On White People and The Blues.

In an attempt to summarize a dining experience I had that didn’t exactly rub me the right way, I explained to a friend: “You know how white people will come home after work and turn on the blues? … It was kind of like that.”

Music for me can be a touchy and emotionally charged subject, and – for the most part – I try to avoid discussions that are driven by the sole need to essentialize genres according to race.  While it is clear to me that certain music has origins in circumstances in which race was an unequivocal factor, I’ve grown into an understanding that much musical development occurred within an environment of cross-racial, -cultural, often transatlantic influences.  Borrowing has happened, sometimes even mutually.

Still, there is such a thing as black music: music that is derived from or inspired by black people and culture. Among this music is the blues and soul – both of which have picked up a lot of momentum amongst white listeners – be they punks, hipsters, or music junkies.

My issue/criticism/complaint is that this music is often not understood within its cultural, historical, and emotional context.  This music comes from someplace, and is part of the experiences – the pain, joy, struggles and historical memories of black folk. There is something assuming, unsettling, and comfortably privileged about a white person throwing on a Bessie Smith record they found at Salvation Army at a dinner party.  In thinking specifically about the blues, it was birthed from the realities of being black and without resources.  Rhythms were created with feet, hands, and mouths.  Similar to how some jazz musicians used instruments discarded from the Civil War, the blues was born from the specific situation of not having: a situation which has been commonly entangled with being of color in the U.S.

What is it about white people getting off up under black music that is so troubling?  Perhaps it is the romanticization of black experiences that accompanies the thoughtless enjoyment of the culture that is born from them? Or is it the consumption of black pain as product?  There is something disturbing about being confronted with music that for me is significant, evocative, and tied to an actual feeling in a space such as a hip restaurant in Brooklyn.  I’m here to eat brunch (first mistake) and you have Otis Redding muted on the TV (presumably) singing and jumping around on stage, and – as though to say “AHA!” – you are also playing a completely different album by him on the sound system.  At first, I offered the restaurant the benefit of the doubt, considering that perhaps this was the decision of a black owner who, like me, loves southern soul. But, there was something distinctly white about this.  Aside from its offensively conspicuous “down-home” New Orleans theme and obviously new location in gentrify hot-spot Bed-Stuy Brooklyn, the ease with which black expression was on display as a backdrop just reeked of the detached, uninformed consumerist indifference that is fed by commodity culture. It was like an exhibit of southern black feeling that most of the “mixed crowd” patrons probably could not have related to on any personal level but could rather mindlessly neglect while eating barbecued shrimp and grit cakes.  Anyway, taken completely out of context, Otis became 30-something inches of energetic sweaty black man, invoked to rouse a fake nostalgia for a time that most white people would, quite frankly, rather forget.

Otis Redding – Try a Little Tenderness

In being white and, to an extent, in being a part of sub- and counter-cultures which value history and the creation of things, one is faced with an abundance of options for musical cultures that are available to be listened to, researched, experienced, and enjoyed.  (Take for example the fact that being a rock n’ roll fan might lead you to the unavoidable fact that many artists, including The Rolling Stones and that Elvis guy drew directly (and in some cases stole) from blues influences, such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Robert Johnson.)  There are endless musical cultures to be discovered, particularly when you aren’t exposed to certain genres in your childhood.  But it is important to consider the stories, histories, pain, and oppression that such music has been inevitably steeped in, and to seek to really understand what it means, and where it comes from – culturally, historically, emotionally – as opposed to appropriating whichever part of its aesthetic seems useful. Everything is not simply for your listening pleasure or dining experience.

JVC

JVC

Jalen is a writer and DJ based in Los Angeles, California. You can find her on Twitter.
JVC

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  • MH8D

    once you create something and release it for public consumption, you can’t then tell people how they can and can’t use that thing. that’s the beauty of art and creativity, everyone will view and use it differently… I’m sure that the folks at the Roland Corporation didn’t create the 808 machine with the intention of enabling hip-hop with the boom-bap, but it happened; fans of the culture consider this a good thing, others disagree emphatically.

    you should be proud of your capacity to appreciate the music on a deeper level than those other folks, but don’t be the music appreciation police.

    • VC

      I’m not really advocating for “music appreciation”. Also I don’t think the drum machine is exactly analogous to blues music which, in the tradition of spirituals and gospel, was a means of expression and survival that was born out of suffering. The cultural coping mechanisms of people just can’t be compared to corporate products that are probably produced on an assembly line.

      Maybe I was unclear about my concern – it is not that I want to “police” people, in any way. It is that I want to draw attention to the fact that there is more to music than mere sound (particularly with blues music which depends on an experience of race and a history of racism), and I think that is what you are not acknowledging.

      • April

        So what do you propose? That white people don’t listen to the blues? Or that they make sure to express white guilt every time they put on a blues record? Sorry to be blunt, but your complaint seems a little pointless.

        • Lennox

          What April said… this post is astonishing in it’s small mindedness and cultural snobbery. Who are you to tell any person, regardless of their lack of melanin, what they can and can’t authentically relate to? Do you know their life experience?

          The argument you put forth is so poor, I’m not even sure where to begin to refute it, though other commenters have touched on many good points. Essentially, you fall into the category where if, in 2010, you still can’t see that the cultural artifice of ‘black things’ and ‘white things’ is a sad, outdated illusion (and always has been) then you don’t really have much to contribute to the conversation.

  • VC, sorry but this piece sounds kinda crotchety and it is advocating for a thought police. Yeah, it would be cool if people would know the cultural histories of contexts of the art they consumed. Of course, we would have to start setting arbitrary definitions for doing so (when is the Blues the Blues? Should recording matter? Popularity with blacks? Popularity with whites? Should we know the date and location of each album?). But people, by and large, do not consume art that way, and people can roll how they want with their musical choices, and my moral or intellectual judgments don’t matter. I remember watching a documentary on the Cuban Embargo in the early 90s and they started talking about race in Cuba. They cut to a bangin’ disco and how black Cuban’s began started listening to rap heavily. They started interviewing black Cubans and how the felt about rap, of how it was ‘real’ Black music, of how it was made for them and by them. And during the entire segment, the song the black Cubans were dancing to and singing along with was, of course, Ice Ice Baby by Vanilla Ice, patron saint of Black music. While amusing, I felt no ‘need’ to correct their interpretation of the song. Likewise, if some white chick comes home from work and starts listening to Strange Fruit, I mean, so what? Is it a white persons job to make their musical tastes and knowledge of history acceptable to a black person?

    Lets look at Elvis even. Elvis did not have that complicated a relationship to Black America either. A lot of people liked that he had soul and packaged their music and culture in a way that white America found exciting. The notion of Black betrayal and theft of culture came after the fact, when people who did not live through it, armed with scant evidence, started writing about it. That’s fine too, that interpretation, which I find completely wrong, is really not a big deal to me. If we are in a room and Hound Dog comes on, and you look at the stereo side-eyes and talk about how Elvis is a thief, whatever (of course I will argue with you, but you have every right to consume Elvis how you want).

    When Bessie Smith sings the Down-Hearted Blues, and the pain of loving someone who ‘don’t love you’, that is kind of a great song and really does not need to be contextualized.

  • @VC
    I’m not sure I understand what you are arguing for here–can you say more? I get that white people listening to Blues music is upsets you, but not really why and–more importantly–what that means for the rest of us? It seems as if you are making a leap from your feelings, which you are entitled to, to a larger point about blues music and its fans.

    Are you saying that you’d be more comfortable with white people’s appreciation of blues music if you were confident they understood the circumstances that prompted the creation of the genre? What exactly is it that @MH8D isn’t “acknowledging”?

  • Isaac

    I’m not sure that I understand this.

    Does this mean that black people of means cannot listen to blues?

