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.



















51 comments:

  1. In my comment on the original essay I said that I had came prepared to be angry about the post because that was how it was set up for me to be by a certain 'blues' forum post the title of which is "Get off my lawn? Corey Harris' blog post Can White People Play the Blues?" When I came and read the essay I agreed with what was being said and understood the reasons why it was said and I left a comment to that effect. The irony now is that although I didn't get angry with the essay I am getting quite annoyed at the majority of responses to it here and at a couple of blues forums on the net.

    There are so many comments where I found myself asking "Did you read the whole piece?" In some ways I would understand the reaction more if all those people who left negative ill informed comments were to step forward and say that they didn't read the full piece. It wouldn't make it right, but at least I could pinpoint a reason as to why so many people reacted the way that they did. To be honest I think that is the case on one of the blues forums that is discussing it, they just seem to be feeding off each other and it seems quite evident that the majority of them haven't read any of the article.

    I've been asking myself why I agreed with it and why others haven't seen the same rationale that I saw. I am white and I didn't feel as though I had been attacked and I wasn't offended. I am also British so perhaps that has a bearing on things, perhaps I would have a different view if I was a white American but I sincerely hope not. One of the other positive comments I recall was from an Argentinian so there again it makes me think that there is something that I am missing when it comes to the white American view. Are they more defensive of it because they see it and themselves as American and therefore any attempt to even approach discussing whose music it is causes angry outbursts in defense of their perceived 'heritage'.

    I don't know the answer and I don't want to make generalisations about certain groups of people. I will say that the reaction has caused me more to think about the whole situation than the actual essay, although that caused to me to think deeply about things as well, but they were thoughts that I had already had anyway. I made a conscious effort a while ago to learn about the history of the blues in every possible aspect and that included its origins in Africa and the subsequent Atlantic slave trade. So it wasn't a massive leap in my mind that I had to take to understand the essence of the essay.

    I am really quite dismayed at the majority of the reaction and I don't understand. In some ways it makes sense why I have been unable to get any decent discussion on the internet about certain aspects of the blues and its culture. People are obsessed with chords and tunings and where the capo might have been and missing so many of the essentials that I feel make up the blues. It's a very sad situation that has been revealed and it was always there it's just that I was never aware of it. It makes me sad to just think about it.

    Thanks Corey for having the bravery to speak honestly, it has revealed an ignorance in others that I was unaware of but now that I know about it I can try and understand it and hopefully challenge it in some way.

    "The drops of rain make a hole in the stone, not by violence, but by oft falling." - Lucretius

    Thanks again,

    Mark

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    1. I give thanks Mark for your thoughtful response and for taking the time to consider the issue. I wish you the best. Honor!

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  2. Ashe' Cory. The Ancestors thank you. I thank you. You have broken down the ugly truths and exposed them into the light and it causes those who deal in darkness to violently turn away. This country is in such denial about racism and the situation has grown worse as more oppressed people call them on it. What really offends me is the audacity of white people to call black people racist for simply challenging the very white supremacy and privilege that allows them to think that they can take over anything they want. Knowing who you are and loving your African heritage and culture does not mean that you hate white people. It is only the insecurity bred from centuries of theft and brutal domination that causes such defensiveness. What will happen when the thieves are exposed and the brutality is turned on the oppressors? Clearly, it's a frightening thought.The very essence of the African spirit is the ability to create. They took away our language. We created field hollers and shouts. They took away our instruments. We created sampling and beats. We created blues. We created jazz. We created rock. We created hip hop. No amount of re-writing history will change that fact. Our music comes from our spirit and that can not be stolen or appropriated. That must be really infuriating because they are trying as best as they can. Anybody can play any music that they want to. But you can not claim what is not yours. Blues and rock used to be called race music. Now that they want to take it over its universal? Is that why W. C. Handy's name was ripped from the Blues Foundation Awards? So that blues can appear more "universal" and people can ignore where it came from and who created it? They are tired of discussing racism? Well, I'm tired of passive-aggressive racist b.s.

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    1. Heart of thanks my sister for these words of Right. Yes, it is time for us to stand up and be counted. If we don't then others will take the credit and make us sidekicks in our own show! I am so thankful for the support. Honor and respect.

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  3. We can not have this conversation until we define the terms. Some say music others describe it more along the lines of a cultural expression. If it is just music all are welcome in. If it is a cultural expression only those from within the culture are even allowed into the debate. I guess the next question is if you feel it is just music why are we all so adamant about our responses.

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  4. I'm a white woman and have read through both blogs, have seen your facebook posts, and was a member of sonic junction and attempted some of the slide pieces you teach.

    I'm wondering why you teach your versions of black prewar blues- and one lesson is singing pointers- to non-blacks?

