What is the blues? Life. Life as we live it today, life as we lived it in the past and life as I believe we will live it in the future.
-- B.B. King
I have a question. Can white people play the blues? Does anyone and everyone who call themselves white have the right? Does it matter? I say that it most definitely does. Your answer depends on where you stand in the debate. Those who have no personal stake in the debate and those who have a clear understanding of history will answer the most honestly. But those who have invested their energy into the art form while denying the history of the music and the people will always aggressively defend their privilege to play the music and will fight with all their might like a prospector guarding his claim in Native land. This is not about policing the music-making of white people, nor is is about giving out permission slips or licenses to perform the blues. Does the prospector worry about losing his claim if it was never really his to begin with? This is neither about ownership, since everyone knows that blues is Black music, the product of Black survival despite a system that worked overtime to snuff out Black lives. There would be no blues without Black people, and Black people still set the standard by which all other players and singers are measured. This is about being able to tell the difference between the blues of Eric Clapton and B.B. King. Some people are offended by the question, calling it racist. The knee jerk reactions will always be expected, especially in a nation that is in full denial of its past. Any uncomfortable discussion is immediately called 'racist' by those who are comforted by this denial. This isn't about race, but the culture and the history of a people. This is about why it matters.
In reality, white people around the world already play the blues, by the millions. There are blues festivals around the world where the appearance of a Black artist from the US is a novelty or even a rare exception to the usual all-white roster. There is no doubt that these white artists are doing it because they love the music. They may even have some personal connection to the music. But none of them ever asked permission from any Black person to do so. In fact, they never had to. In the USA an around the world, a white man did what he pleased to a Black person. So when did white people ever ask to play the music of another culture? This is not how history works. In truth, just as they have laid claim to lands across the globe without asking the original owners of the land, white people have had the privilege of playing whatever music they want to play. When they do, the music they make is often promoted (by white people) as being the same thing. But just as klezmer music performed by a Black man may be great entertainment, it can never be the same as when a European Jew plays it. Why? Without culture there is no music. Music is the voice of a culture. Separate the two and the music can never be the same. Of course, it may be in the same style as the original, but the meaning of a song such as Son House's 'My Black Mama' will always be changed with a different performer. This is especially true if the performer is not from the Black culture that gave birth to the blues.
Some people say that the culture of the performer (aka 'race') it doesn't matter. They say that everybody gets the blues, music is universal. Anything other than acceptance of this position is attacked as being 'divisive'. It is obvious that this position serves non-Black people well, opening the door wide open for anyone and everyone. More disturbing is that being Black is seen as incidental or meaningless - an insane position in an art form that Black people created to bring meaning to their experience. It is curious that whenever white mainstream culture develops an affinity for a particular type of Black music, this music suddenly becomes 'universal'. Now, Black people and white people who value genuine Black expression are all told that the 'race' of the performer doesn't matter. There is even a popular t-shirt that reads, "Not White, Not Black, just blues." The Black blues player wonders to himself, 'well damn can't Black folk have nothing?' The fact that Black people do not play traditional blues popularly as they did during the golden era of the music (20s, 30s, 40s, 50s) means that many white players actually believe that they are somehow 'keeping the blues alive' because Black folk don't like it anymore. In fact, it was the blues that kept Black folk alive, giving them a pressure valve for the stress of living in Babylon. The truth is that Black folks never stopped playing music, but the musical culture demands change in reaction to the present times. The blues kept growing and spawning new forms of music. Freshness in style is highly prized among Black folk and this has always kept the music moving forward.
But what is 'the blues?' It means different things to different people, depending on their history. Mainstream white America (and many Black people) has typecast the blues as the sad music of broke down old Black folk. By this measure, to play the blues means to them that one must have suffered. But how much? Is it only about suffering? No, but in this way people who have no connection with Black folk from the south can feel free to claim their 'right' to play the blues based on the pain that they or someone in their family or their people may have felt due to mistreatment. Many of these arguments are based on who suffered more in human history, when the music was never only about being sad and lonely or meeting some quota of pain. It was deeper than that. The blues is a book of the life of Black people. There are happy blues, love blues, homesick blues, preaching blues, east coast blues, west coast blues, gospel blues, jump blues, and uptown blues. There is a blues for everything under the sun. As the saying goes, 'the blues is news you can use.'
Blues existed in a particular space and time. That time is now clearly gone. From the days of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charley Patton to the era of Muddy Waters and B.B. King was definitely blues time. Blues was the popular music and the lowest common musical denominator. The blues of the thirties, forties and fifties, the way it was played and sung - can never be recreated, no matter how many modern blues fanatics rehearse the old songs. Blues is still relevant, but now more as a reference point within other styles of Black music that it spawned and not as a predominant style. Blues endures in Black music. It is our musical home. But it is a home that is always under renovation. It was once said that Black people didn't have the blues until we stepped onboard the slave ship. The sound of this ongoing tragedy imprinted itself in the music and the memories of the people. How could millions of people be stolen from their ancient civilization and thrown into the belly of the beast and it not matter? How could the experience of a people who lived the blues not matter?