    Does it also mean that white people who are poor – literally starving – or from a very difficult background also can’t listen to blues?

    Where are the lines?

    I guess I’m just confused. I respect your right to feel that this is wrong, and honestly I tend to agree with you – something about it *does* rub me the wrong way, but I am not sure what, and I’m not sure what it means.

    • Darth Paul

      VC, correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s about taking black music as more than pop tourism or an accessory to cool. However, that’s a very tall order. Most WP can’t even recognize (much less own up to) white privilege.

      However, I don’t think WP are the only ones misappropriating it. Plenty of black folks do, too, particularly when it’s used for marketing. Say what you will about cultural ownership, but cheapening is cheapening from any angle.

  • Ben

    I think you bury the lede here. There’s nothing surprising about blues speaking to white people. Great music has enduring and universal appeal, Mozart and Muddy Waters alike. And very few of us can relate to the actual circumstances under which those men made the music they made.

    At that point, I wonder about the distinction you make between music being “mere sound” versus it having some additional significance supplied by context. It’s very hard to speak to whatever experience anyone might have in her head with any song, and, absent some good reason to, I have trouble questioning it. I wonder if the world you envision would be a better one, or what the right level of appreciation for context would be. I guess people argue about this a lot.

    If you want to study something, you would want to know about the historical context in which it arose. But great art transcends that kind of knowledge. Do people really get more out of “Hellhound on My Trail” if they know Robert Johnson’s story, or something about his world? I don’t know. Because most people couldn’t relate to that time and that story, and I think it would be a shame if white people, or anyone else for that matter, gave up a transcendent experience with a great song in a sort of faux-tolerant, hyper-intellectual manner: “I can’t relate to that time and place, therefore I can’t really enjoy this.”

    But your point about the commodification of music and cultural experience is compelling. There’s a deep difference between someone coming home and putting music that speaks to her and a business creating a phony cultural experience using music, food, etc. The latter reeks of exploitation, which, as you point out, is all the more disgusting in this case, given what is being exploited and who it is designed to appeal to.

  • I’m happy the other commenters articulated a lot of what I thought when I first read this yesterday. I was initially unsure if you were lashing out at the gentrification of BedSty or white folks who listen to the blues. Or maybe your point is neither and if so I’ve missed it.

    If it’s the first I’m with you, my old hood was gentrifried too and I’m never going to be happy about it. But if your point is about white people and black music you’ve missed me. I’m white but you can’t possible know me well enough to stereotypically dump me in a “white people (who) will come home after work and turn on the blues” bucket. I think your premise breaks when you attempt to equate white with faking understanding. I personally prefer my blues in the morning when I’m in a good mood and Muddy Waters was a musical god who spoke universal truths that transcend race. Having lived a life tunes a person to the Blues. The beauty and power of music is that every single piece is exactly and simply and most beautifully for my listening pleasure if it pleases me to hear it and feel it. I personally enjoy the personal histories of artists but it’s hardly requisite to enjoying and feeling it.

    I grew up at the time and place where b-boy culture was born, The Roxy, Devils Nest, Bronx River, Rock Steady, and real Zulus. I’d be happy to argue how hip-hop is more indigenously mine coming from “Uptown” irregardless of my racial makeup than anyone else not from Uptown but I’d be wrong. It doesn’t work that way. If some kid in a ghetto in Iowa or some suburban rich dad in his new convertible nods his head to this or that more power to them.

  • Ash

    While I understand some of the sentiments in this post, at least someone is showing some appreciation for blues music. It’s not like black people are showing much support for it these days.

  • Jeremy

    “But, there was something distinctly white about this.”

    Racial essentialism much?

    • VC

      I don’t see how that’s racial essentialism.

      • Jeremy

        By saying that something is ‘distinctly white’ about ‘offensive[ness]…detached, uninformed consumerist indifference’ you are essentializing an arbitrary racial classification to equate with a certain set of characteristics that may, or may not, apply to the entire racial category.

        Feel free to correct me, but I think that’s the definition of racial essentialism.

        • young_

          That it is. Also, even if we all agreed with the overall argument that it is necessary to understand the purpose and context of a piece of music’s creation to legitimately appreciate it (which we don’t), racializing this argument makes the complaint both over- and under-inclusive. There are plenty of white people who know an awful lot about the blues and its origins, and there are plenty of black people who could not be further removed.

        • VC

          I’m still not seeing how talking about the ways in which whiteness and white privilege exhibited themselves in this particular restaurant is essentializing white people. Also – I like how you took my ‘distinctly white’ quote and put it with another sentence which you half re-wrote yourself.

          • ugh fine:

            “At first, I offered the restaurant the benefit of the doubt, considering that perhaps this was the decision of a black owner who, like me, loves southern soul. But, there was something distinctly white about this. Aside from its offensively conspicuous “down-home” New Orleans theme and obviously new location in gentrify hot-spot Bed-Stuy Brooklyn, the ease with which black expression was on display as a backdrop just reeked of the detached, uninformed consumerist indifference that is fed by commodity culture.”

            Forgive me if this doesn’t offer enough context….but in the second sentence, the word “this” is described as “distinctly white.” That word, “this”, refers to the previous sentence(s) referencing the restaurant’s decision to play Otis Redding. So, the decision to play Otis Redding (“this”) was “distinctly white,” for the reasons you will explain later in the paragraph.

            The third word of the third sentence, “its,” refers to the word “this” from the previous sentence, which, as noted, refers to the restaurant’s decision to play Otis Redding. In the third sentence, “its” carries the qualities of “offensively conspicuous” (because of the “‘down-home’ New Orleans theme and obviously new location in hot-spot Bed-Stuy Brooklyn”) as well as “detached, uninformed consumerist indifference” (as evidenced by “the ease with which black expression was on display as a backdrop” and how it “is fed by commodity culture.”)

            Therefore, as the logic model unfolds, “this” (the decision to play Otis Redding in an offensively conspicuous manner) tied to the ease of which black expression is displayed (through “detached, uninformed consumerism”) is “distinctly white.” This essentializes the racial category of “white” as encompassing and being defined by those characteristics you equate it with.

            To be clear, my comment did not say you were essentializing white *people*, but rather the racial category of “white.” And to be frank, I read that paragraph thinking, “How would this go over with the same sentence structure, but replacing ‘white’ with ‘black’?” And, I don’t know, it just didn’t sit well with me.

            • VC

              Your conclusion is false. The paragraph that you quoted and so diligently constructed into what you are calling a “logic model” states exactly what it states – that there was something white about what happened. In order for it to be essentialism, as you aptly pointed out earlier, I would have to assign a characteristic invariably to an entire group (“category”) of people. At no point did I make a statement about all white people, nor did I try to make the claim that the detached, uninformed consumerism that is fed by commodity culture was a characteristic shared by all white people (or, “the racial category of white” as you put it). It is not *essential* to being white, and that was neither stated nor implied by the post.

              • Uh, no. You said an event, A, was distinctly white, B. Or, inversely (as you re-wrote it in this comment), that there was something white, B, about the event, A. As a result, A is a quality, or characteristic, or example, of B. Racial essentialism equates a quality, or characteristic, A, with a racial category, or B. The characteristic doesn’t need to be assigned invariably to a *people*, but to a racial *category*–of which individuals are members–for it to be essentialist. Or, in other words, you don’t have to write (or even *think* for that matter) that all X *people* carry Y characteristic to make a racially essentialist statement.

                I mean, look, I’m with you for the most part but this is, like, textbook.

                • How about this….maybe you could explain how the sentence structure of your reaction to the event at the restaurant being “distinctly white” is different than these two examples:

                  Walking into a medical waiting room full of teenage, single mothers with their babies: “But there was something distinctly black about this.”