    Harriet

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    1. Greetings and thanks for your comment. I teach to encourage students to be themselves while learning music they love. Many play very well but are challenged by singing. I teach that they must find their own voice and not just imitate.

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    5. No. My question was the broader WHY do you teach/encourage non-blacks to sing black blues - in their own voice or not. What is your reasoning and goal there.

      This assumes that some are going to want to perform, and maybe your versions no less, and may further take opportunities away from black performers, contribute to a more non-black marketplace.

      Why in the world would you do that?

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    6. I see your line of reasoning here. I teach because there are not many opportunities for me to make a living in music. What takes opportunities away from Black performers is historic racism, not Black people giving music lessons online. What contributes to a "more non-Black marketplace" is white control of the industry, since Black people have no real power in the industry and don't call the shots.

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  5. Hope J,, Blues is music but it also a culture. You can't separate them from each other.

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    1. Yes indeed. I think we agree here.

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    2. I was trying to find words for the special place "OUR" folk music tradition holds in our narrative versus a pop song crafted solely to be mass consumed.

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    3. There is music played in the blues style that does not come close to the culture that is the blues. There are people who don't play blues who have more blues feeling than Eric Clapton in his wildest dreams.

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    4. I agree, there are many things I love about the blues (and a side note Vodou and Haitian history). But being a white guy inh Australian first generation from an English family I try and stop myself from identifying myself with what I think I understand of someone elses experience no mjater how muchj it may have influenced my worldview.

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  6. No one could rationally deny that blues is black music.

    However.. speaking as a singer...

    in the moment that a singer takes up a song and breathes life into it - regardless of the origin of the song or singer - in THAT precise moment, the song belongs to the singer.

    A good singer acknowledges and humbly submits to their sources, inspirations and elders, but they are still responsible, in the end, for owning the song.

    I did not choose the music I sing. It chose me, and it did not care who I was or where I came from. For that, I am grateful.

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  7. Thanks for this, Corey.

    When I sing, I always use my own voice, it would be a ridiculous and offensive imposture to pretend to be something I'm not.
    My blues always pays honour and respect to the originators and ancestors (to do otherwise would be the height of rudeness - I'm British) and I try to keep it relevant to the times we live in.

    My experience is broadly similar to Frankie's succinct summation in this regard: "I did not choose the music I sing. It chose me, and it did not care who I was or where I came from. For that, I am grateful." Amen to that.

    Thanks again, Corey, you've given a lot of people plenty to think about.
    Honour and respect to you.
    Andy

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  9. The parts that I appreciate the most are the comments on singing. I have always felt that blues is the most honest and unpretentious music there is. If you are trying to portray yourself as someone who you are not, it will become very apparent, very quickly. If you really want to connect with your audience, sing with your voice, in the way you normally speak, about things that you truly understand. Do not water it down by trying to be “more bluesy” in your vocal approach or material.

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  10. Ugh, I don't know if these comments are held for moderation or if Google just ate the previous one, but here goes again:

    Corey - I hope you didn't feel the NEED to respond to your previous article. It spoke for itself. I don't know why, even as a white male, people take such issue with the notion that "their experience is different, the music they make will also be different". Not BAD, just different. As much as I love blues music, I'll never be able to even appreciate it on a level that a black man or woman can.

    Please keep speaking your truths. I'll do what I can to get them in front of a bigger audience.

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    1. Honor and respect your words here Ross. Guidance!

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  11. Corey,
    I don't play guitar, but many years ago I bought a guitar instruction guide and songbook titled Guitar Styles of Brownie McGhee. It includes commentary from McGhee in which he says much of what you have said. In the introduction, he makes a distinction between "blues singers" and "singers of the blues." He states that the "blues singers" are folks like Mance Lipscomb and Big Bill Broonzy who "sing their past and their present" and "singers of the blues" are people who "like to play the blues because they hear other people play them." He stresses the importance to him of getting his message across and that telling his story is more important than the music. He states, "I'm trying to tell you a story, not play you a story."

    On the last page of the book, he points out that it's important to go back and learn the origins of the songs you are singing. He tells of asking his grandparents and other folks their age about the meaning of songs like "I'm Gonna Eat at the Welcome Table" and learning about the element of protest in the music. (In an interview in another book, Rock is Rhythm and Blues by Lawrence Redd, he points out that there is protest in his own songs.) He goes on to say that "Some of the young people now are interested enough to go back and study and know what they're singing, but others, the songs are really singing THEM. They're really singing things they don't know about."