The blues was the voice of Black people's lives. It still is. The only difference is that it has never stood still, it has never stopped evolving and changing. Whatever happened to Black people, happened in the music. And since Black culture is obsessively fresh, as soon as the new influence became standard, a new standard was applied. Black music is that tree that is always growing. Africa is the root, the blues is the trunk and the other styles from jazz to gospel, rock n' roll and hip-hop are the branches. This is what white people who are always asking, 'why don't Black people play the blues anymore' simply don't understand. Many white blues fanatics and players not only adopt the music, they adopt 'blues' ways of dressing and speech in a way that can seem like a trip down a memory lane that they never really knew or understood. Though Black culture is fresh and innovative, what white culture is presenting as blues is often no more than nostalgia for a time they never knew. As one white interviewer once told me, "you recreate the old blues so well. Don't you wish you lived in nineteen thirties Mississippi?" My answer: HELL NO!!! There is a tendency among white blues fans to forget that blues was a reaction to the brutality Black people experienced daily at the hands of the white power structure. People lived and died the blues. Though there were good times, the music was a tool to overcome oppression and depression.
The 'blues' was originally an English term for a kind of Black music that included particular song forms, scales and ways of singing that were alive before the advent of sound recording. To put it simply, the music existed in Africa and in America long before the white man called it the blues. They just didn't know what else to call it. In the early days, white colonials and their descendants in the United States wrote of the 'strange', 'eerie', or 'wild' sounds the Africans sung during work, recreation or praise. It frightened them, but they were attracted to it, tantalized by it. Even the most virulently racist slaveowner or overseer were regular visitors to the Africans' quarters, to listen to the music and have a 'good time'. Africans who could play the fiddle well were favored and hired out by their masters to play for whites. These white people could still comfortably despise Black people and be mesmerized by their music, all at the same time. This saga of attraction and repulsion, love and hate, desire and disgust, characterizes white mainstream America's perception of Black people, from colonial times to the present day. By indulging in Black music, by playing it, white people could enjoy all that they love and are attracted to in Black music and at the same time ignore whatever distaste they may have for Black people. They can adopt the style of Blackness with none of the pain. They can cross the color line and slip back to comfort and safety before nightfall.
Of course we are all free to play whatever styles we enjoy playing. Music is truly universal in the sense that all human beings respond to its language. But saying music is universal does not mean that all people feel the same piece of music in the same way. It doesn't mean that all music is the same. Neither does it mean that anyone can play it in the same way as those who have a blood connection to the culture. Just as a chinese man may love to play mariachi music does not mean that it has the same meaning to him as to a Mexican. Newsflash: playing and singing the blues are two vastly different things. This is why many very technically proficient white blues players do not attract large numbers of Black blues fans. Singing, with Black inflections has traditionally been the primary standard in blues. Early ads promoted singers who accompanied themselves on the guitar, in the days before the guitar-hero pyrotechnics that now pass for the blues. There was no such thing as a bluesman who did not sing the blues. Yet today there are scores of white musicians who have become famous only of for their playing. They do not sing. But for Back people, the blues is traditionally a vocal craft first and an instrumental craft second.
The way that Black people sing blues lyrics has been imitated since the first white man dared to play the music. Many blues fans, Black and white, cringe when they behold some white blues guitar slinger who twists his face up in his best Black blues voice impression as he plays a carbon copy performance of 'Hoochie-Coochie Man'. There are many players who can play very well in the style but find it difficult to sing. Many white singers have embarrassed themselves by serving up cheap imitations of what they think Black vocals should sound like. They seem to ignore that they also have a voice that can sing. The fingers can imitate riffs on a guitar, but the voice is much harder to imitate. But isn't it the voice that makes the blues what it is? Instrumental blues is entertaining, but the heart of the art form is the singing and the storytelling. The greatest blues performers were great singers, without exception. Legends like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Louise Johnson, Texas Alexander and literally hundreds of other Black men and women wrote the rule book on how to sing the blues. While they often did play an instrument, if they did not sing they could not move a Black audience. The concept of the 'guitar hero' is a purely white introduction into the music, a product of an individualistic culture which is the opposite of the communal nature of Black music. This is the 'rock star' approach where all the credit is given to the 'frontman.' This is totally alien to traditional blues where lengthy solos were not common and the interplay between the players was more important than highlighting one individual.
White people already play blues and many play well in the style. While there are many singers who have found their voice in the blues style, it will always be an imitation of the real thing. It is true that because of their love for the music (and the profits that they have made), many white players throughout the years have demonstrated their love of the music with gestures of acknowledgement of even financial support. When Stevie Ray Vaughn looked at Albert King during an interview and said he had taught him "everything I know." Albert King laughed and said "I taught you everything YOU know. I didn't teach you everything I know!" Stevie Ray Vaughn could play some guitar, but he was no Albert King. No one is losing sleep over white people wanting to play the blues. Playing music is a good thing. The real problem is the claim that culture and history don't matter. That the sounds of 400 years of tragedy and triumph make no difference in the music. Everyone may feel sad in life, but not everyone gets the blues in the same way as Black folk. This does not mean that white people can't play the blues. It simply means that it is not at all the same thing when they sing it. White blues lovers who want to sing and play in the style should stop trying to sound Black. Keep it real and sing like who you are! Be true to yourself! Express yourself, not your imitation of someone from another culture. This is what true artists do. We all have a message, according to who we are. No, we are not all the same, and that is a very good thing. A white singer can never sing the same songs as a Black singer and have the songs keep the same meaning. The reverse is also true! Why? Culture. Black people come in all complexions, so it is not even a question of skin color. Black people in America have inherited a long history of cultural progress in reaction to real life shit. That shit still matters. Culture and heritage is the dirt that the blues grows out of. That culture and heritage is Black. The blues is Black music!