                  Or passing through a library full of diligent workers on a Friday night: “But there was something distinctly Asian about this.”

                  I don’t say all Asians are diligent workers, but I say that being a diligent worker is a quality of the racial category “Asian.” This is racial essentialism. How is your sentence different?

                • VC

                  “Uh, no. You said an event, A, was distinctly white, B. Or, inversely (as you re-wrote it in this comment), that there was something white, B, about the event, A. As a result, A is a quality, or characteristic, or example, of B.”

                  Key word here is “example”.

                  “The characteristic doesn’t need to be assigned invariably to a *people*, but to a racial *category*–of which individuals are members–for it to be essentialist.”

                  I’m not seeing the difference. Individual members come together and make “people”. “People” make up “category”. What are we talking about here? The point is it is a group of people – which we can also call a “category” (of people) – that one is (or is not) essentializing.

                  “Or, in other words, you don’t have to write (or even *think* for that matter) that all X *people* carry Y characteristic to make a racially essentialist statement.”

                  Yeah actually, you do.

                  • No, actually, you don’t. But fine; let’s operate under your definition so we can have a “constructive dialogue,” as you reference in another comment. Can you explain to me the difference between my two statements about events being “distinctly black” or “distinctly Asian” from your reference to your experience being “distinctly white”? And then explain to me how none of this is racial essentialism. Just to make sure I’m operating under the same understanding of the world underlying this post.

  • VC

    I feel like all people took from this post was: white people can’t listen to the blues!

    Which was not, at any point, what I was saying. My points, all of which are intertwined in this particular post, are about whiteness, privilege, appropriation and consuming black culture. Sure, as a person who actually cares about histories, I like to know where music comes from but I am aware that everyone doesn’t have that same time, desire, or care. And that’s understandable.

    My “white people” analogies – coming home after work and putting on the blues, throwing on a Bessie Smith record at a dinner party – are meant to illuminate a larger picture about access and entitlement. While I understand the sentiment behind statements like “Muddy Waters was a musical god who spoke universal truths that transcend race. Having lived a life tunes a person to the Blues” (MikeCee) – I think something is missing. The fact that: a lot of what makes the blues the blues is that it is a result of black life in America. There is a library of meanings and experiences and stories that are only applicable and thereby accessible to the listener because blues is a black performance art. As Paul Garon points writes in White Blues, which I’d recommend although, for the record I’m not sure I’d completely endorse,

    Is it the same when a black man like Chuck Berry sings that he went “across Mississippi clean,” as when a white man like Elvis Presley sings the same lyrics in the same song? Hardly! Getting “across Mississippi clean” has a whole accumulation of meanings when sung by a black, meanings that just don’t exist for a white performer. And listeners of different races must hear it and identify with it differentially, based on their experience…and based on their interpretation of the experience of the singer.

    So yeah, perhaps part of my post is me being crotchety (Winslowalrob). But it’s also an analysis of the ways in which meanings that are, quite frankly, integral to the existence of an art form, are disregarded for an enjoyment that one is only afforded through privilege.

    I don’t actually expect people to start caring about all the different pains and experiences they are consuming. I’m just pointing out the sense of entitlement that is packaged in uncritical whiteness which lets people pick from cultures without even being aware of the raced circumstances that make their listening pleasure possible – and perhaps – enjoyable. And please note, I’m not talking about individual white people so much as I’m talking about the way race is constructed to seem inconsequential when certain people want it to be – regardless of how central it is to an experience.

    • young_

      I still don’t understand why enjoying a music without understanding the original context of the social forces that shaped its creation is a matter of white privilege (or any privilege for that matter). Children do it all the time…

      I’m also honestly unsure why someone needs to know much about the background of black life in America to really appreciate Howlin’ Wolf’s Greatest Hits, for example. What is it that someone needs to know/understand before they can properly listen to songs like “Spoonful,” “I Asked Her for Water” or “Evil”? I’m sure that it would add value if people read Lawrence Levine on the history of black American culture, browsed some blues histories, and interviewed older black people about how they related to the music when it was being made, but all of that context is besides the point, at least for the way the vast majority of Americans seem to listen to and appreciate music.

      • Darth Paul

        Appropriation is an longstanding facet of white privilege. Appreciation is NOT the same as appropriation.

        • @Darth Paul
          Okay. So, what is the difference then? That is what remains completely un-articulated here; how are we (or rather how is VC) defining “appropriation” (a loaded term I see kicked around a lot online that remains forever in the eye of the beholder).

          Is it really too much to ask that this be made explicit since this entire post seems to revolve around the notion? I am frankly ambivalent about literate people with full bellies kicking around the term “privilege” so casually but whatever: white people listen to whatever they want with impunity. Fine.

          And…?

  • Chris

    This is one of the rare posts I’ve read on this blog that I consider poorly reasoned and argued. I love the site, but this was just a ramble.

    Art of every kind is made in a certain cultural soup that informs and defines it. As culture changes, most consumers (of any race) of that art will have little awareness of the cultural circumstances that birthed the art.

    I appreciate a lot of art that comes out of cultures and historical contexts that I don’t know a great deal about. In the best cases, I am intrigued enough by the art to learn the context. Sometimes that adds to my appreciation of the art, sometimes it doesn’t.

    Many works of art come out of hardship, pain, and suffering. In this, Blues is a good example, but it is far from a rarity.

    As far as your discomfort at the commoditization of the blues, that’s understandable. As someone who appreciates any art, you hate to see it somehow cheapened. It’s the same feeling I get when hip-hop is featured in commercials, when canned jazz is played in department stores, and when souvenir stores in Italy sell postcards depicting the statue of David. None of those captures the context of the art, but they exist and I keep on living.

    • VC

      Not to be brusque, but I don’t understand how your generalization of this conversation is useful. What’s the point in saying “this happens all the time with a lot of things”?

  • @VC
    I am glad you returned to this thread. I’m hoping that you will revisit your main points though, there is obviously some confusion about what you intend. These responses are mostly thoughtful, I hope you’ll reflect and answer them.

    I have thoughts about what you’ve written but I’d like to hear more from you before I share them. My impression so far is that you and I have very different ideas about what art is and what it does (and about what racial essentialism is and does)–but I don’t want to assume anything.

    Can you say more?

  • cocolamala

    i think that what is “distinctly white” about your description of the restaurant, is that this scene has taken place in american history many, many times, which is that of a white audience appreciating black culture without having any broader participation in black social life.

    does the hipster who throws on cee-lo after work just as casually attend his black friend’s club to see him perform live?

    does the hipster who gentrifies a black neighborhood care if he’s never been invited to a neighbor’s house or house party?

    does he care if the restaurant he brunches at employs anyone from the gentrified neighborhood?

    does that hipster’s grandfather, who throws on Bessie Smith after work, listen her voice but never worry about how segregation could keeps her from actually performing in a concert hall for him?

    • VC

      Thank you. I think you hit on some of what I am feeling about this.

  • VC

    Let’s start here: blues is a music that was created out of the realities of being black in America. The circumstances within which it was created, as a form of expression before entertainment, cannot be ignored, in that they are *gasp* essential to its very existence as an art form. It is black art, period.

    If you can’t agree with this statement, or if you think I am “racializing the argument” (young_), we might as well halt this discussion now.

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  • @VC
    Ah, okay… we must have been writing at the same moment because I didn’t see your comment at 11:39 when I asked you to say more.

    Okay.