    Your comment about white blues scholars/experts having the "final word on what is essentially a black story" really hit home with me. For several years I have been researching and writing about one of the greatest black folk songs "John Henry," and--although I'm white--I've been trying to imagine the black perspective on the story of John Henry. For example: How did the many blacks in the Jim Crow south who were victims of one of the various forms of forced labor interpret the ballad? "John Henry" has been researched, written about, and interpreted primarily by white folklorists, scholars, and writers, and they have all missed one of what I believe to be the most important aspects of the legend: John Henry was black America's greatest symbol of manhood during a time when black men were denied their manhood. Possibly one of the most important aspects of the legend is not just that John Henry defeated the steam drill (a good number of recordings of the song don't even mention John Henry's victory) but that he was man enough to challenge the drill, an instrument of the white system of power, consequences be damned. Also, I have not come across one white interpreter of the ballad who seriously entertained the possibility that the race against the steam drill could be symbolic. If spirituals like "Go Down Moses" were possibly symbolic, why not "John Henry"?

    I have an old WC Handy record in which he sings his songs and tells their stories. One of them is "Joe Turner," a song which he deemed to be the "granddaddy of the blues." He explains what is behind the song, telling of a lawman named Joe Turner who systematically arrested blacks in order to ship them off to labor camps. And he states that you can't tell the story of the blues without telling the story of Joe Turner. I'm looking forward to you and the "lions" picking up where Handy left off and continuing to tell the story of the blues.

    Jim Hauser

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    1. Thanks for your thoughtful reasoning on the subject Jim. The true story must be told by those who came from it. Honor.

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  12. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MRGQy-60ebs&feature=youtu.be
    Chicago bluesman Larry Taylor follows Corey's blog with his own comments on "blues liberation."

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  13. Larry Taylor, singer and drummer, says the same forces that have locked him out of the blues music business are those that oppress everyone else today in society: racism, religious discrimination and usurping of culture by the greedy 1%. I have been working for over a dozen years to promote Larry, whose blues credentials are heavy: oldest son of Eddie Taylor who played with Jimmy Reed, playing professionally since 1977.

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  14. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XG_RvYTfDk8&feature=youtu.be

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  15. Corey: You and I agree on more things than we disagree, although we do disagree on some important things.

    I suspect that we both agree on the genius of Larry Neal's essay, "Any Day Now: Black Art and Black Liberation." At least I hope you agree that it's a work of genius.

    http://www.modernbluesharmonica.com/blues-talk.html

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  16. Black people created the blues, and thank God for that. White people created Western classical music, and thank God for Mozart (etc.). Whites can play blues and blacks can play in symphonies. Fair enough? I think so. That said, blacks sound different than whites when playing the blues. They have a heritage and cultural experience that I do not. Blacks and Whites are different, not better but different. Where you see the big difference is in singing the blues. Black men tend to have a deeper voice than White men. This makes it easier for them to sing the blues in the way it was created. White men's voices are more suited to country music, with that high and lonesome sound. Jimmy Rogers once said that old country music is white man's blues, and there is something to that. In the end, we are all different, but God's children none the less.

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  17. This is really helpful, next time I hear a great blues song I well make sure to look up the artist to make sure they are all black before I call it the blues.

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  18. Corey, Well written and insightful. As a child I grew up in a neighborhood that changed from "white" to "black" at a very young age. ALL of my friends were black. I sang black songs, played games learned bad habits(as all kids do), went to candy stores and faced the same racism via guilt by association. My frame of reference in my early formative years was that of the black experience. I learned in music that every inflection had meaning, a shared emotion. I learned what some of those emotions were and that there were others that I didn't know , I didn't quite understand. I was told that some I would understand when I became a man and experienced life and some that I could never understand because of the color of my skin. I asked why and what were they. They tried to explain but would start to get angry and would say " there are some things you don't want to know and hope you never have to learn". The majority of what passes off as "Blues" these days is tripe. The Stevie Ray Vaughn beat and style ad nauseum. Joe Bonamassa expertly laying down notes that , to me, ring out hollow, devoid of truth. I can go on and on. As Little Walter sang blues with a feeling. I get it.

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    1. too many people started playing because they stood in front of the miror imitating their favourite rock star and want to be like them, too few from a love of music and a desire to play

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  19. I just 5 minutes ago walked out of a facebook debate where I posted a link to your original article being unable to find the 1990 Guitar Player article I read years ago.
    The same type of responses were made and i ened up pulling out of that guitar themed group.

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  20. Mr. Harris... I had the good fortune of reading this article that you wrote almost a year ago. As a Black Blues guitarist who labors in obscurity because of the same issues you covered in this article, I am so very thankful that you so eloquently put into words some of the frustrations I deal with on a daily basis. Reading you submission definitely provided me with some healing. Reading the words that expressed what I already knew but just didn't know how to express let me know that my frustration was valid, even if I didn't how to express it.
    I simply "must" catch one of your shows one of these days. I must also see if you have some kente lapel pins. Hopefully I'll get to explain to you exactly what I intend to do with them!
    Thanks again, Brother! Bless!

