.  It is even deeper than a 'feeling', more than a 'low-down, shaking chill', more than a 'good man feeling bad.'  The blues is the life of a people.  Without Black people, there would be no blues.  A visit to Mississippi, Arkansas or Louisiana will be enough to convince a doubter.  Here, and in other places like Chicago, St. Louis, Texas and elsewhere, Black people still play the blues.  It means something more to them than a musical style, a way of dress, an accent or an attitude.  It is a connection to those who came before, it is heritage, and it is home.  In 1940, Langston Hughes wrote, "

They've done taken my blues and gone / You sing 'em on Broadway / And you sing 'em in Hollywood Bowl / And you mixed 'em up with symphonies / And you fixed 'em / So they don't sound like me / Yep, you done taken my blues and gone.

The industry can control the commercial side of the music, but the essence can not be bought or sold.  It can not be taught in school.  It can't be stolen or even given away.  It is the birthright of the Black man and woman in America.  It has to be lived.  I have known Black people who do not play instruments nor sing who have more natural blues feeling in the way that they talk and move than scores of guitar-slinging blues players.  Just as being Black is more than just skin color, being blues is deeper than playing a particular instrument or singing a song.  Just because one is Black does not mean that they will be a great player or singer.  It is equally obvious that just because someone is white does not mean that they can not play any music well.  However, take the Black element out of the blues and it is not the same thing.  Mississippi bluesman Vasti Jackson said it best:

"Every country has the musical equivalent of the blues.  But, da bluz is a black thang.  Just like koto music is a yellow thang, and the pow-wow music is a red thang, and polka music is a white thang.  It's alright to do yo thang.  It's alright to do my thang.  We can share our thangs.  Just don't claim that my thang is yo thang.  I will not covet my neighbor's thang."


The blues is Black music!  Hallelujah.