    Well I have no argument with where you want to “start” (12:16)–with acknowledgment that the Blues is a genre of music that was formed out of African American suffering. But… is anyone here arguing otherwise? I think the problem starts with where you end up from there:

    You have taken that art-historical fact and expanded it into a hazy point about white people “consuming black culture” that isn’t really supportable beyond how it makes you–VC– feel (in a Jill-Scott-Wince-Way). I’m a New Yorker and I can certainly understand the flare of irritation that accompanies restaurants full of white hipsters “expressing themselves” by adopting bits and pieces of various “Other’ cultures. But at bottom, that is how culture works. Culture is a flow and there are no sacred boundaries around cultural products. Culture ignores boundaries completely and flows up, over and around them. If white people consume cultural products that you feel attached to with impunity that is because white privilege exists, but that dynamic is not particular to art.

    You are a scientist, right? Are you annoyed when white people benefit from/enjoy African American scientific discoveries? White people are probably also blissfully unaware of the social conditions that had to be overcome for black scientists to invent dry cleaning or peanut butter or traffic lights when they consume those things. If those things remained niche items they would be considered unsuccessful. Why have a different standard for art then? I am asking this as an artist. Because it seems to me that you are, perhaps unintentionally, wishing that Blues music were less popular. Which, I can assure you, does not reflect the wishes of actual Blues musicians who are trying to get paid for their work. If the Blues has a broad audience, which includes annoying, privileged white people, that is because the music is amazing.

    You have said the Blues are a black art form… okay. I am still unsure what that means to potential listeners.

  • cocolamala

    thinking about the social conditions that led to the things you enjoy around you does not necessarily mean that you consume them less though, like how thinking about child labor does not destroy the tennis shoe industry, or the diamond market, or the ipod market.

    thinking about social conditions might mean that you vote differently though. thinking about gentrification might make you look at ways to contribute to the community where you pay rent.

  • Grump
  • Ben

    I’m still not sure that this discussion has figured out what it’s about.

    I think VC makes an important point about whiteness: whiteness gives people a certain privilege to dabble in cultural experiences. I think this comes from a number of factors, probably some combination of not identifying strongly with one’s own culture and being in charge.

    But I’m not sure what the upshot of that is for this conversation. I guess you could argue that all that dabbling is wrong and offensive, but nobody seems to want to argue that. I guess people’s dabbling could range all the way from not caring at all about where a certain piece of art comes from, to caring about that obsessively. At some point on the cavalier end of that spectrum, I would be inclined to think less of a person, and maybe that puts me at some level of agreement with the post.

    But I still think, not to beat a dead horse, that crass commodification of cultural experience is what deserves more ire, especially when someone exploits black history and pain to make rich, powerful, white people richer and more powerful.

  • J

    “The fact that: a lot of what makes the blues the blues is that it is a result of black life in America.”

    But blacks and whites in America share many of the same life experiences, simply because both are human. Blues music should not be confused with the blues as such. Blues music is created to keep the blues (i.e. despair) away. It is a counterstatement, an antidote, if you will, to the blue devils of nada. That is why blues music is mostly exuberant and uplifting. It is not black people crying about the pain, suffering, and oppression they experience in America. Blues musicians sing mainly about love and sex, two subjects most people, regardless of skin color, can relate to. The themes of blues music–not to mention the blues as such–are, and I generally shudder at the use of this term, universal.

    Blues music is art, which means that it is simply a body of techniques. Anyone who masters these techniques plays blues music. A blues musician doesn’t necessarily play what he or she feels. We have no idea what a particular musician, or any artist for that matter, feels at a given point in time. Mary Lou Williams might have been in the happiest of moods when she played “Dirge Blues.” It’s irrelevant. Miles Davis had a pretty comfortable middle-class life, certainly far more comfortable than the life of Muddy Waters. But Miles Davis is a better blues musician than Muddy Waters, plain and simple. James Joyce’s lousy, depressing life didn’t prevent him from writing Ulysses, which is one of the funniest books of all time. And to quote Ralph Ellison in response to Irving Howe, “what do we know of Sophocles’ wounds?” Life experience does not translate into great art and great art is not necessarily the product of one’s life experience. Ditto with appreciating art.

    Private consumption of blues music by white audiences has much to do with fetishes about authenticity and black suffering, and your argument emphasizing the “black” character of blues is partly what helps make that possible. It is what prevents many white people from recognizing great black/blues musicians (Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Ray Charles, Otis Spann, Bobby Timmons) from mediocre, unsophisticated ones(Muddy Waters, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly, Otis Redding, Robert Johnson). In other words the real problem with how white audiences consume black music is a matter of taste, not historical or social consciousness. White audiences for black music or music rooted in black folk idioms are generally not very discerning. How else does one explain the popularity of a hack like Bob Dylan? If many whites (and some blacks) would start interpreting blues music through an aesthetic rather than a sociological perspective they’d soon realize that most of what they listen to just isn’t that good. Then they’d really be giving the music the respect it deserves.

    I would suggest, VC, that you read Albert Murray’s Stomping the Blues and Ralph Ellison’s essays on art and music, assuming you haven’t already. Although I disagree with your premise here, to echo comments made earlier, I’m glad to know you care about blues music.

    • VC

      There are too many things in your reply that make further conversation nearly impossible. Including but not limited to: But blacks and whites in America share many of the same life experiences, simply because both are human.

      Yes, and? Does being human somehow negate other very real experiences tied to class, age, ability, race, region?

      It is what prevents many white people from recognizing great black/blues musicians (Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Ray Charles, Otis Spann, Bobby Timmons) from mediocre, unsophisticated ones(Muddy Waters, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly, Otis Redding, Robert Johnson).

      Yikes! I’m not sure where to start.

      Too much to tackle here, we’ll have to agree to disagree.

      • J

        “Yes, and? Does being human somehow negate other very real experiences tied to class, age, ability, race, region.”

        My point, which you apppear to have missed, is that most blues music (in the vocal tradition at least; the bulk of blues music probably doesn’t even include lyrics, in which case your point is moot) deals specifically with subjects that are common to both races in America (love, sex, adultery, heartache, loneliness, death, celebrating, being broke). Thus, there’s very little in blues music that nonblack listeners supposedly don’t have access to.

        • VC

          And I take it, from the phrasing of your post, you believe that the way “both races in America” experience things like love, sex, adultery, heartache, loneliness, death, celebrating, and being broke are in no way shape or form influenced by racism?

          • J

            How does racism influence the way a blues singer chooses to sing about love and sex? “I’ve got an angel and I like the way she spreads her wings…” How does race come into play in this B.B. King lyric? Even if racism does influence the way a blues singer performs, how is it more important than any other countless factors?

    • Your entire third paragraph takes this entire string from bad to worse. I feel like I should be looking at it as satire. You can’t at all be serious.

    • Darth Paul

      “In other words the real problem with how white audiences consume black music is a matter of taste, not historical or social consciousness.”

      Huh? For you maybe.

    • young_

      @J Are you Stanley Crouch, by any chance? (j/k)

      Sidebar but I can’t resist: Are you characterizing those those artists as “mediocre” musicians or their work as mediocre blues? Either way, what’s your basis?

      • J

        Nah, young, the only thing me and Stanley Crouch have in common is our mutual admiration and respect for Albert Murray, who is THE authority on the blues and probably the greatest American public intellectual of the 20th century. But I digress…

        To answer your question, I’m simply distinguishing between folk art and fine art. So you could say it’s more a question of the kind of blues those artists played. Folk art relies on strictly prescribed methods from an older era. Thus folk artists are not technically advanced, musically ambitious, or informed. They are severely limited in what they can express. Folk art is inherently reactionary, which is why I find it hilarious that it is often championed by so-called “progressives.”

        Consider this: Muddy Waters was a contemporary of Thelonious Monk. Both worked primarily in the blues idiom. Only the most unsophisticated listener would judge Muddy Waters’ musical achievements equal to that of Monk’s. How does “Walkin’ Blues” stand alongside “Five Spot Blues”? Monk knew more, could play more, and therefore could express more than Muddy Waters. What you get with Monk is an extension of the folk idiom to include church music, stride, boogie woogie, bop, and his own individual genius.