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    1. I give thanks for your response. I'm so happy I have family out here who don't need me to spell it out and explain one word at a time because that is also their/your reality. We have a mighty legacy that we can be proud of. All the best to you and hope to see you on the road one day. Honor!

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  21. How can people be so arrogant? Just stop and think about what the man is saying. Just appreciate that there are things you will never understand. There is a line between appreciation and appropriation. More often whites are appropriating other cultures and we need to face it and stop.
    I enjoy playing guitar. One day I was playing some minor scale licks over a major 1,4,5 progression, and commented to my sister about playing blues. She slapped me and said you can't play the blues. At first I was angry, I didn't understand. But soon later I got it. As much as I try I can never play the "blues". Playing minor licks over major chord progressions doesn’t make the “blues”.
    Sure I play guitar and have fun. But never will I know what it means to play the blues. I accept that. I am what I am. I feel I appreciate reggae and blues more for it. I understand what I don't understand. That is to say, I know and accept that I don't fully understand what they are saying. Sure I listen and comprehend the lyrics, but I will never "hear" them, they will never speak to me like they do to a black person. Why should I understand the real meaning of "no chains around my feet but still I'm not free"? All I can do is think about what he means and reflect on it and how the black experience is different than my own and try to understand their point of view. Open my mind and challenge my own perceptions. I'll never know the feeling of not being free, I'll never know his experience.
    I needed that slappin', I'm thankful for it. Everyone should be who they are and the world more colorful for it.
    By the way great show last night at blues alley - as always. This was my no less than 6th time seeing you there.

    Remember the reaction you are getting to your post is the early stages of loss 1) Denial 2) Anger 3) Bargaining… soon will come acceptance.

    I'll never know your experience, Corey, but keep teachin' and challenging us to think, so at least we hopefully all know what we don't know.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughtful response. You made me laugh when you referenced the early stages of loss....LOL. Yes, that is what is happening here. All the best to you in all your musical endeavors.

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  26. Thank you for your valuable insights,Mr.Harris. Very good stuff. I've folowed this discussion among musicians,mostly whites musicians who take umbrage over the notion they're not playing blues as created and defined by black culture. I don't understand their insecurity. Being a member of a tribal nation, we have many non-Indians who are invited on the tribal drum, but heaven forbid they claim it as theirs. That would be utterly foolish. They know that. The drum is spiritual and uniquely Indian. I don't know why people can't accept and respect the blues the same way. Like you say,respect the source. Find your own voice. As an aside, I read you toured with Taj. I was lucky enough to meet him briefly last year. Ever spend any time with Jesse Ed Davis? I play some guitar,and he's one of the few I would call my guitar hero. Finally, very good writing. I like your style.

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    1. Douglas thank you for your comments here. Your example about the drum is exactly what I am talking about. Yes...Taj is the man. I didn't know Jesse Ed Davis.... Thanks again for taking the time to read the essay. Honor!!

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  28. It was really a simple statement. I am not black, not completely white. I have experienced white privelege and been discriminated against for being perceived to be something other than white. I sing the blues. The blues chose me. I don't sing about cottonfields. I sing about my life. My greatest compliment is when black folk thank me for my music and support me because blues is black music. The people who sent you hate mail were threatened because they hold white guilt and refuse to acknowledge their privilege. It is not a white American cultural value to ask permission for anything: to bring this to their attention makes them remember that they stole this country and they don't want to give it back.

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  29. For several years, I worked with a "blues scholar" at the library congress. He's was from New England, I believe. When his number came up, so l've been told, he ran off to Canada. He has the luxury which no authentic blues man ever had, yet he considers himself a " blues scholar." Being we were in the same office he couldn't create separation from me, an original child of the blues. In my presence, he became very uncomfortable and suffered bouts of self-doubt. His blues, "Michael Taft's blues," required the presence of a peculiarly white backdrop. He has no black friends that I ever saw, cannot play a musical instrument, sing, dance, write or anything but drape himself in expensive suits and claim to be an authority on a subject which he lacks a basic understanding. White prevligde in a nut shell. The anthesis of the blues. Corey, it's a lost cause. These people are ineducable. I would not waste one character to make a counter argument to treacherous culture vultures.

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  30. I don't know if you are aware of or concerned, but there is currently a lengthy debate going on in the Real Blues Facebook group about your original essay addressing this issue. As per your essay above, it's clear that many of the negative responders never read the entirety of the source material. Thanks for such an impassioned and thoughtful exploration of this issue!

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  31. Once again i think you are missing the point, or perhaps stumbling on a technicality: blues IS an indigenous music of blacks, originated by them, but it does not BELONG to them. Music belongs to no one, it is energy, much greater than the ones who make it.

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