        Don’t get me wrong, Muddy Waters’ music is an essential part of blues history. But it is by no means blues music at its most advanced or complex. To place it at the center of the blues music tradition (or close to it) is as silly as placing comic books at the center of the American literary tradition.

  • VC

    I’m not sure how this got turned into a conversation on “art” and “culture” at-large since it’s specifically about blues music and white consumption of black culture.

    The original post was intended to start conversation. Notice the questions that are posed: What is it about white people getting off up under black music that is so troubling? Perhaps it is the romanticization of black experiences that accompanies the thoughtless enjoyment of the culture that is born from them? Or is it the consumption of black pain as product?

    What I have mostly drawn from responses is that people can’t relate. And that’s fine. Unfortunately, I’ve had to spend a lot of time clearing up what I’m not saying, and trying to re-state what I’m wrestling with in a bunch of different ways.

    The point is: Consuming culture without a care for the social, political, racist, etc circumstances that it comes from, and that made it possible, is – as i said in the post – assuming, unsettling, and comfortably privileged. I’m not saying there is a way to avoid it, or campaigning to start white people education classes. Mostly because that’s not my job. White people have long enjoyed black performance without the slightest care about the racist environments that black artists lived in and were regularly subjected to – for their listening pleasure. White folks were there to see Billie Holiday – it didn’t matter to them that she had to enter and exit through a separate door or that neither she nor anyone in her band could use the same restrooms they used. Why should these people get a pass to enjoy whatever however they please? Because they’re just experiencing life as they know it? Because it happens all the time?

    Like I said, I don’t really expect people to do any intellectual work, especially after reading the responses to this thread. But it is also a matter of consciousness and of understanding.

    In my less diplomatic moments, I’d simply say “don’t do that”. But clearly, that doesn’t get very far when people’s basic argument in response is “culture is culture. It flows everywhere and people always have, always will, and should be able to do whatever they want with art.”

    • @VC
      “Consumption” and “appropriation” are two different things. But never mind.

      Look, I didn’t mean to put you on the defensive: I was just asking you to be clear within the terms you laid out for yourself. It isn’t that I can’t relate to what you are arguing–it’s that you aren’t really arguing *anything* one way or the other.

      “Sometimes white people are annoying.” Check.

      “The Blues come from black pain” Gotcha.

      “When I see white people enjoy black art I am perturbed.” Okay then.

      So… what is your point then? Or are *your* feelings the point? Because if so this might have been framed more successfully in personal terms. By attempting to use your feelings (which have been repeatedly affirmed throughout this thread) as the basis for a larger social point you have made several huge, entirely unsupported leaps that can only be finessed via ultimately distasteful, essentialist assumptions. And just…no.

      More important for me as a PB reader is that instead of answering me and others who took you seriously enough to ask questions about what you wrote you’ve spent a lot of time saying why you can’t engage. Uh, okay. But in order to “start a conversation” you have to actually engage. “There are too many things in your reply that make further conversation nearly impossible.” What conversation?

      But, whatever. Do you. Good luck at PB.

      • VC

        This was framed in personal terms. As you obviously picked up on since you seem to have a problem with me expressing how I feel about something in the same sentence as what I think about something (god forbid).

        If you’d like to refer to the post to which you are responding, you’ll see my point directly following the words: “The point is”. If you’d like to take up a discussion on that, I’d be more than happy to.

        Regarding your last paragraph, I did respond to the majority of the responses, perhaps not through a direct, personalized response but I addressed people’s questions and comments. Most people needed clarification, and so I tried to provide that. And as for declining to respond to a *particular* post, I think it’s completely valid to choose not to “engage” in a discussion that is not operating on the same premises.

        Aside, I don’t see why the ad hom attacks are necessary.

    • young_

      “I don’t expect people to do any intellectual work, especially after reading the responses to this thread.”

      What does that mean? It seems pretty dismissive of all the people who disagree with or don’t understand your position but have taken time to grapple with it. The problem is that your post is written in such a way that it can only preach to the choir. Those of us who aren’t already convinced that it’s problematic for white people to casually consume black culture and don’t agree that it’s necessary to understand the context of black suffering that (in part) shaped the blues still do not understand why you feel otherwise. A lot of the responses have been earnest attempts to try to understand your reasoning (like me @ 12:11 and Joseph S @ 1:01) about why understanding and caring about the historical context matters and why this is a matter of white privilege instead of simply reflecting the way that Americans listen to music (i.e. rather ignorantly). Your answers have, for the most part, merely restated your initial gripes. It seems like you’re not aware of the huge logical leaps you’ve been making, despite our efforts to point some of them out.

      • VC

        That quote wasn’t a personal attack on anyone. It was a reference to responses that made it seem as though learning about the history of a culture we enjoy is a ludicrous idea.

        “The problem is that your post is written in such a way that it can only preach to the choir. Those of us who aren’t already convinced that it’s problematic for white people to casually consume black culture and don’t agree that it’s necessary to understand the context of black suffering that (in part) shaped the blues still do not understand why you feel otherwise.”

        It is true that the post is written with a few givens in mind. It operates on certain premises such as: white supremacy exists; white people experience privilege, sometimes unknowingly; the blues came out of circumstances of being black and oppressed; it is in fact possible to consume other people’s culture; and this can in fact be problematic.

        The problem, really, is that we are all not entering this discussion operating on the same premises. Therefore, constructive dialogue is extremely difficult, to say the least. Perhaps next time I will summarize the groundwork first.

    • Derek

      “The point is: Consuming culture without a care for the social, political, racist, etc circumstances that it comes from, and that made it possible, is – as i said in the post – assuming, unsettling, and comfortably privileged.”

      I would like you to explain, how is appreciating art without a knowledge of the sociological circumstances in any way related to privilege? Someone above wrote about Cubans listening to Vanilla Ice without realizing his race. Are those Cubans privileged? When American music, through various ways, filters into incredibly poor countries and earns new fans, are those fans privileged? Are upperclass, young, uneducated black folk who listen to the blues today privileged? (The answer to the last question, I think, would have to be “yes” — but you are only interested in white privilege, right?).

      I would also like to know: do you meet your own standard? Do you listen to any non-American music? If so, do you do the type of research you expect white folks to do so as to avoid offending you?

      • VC

        “I would like you to explain, how is appreciating art without a knowledge of the sociological circumstances in any way related to privilege?”

        You’ll have to excuse me because in writing different responses, I try to say things differently so as to not sound like a broken record. My “point” that you quoted was perhaps too sparse on detail. I am talking about something very specific here, and regret that it’s been muddled in the quoting and re-quoting of fragments of a larger collection of posts. In response to your question, privilege is related in that white people have it. And among the things this privilege enables them to do is participate in/consume/appropriate aspects of different cultures (Can we agree on this?). This is possible mainly because of the access and resources that result from white privilege. Like I mentioned in a response to Maggie, my point has never been that white folks are the only people who do this, but unfortunately, that is what many people have chosen to pull from this discussion.

        “I would also like to know: do you meet your own standard? Do you listen to any non-American music? If so, do you do the type of research you expect white folks to do so as to avoid offending you?”

        First off, let me clarify that this is not at all about me being offended. Second, honestly I’m not big on world music. But if your concern is whether individuals do research as opposed to the problematic ways in which white privilege and hegemony has enabled white americans to consume blues culture (-of particular interest to me because it is embedded in the system of inequality that makes white privilege reality), then we probably aren’t interested in the same conversation.

        • Derek

          “In response to your question, privilege is related in that white people have it. And among the things this privilege enables them to do is participate in/consume/appropriate aspects of different cultures (Can we agree on this?). This is possible mainly because of the access and resources that result from white privilege. Like I mentioned in a response to Maggie, my point has never been that white folks are the only people who do this, but unfortunately, that is what many people have chosen to pull from this discussion.”

          White people have privilege, agreed. Privilege enables people to consume aspects, including music, from other cultures. I agree, but I don’t think to the same extent that you believe this. How much “privilege” does it take to enjoy other cultures? Today, with the economy, marketplace, and technology being what it is, the level of “privilege” needed to enjoy “foreign” music (to use as shorthand a phrase that is admittedly imprecise). Who can’t afford a radio these days? I posture a 16-year-old African-American who works at the grocery store, product of a single-parent household, living off minimum wage and welfare — and who regularly listens to classical radio without having the slightest aspect of the historical context of the pieces he’s listening to. Is he privileged? In some sense, yes, but in the sense of what I think you mean when you say “privilege,” of course not. And yet, here he is, engaging in a practice that you describe as privileged.

          I think your argument boils down to a poorly reasoned elitist affirmation of authenticity. In short: blues music is mine, and not yours! Other people express the same sentiment in different ways: I liked them before they were popular; I like ‘real’ punk; I don’t listen to ‘commercial’ music; etc. You say that “this is not at all about me being offended.” Really, I think that this is exclusively about you being offended that others would share your same tastes in a way that you think dilutes the authenticity of the material. You try to wrap the sentiment in a broader message about race and class, but its poorly reasoned and vacuous.

          • VC

            Your reading of my point is off-base. It would be nice if you could get past the white privilege thing since you did agree with it, I think…? Then again, you did omit the whole “white” part… which was kind of the central aspect seeing as how it is a pretty distinct phenomenon. The privilege one has as a white person is not.. related, similar, nor comparable to (mostly due to uselessness) a 16 year old AA product of single parent etc etc with a radio. I should have added this to my premises: white privilege is the result of white supremacy. <-I have the feeling we don't agree on that..? Or.. racism exists?

            • Derek

              My point is, ignorant music appreciation (again, admittedly using a shorthand that is imprecise) is more properly categorized as “Something Everyone Does in the Developed World in 2010” than as… well, whatever it is that you’re categorizing it as.

              Racism exists, agreed. As does white supremacy and white privilege. Having accepted those premises, however, I do not think the conclusion is: everything white people do is a result of privilege and is therefore assuming and unsettling. Is it assuming, unsettling, and a result of privilege, that white people eat peanut butter? At what point do we cross over from entirely-normal-things-humans-do to things-white-people-do-flowing-from-white-privilege? Or, does the former not exist in your world?

              • VC

                Ah, I see what you’re saying. I guess where we are missing each other is that I think white folks’ relationship to blues music in particular is quite unique. Take the example someone cited earlier about a white person casually listening to Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” without consideration for where that song comes from, what it means, and what it meant. Yes, it is a beautiful song but it was also created in protest – in protest of the violence of racism. Now, it is possible for a second generation brown-skinned Mexican (for example) to listen to that song and not know its origins. Yet, whatever everyday privilege that person might experience is not entangled in the system of inequality that was the backdrop for the recording of “Strange Fruit”. Therefore, one might say it’s more disconcerting or problematic when a white person mindlessly enjoys “Strange Fruit” without learning from the message because they have historically been in the position of doing just that. It’s like I was saying about white folks who would go to jazz shows without a thought (or action) as to the conditions that their “entertainment” had to work under (conditions which were reality because of a system they were participants in – active or not). That is the assuming, unsettling and comfortably privileged part. It’s not merely ignorance, it is a harmful ignorance that – if addressed – could turn into a productive self-awareness or maybe even anti-racism.

  • Maggie

    I’ve been thinking about this post and its responses all day. I believe there *is* a strong point here, specifically in VC’s description of the restaurant’s commodification of blues music, but that the racial generalizations cloud that point.

    One idea I keep coming back to is that music is one of the few ways we have of beginning to understand cultures and experiences that may be foreign to us (all). If we mandate that one must fully understand and acknowledge the cultural significance of a piece of art from the jump, we shut too many doors.

    If VC is saying that people should use blues music as the *beginning* of understanding and discussion of experience, inequity, and social changes, rather than just pleasant or trendy background music, then I agree. This is a very positive goal, and I actually think, a realistic one. We *should* wonder about where the music we love comes from, just as with any culturally significant piece of art. We should learn from it.

    I do see it as a white privilege (american privlege? middle-class privilege?) to enjoy art without considering its cultural origins or biases–the assumption that all art caters to the white perspective and is for white enjoyment, or dabbling in the “exoticism” of blues music. White people should be expected to go beyond that (though this is impossible to qualify–we don’t know what the “white people after work” are thinking).

    If VC means that those who cannot relate to suffering, or don’t already understand the history at play, or don’t racially identify with blues artists cannot genuinely enjoy and fully appreciate blues music, then I disagree.

    My issue with the original post is that, though it was extremely thought provoking, I cannot tell which of these angles VC is taking (or if I missed the angle altogether).

    As always, thanks to PB for hosting discussions that make me slightly uncomfortable, and make me question myself.

    • VC

      I sincerely appreciate you considering the different things that are communicated in the post. The mini anecdote in the beginning of the original post about white people after work was more of a half-joke than a serious claim. It was said to a friend, with whom context was not needed, but I can see how it might be misleading as the opening to this blog. I think maybe it threw a few people off, but really, as you said, I don’t know what’s happening in the minds of “white people after work” .. at all.

      You raise an interesting question about the different kinds of privilege (american, middle class) that can factor into enjoying or appropriating an art without considering its origins and biases. I do think there are people of different backgrounds that are capable of this, and didn’t mean to imply that it is only white people. However, I find white folks (not all of them, obviously) an interesting case because, historically their privilege has allowed them to dabble in multiple cultures that perhaps would not be accessible to middle-class blacks, for example. This has been a result of skin privilege as well as hegemony and maybe even more compellingly in this case – racism. In the case of the blues, it’s like.. this is an expression that was directly linked to circumstances imposed upon a people by white supremacy. Yet, the folks who are on the privileged end of this system are dipping into this music that is in part a product of their complacence or complicity. And for *some people* to not care, or even want to take that into consideration to me is quite mind-boggling.

  • VC, sorry for coming at you harder than I shoulda, but I think as you can see from the responses, something was lost in the presentation. Its whatever.

  • cocolamala

    There are endless musical cultures to be discovered, particularly when you aren’t exposed to certain genres in your childhood.

    But it is important to consider the stories, histories, pain, and oppression that such music has been inevitably steeped in, and to seek to really understand what it means, and where it comes from – culturally, historically, emotionally – as opposed to appropriating whichever part of its aesthetic seems useful.

    Everything is not simply for your listening pleasure or dining experience.

    i think the first sentence explains that arts and culture are to be explored.

    the second sentence says that you should seek to understand the background of the arts you enjoy.

    the third sentence says that some arts have meaning and significance beyond enjoyment that is important to appreciation of the form and respect for its creators.

  • The article and the following commentary was absolutely exhilarating. So much “there” there, how can anyone really understand anyone’s point-of-view beyond a surface level? VC feels one way, some of the commentators differ and a back and forth ensues. It seems some of the “white consumers” are very passionate about this “black music.” Now I’m going to speak in some generalizations for a spell here, please understand, I’m well aware of the gray (it’s what links the generalizations together), okay, let’s go…

    Oddly enough, if it wasn’t for a market for this music who would even know about it. Black artists continue the tradition of it, they don’t need to look back and consume it for they live the experience the music speaks of. Just keep strummin’ the guitar and yes…pounding the drum machine. Hip hop music, whose nostalgia is brilliantly satirically obvious reaches back only a few years. Looks for something catchy, samples it. The blues aren’t catchy. A few years ago Moby challenged that assumption and caught some flack for it. I think there is a desire to craft a sound that speaks to the beauty some find in its pathos. It’s unabashed self-exposing nature is peculiarly charming. Almost satirical in the fact that it makes you feel something beyond your own pain. The blues are a relatively new twist on some old stuff. Just think about that when you watch the hyper-linked Moby video. There’s a profound existential angle to the blues that intrigues a European sensibility because it only requires three-minutes not a three-hour lecture…but you’re still left dumbfounded…”what are hobo blues?”

    There is a weird progress/regress quality to ‘black music’ or let’s call it by its true universal name…soul music…this yin/yang of reaching out beyond the parameters of your genre, but also the need to own its roots. Maybe that is the driving force of the ‘soul’ in the music.

    “I wanna be brand new, but I don’t wanna forget where I came form too!”

    When you go that deep down it don’t matter if your white or brown. We all have done some stuff we’re not too proud of and it eats us up when we don’t let it out. Turns into regrets and those “doubts about things you can’t do nothin’ about” can hurt somethin’ wicked, the blues allow us to learn the lesson of our indiscretions outside the cold sterile confines of an office with a chaise longue where we lose our names and become patients. Everything secretive, confidential. How can we ‘let it all out’ if we’re telling our secrets only to one person? A person we don’t even know. A person who’s not responding the same way we’re calling.

    When it comes to “feeling” the blues, of course most of us haven’t worked any fields, done any hard time, lost the “one that no one else can replace, so it’s rum straight, no chase.” Even if I know where the ‘soul’ comes from I wasn’t there to compare it to where I am now…just a square who likes the sound. My losses, my trials, my tribulations aren’t as deep as the men and women who sing these songs–the only strange fruit I’ve seen was at a Korean grocer–but when I’m down I do feel something…and it hurts…sometimes we find solace in those who suffered worse…they don’t wear it as a curse…they share it first…no need to reHerse…

    All right let me stop buggin’ ya’ll. Thanks for the enlightening commentary.

  • distance88

    As a fellow DJ and music lover, I don’t find the OP as outlandish (61 comments!) as everyone seems to think it is. A lot of people took it as musical snobbery or something, but I think it was more about VC’s frustration with the essence of white privilege–i.e. not having to think about things (in this case, music) on a racial level if we don’t want to.

  • JL

    “But it is important to consider the stories, histories, pain, and oppression that such music has been inevitably steeped in, and to seek to really understand what it means, and where it comes from – culturally, historically, emotionally – as opposed to appropriating whichever part of its aesthetic seems useful. Everything is not simply for your listening pleasure or dining experience.”

    This, essentially, as I have understood it, is the essence of VC’s reflection on the often irresponsible, thoughtless consumption of blues music (WITHIN the context of extreme gentrification and performative white privilege in a historically black space.)

    VC is not talking about whether there is such thing as white struggle, nor are they talking about whether or not white people “have a right” or “can” listen to the Blues. Anybody can listen to whatever they want to listen to, whatever they are moved by… but it is in particularly contexts : aka a particularly gentrified section of Brooklyn, where such participation in, commodification and consumption of Blues music has unsettling implications. This post is about white privilege and a sense of entitlement to participate and appropriate a history that does not belong to you. It does not mean you can not appreciate, engage with and take part in the BLUES… but there are WAYS of engaging with black culture and history that are entitled and privileged.

    While there have been thoughtful responses to this post, I feel like many of them are unconstructive, misdirected and contrary to the goal of establishing this kind of space..which is to be able to have insightful, constructive open source dialogue.

  • I love the blues, and I am white as snow, so… guilty.

    But I do understand how you feel since bluegrass went mainstream, and I felt unexplicably, well, ROBBED. (Hey, I thought, give our shit back, you don’t get it.)

    I also felt strangely vindicated: see, our stuff ain’t bad, huh?

    But then, hearing rich lawyers listening to Bill Monroe in their shiny new BMWs? Ugh. Rubs me the wrong way and simply always will.

    There is also that authenticity vibe: If I am listening to Seldom Scene in my car, I don’t like it that people think I picked the damn thing LAST WEEK, you know? I’d like a bumper sticker: Hey yall, my parents PLAYED THIS MUSIC, I AM NOT TRENDY! DO NOT ACCUSE ME OF TRENDY! (LOL)

    Thanks for a thought provoking post about a subject I think about a lot.

  • inexplicably, not unexplicably. (embarrassed)

    Correcting since I need to let people know that us rednecks CAN spell when we want to! 😛

  • zuzu

    Certainly, you make some valid points in this blog post. I’m a white girl from an extremely white area of the country and I’m constantly realizing anew that white privilege is a strange funhouse mirror through which to see the world. But you use Try a Little Tenderness as your example and…well, it was written in 1932 by a couple of English dudes to be played by an English dance band. Assuming that you didn’t know that, as I think most people don’t, did not knowing that hinder your appreciation of the song at all? Oh, Otis tore it up as it will never be torn up again, and I agree with you that soul music is a uniquely black art form and that knowing something of the history behind the music makes it so much more powerful. But I don’t think that not knowing that this song is, at least originally, about how much the Great Depression could just suck the hope right out of a lady makes it speak to your heart any less. Also, if you know people who play the blues at a dinner party, you need to drop those friends, stat. How does Bessie Smith go along with the “if you could have one book on a deserted island…” icebreaker? That’s just bad hosting.

  • cocolamala

    well, i’ve been following this convo for some time now, and probably too late to have anyone read/hear, but

    what to the readers think “the Blues” is refering to, if not the hardship caused by white supremacy. if the blues was just sad songs, it’d be just that, but its about the heartbreak and limited opportunities for black folk in the south during reconstruction, and also in the segregated, industrialized north.

    it reminds me of the same way our culture popularized “gangster rap” in the 90s, but couldn’t go about finding active solutions to the social conditions that caused ppl to have to write that music. i.e. mandatory sentencing regimes, elevated unemployment in urban communities, etc.

    • young_

      Honest question– do you listen to much blues music? I think you’re doing blues musicians and the blues itself a disservice by reducing their importance to the sociological/historical context of the genre’s origins. As other posters have mentioned, most of the great blues songs deal with themes, subjects, and emotions of near-universal human interest and have a soulful expressiveness that transcends the specific contexts of their creation.

    • young_

      Re: the rap analogy: I suspect that listeners 40 years from now will be able to enjoy albums like “Paid in Full”, “The Chronic,” “Illmatic,” and “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” very well *musically* without knowing or caring a whole lot about the social and historical conditions in which rap developed.

  • young_

    I know this thread is probably dead but does anyone have any issues with Viagra using a classic Howlin’ Wolf song in one of its newer commercials? Just curious.

  • Mike

    I play music. I play all sorts. Rock, Blues, Country, Funk. I’m white. Music is an art that is alive, and as such develops and evolves in ways that may well surprise. Blues was rescued by white (mainly English) musicians (as acknowledged by B.B. King in Martin Scorsese’s documentary) and today is often disparaged by young black musicians. Muddy Waters said Mick Jagger stole his music but gave him his name. I’m also a visual artist. Art is not static — it merges and morphs and that is how it should be.

    Ray Charles: “I do jazz, blues, country music and so forth. I do them all, like a good utility man”.

    • Don

      I’m black.My family is from Mississippi and Louisiana. I’m a musician. If white people didn’t buy my music, or come to my performances I’d be broke…

      This isn’t a new story. I understand what the author of this article is trying to say, though. It is sometimes frustrating to see artists being hailed as geniuses, when they’ve only rehashed other folks work. I hold Led Zeppelin responsible for robbing Kansas Joe/Memphis Minnie as much as Joan Baez. The plagiarism has been color-blind…

      Arguably, most of the globally popular American music e.g. Rock n’ Roll, R&B(Race Music), Jazz, Blues, and Country (Hillbilly)-has been a fusion of predominantly African-American and Irish-American origins. However, no one could honestly suggest that only people of direct African or Irish descent can truly “feel” American music. Right?

  • Mike

    One more observation: Wynton Marsalis plays Haydn … as a white person should I be objecting to that??

  • corones

    As early as 1795, at the age of 25, Beethoven was despondent on the verge of suicide about his deteriorating hearing. Should only deaf, white, world-class musical geniuses be allowed to listen to his “Ode to Joy”?

    The conceit of this post is divisive nonsense.

  • VC

    If you think this is about cultural ownership you are missing the point.

  • Mike

    It’s about art. It’s about the mixing of cultures. Romantic fixations about how things should be (and who should play what), based on the past, are kind of pointless. We all recognize where the music comes from. I don’t claim to “feel black” when I play a Muddy Waters song. I won’t play a blues song that talks about working the plantation, but a blues song about whiskey and women I can relate to.

  • Roslyn

    a few years ago i was taking this class called “sight and incite: art and activism” and we were basically looking at how artistic expression paralleled emerging social consciousness and movements in the 20th century blah blah blah… so we were looking at the harlem renaissance and WPA printmakers and reading manifestos of fascinating black artists, scholars, and collectives… but instead of engaging our class kept stumbling up against a group of artists who produced art for the ‘black audience’ and publicly stated that they didn’t want white people looking at, interacting with, or involved in any aspect of their art. (because its evergreen) we got to have a rousing debate on “what this means” which became a debate of whether or not people are allowed to do this. Which is so interesting culturally b/c art is so consumptive in the US and we have a hard time stomaching the fact that someone could decide that all art isn’t for all people. Most americans, and most white americans feel like as consumers that can buy, trade, and sell most anything they want. (which is also interesting b/c often white ppl engage in society on a level where they aren’t fighting against gendered, queered, raced, abled anything. they view their identity as members of an economic system, as opposed to an oppressive social system.. but back to the topic) And also because we’re colonists and have a hard time having someone tell us we can’t have something. So, in a consumptive art world… what is public art? and what is private art? and then on a totally different realm how do you create public art for only one public. I was personally floored because I think its pretty damn empowering for an artist to say “hey, this isnt for you.” or at least “you can look at it but you don’t get it.” The seminar conversation turned to Lauryn Hill where we ebbed and flowed about the fact that yes, you can listen to Lauryn Hill. And yes, she said she doesn’t want white people to listen to it. So given these two things: what do you do? And on what level does it prove her entire point when white people decide to still listen to lauryn hill.

    Anyways, back to my original vein of thought… your post reminded me of perceptions of history and culturall and specifically reminded me of many books, classes, conversations particularly surrounding the harlem renaissance. I think when a lot of people think of the Harlem Renaissance they think of a cultural revolution that (mostly) is remembered as artistic. What is fascinating to trace are the arguments, discussions, and intellectual dividing lines that were drawn around who could/couldn’t be included in this particular movement. And how it should be remembered. And what ‘membership’ meant in the movement. This brings me to white patronage and benefactors of the movement… because on the ‘scholar’ side of the times people have different memories of black thought emerging from the harlem renaissance. There is a book called ‘reassessing the renaissance’ where the author discussed how scholars were stuck between exploring exciting new work while simultaneously being edited by white philanthropists who controlled the ‘pace of black cultural advancement.’ There were those who did and did not believe in playing it diplomatic when it came to white funding of academic, cultural, and artistic endeavors. So because of its controversy, people try to laud the harlem renaissance (and remember it) for its cultural (artistic) achievements and because it was not always agreed upon the political and social discourse is seen as less of a success, although its entirely impossible to dilute one of the other (and to take political and social discourse out of mainstream americas idea of black “culture” is sooo problematic and indicative of our attitudes) So you can’t have art w/o politics. And you can’t have politics w/o art. But white people like black art. Not so much the politics. Same uneasy relationship where we love to listen to certain music, hang certain posters, watch certain films, but white people are less apt to attend black speeches, or engage in, or take seriously “black” thought because its separate from “thought” i.e. mainstream history/philosophy. I wish i could record the facial expressions when i bring up (for example) post traumatic slave syndrome in classes or discussion. Its like a deep breath and roll of the eyes b/c it “sounds too intense.” (btw have you read that book?) Maybe because we’ve never been denied black art, or not that we know of, or not that we acknowledge. And we see ourselves as benefactors of the arts…somehow a part of its history (and definitely tied to its history of consumption) But white ppl are still uneasy about supporting black ‘thought.’ Because we can’t consume it in doses. Its kinda all or nothing. And saying you listen to the blues is a signifier in our society. But bringing up So how surprised are you that you wrote that blog and people responded with: “it has nothing to do with that. you can’t change the way i think, listen, function in the world.”

    because historically you haven’t been able to tell them that, and if black artists, scholars, musicians ever did tell them that or anything close to it they denied that it existed. and historically they have been able to respond in that way.

    I guess people feel like they’ve never been told they can’t have something. And your blog challenges that. Or at least questions it, and asks people to think about their consumption. When we look at history we see that the challenge you voiced has always been made to white ppl. they just ignore it, so it never becomes real in the sense that you can still go to a shopping mall and hear lauryn hill because white people are still writing history.

  • Tori

    I understand what you’re saying. And I understand that no one’s suggesting that blues dies with its historical context. Some people don’t want to admit that there’s culture behind some music because they don’t want to admit they never thought about it. They don’t want to be told to care about the history of the music.. or to look at it in that way. That’s where the defensiveness comes from. I think it depends where you’re coming from when you’re listening. There are “hipsters” discovering books every day, when the rest of us have been reading all our lives.

  • Pingback: On White People and the Blues « NOMARTYR()

  • Brad M

    Hey I agree with your posting.. But a related and yet sort of unrelated question, do you think by a white person playing the blues they are taking the mic away from a black person? I’m an anti-racist white person and one thing that I often face (not in terms of music) is this conundrum of sorts that I as a white male activist within many movements that are belonging to people of color, I am “supposedly” taking the power away in spite of my scrutinizing white and peers of color who do not understand the gravity and pervasiveness of racial issues in today’s society.. Whether I agree with people who say this, I don’t know. But I found this post to be quite interesting and would be curious to hear your (VC) input on the matter.

    • Sarah

      Anti-racism is a practice, not an identity. If you understand that you are privileged as a white man, you definitely should be shutting up and listening and not taking a leadership role, because white men in society always get to have the power and leadership. You have to be careful not to re-create the power structure when you’re trying to help. On the other hand, you can help by talking to other white men about race.

  • T

    I like to use W. E. B. DuBois veil analogy. In the United States, Black people live behind a metaphoric veil separating us from ‘dominant’ society. While we can never completely come from behind the veil, many white tourism often will slip under the veil to party a little bit before going back to their side of the it. It is this ability to cross within both realms that strikes many of us as bothersome.

  • ronnie

    Clearly it’s easy to understand that Willy Dixon wrote “I’m a Hootchie Cootchie Man” because he was so distraught over Jim Crow Laws And other oppressions .

  • Sarah

    This is a lovely piece. Definitely going to start following you. Thanks. :)

  • Guest

    So because I’m white, I couldn’t possibly know the history of blues and jazz and that Eric Clapton is a phony? And if I do happen to know the history of Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Son House, Fats Waller, Fats Domino, Blind Willie Johnson and the Congo Square, it wouldn’t matter because I couldn’t possibly understand their plight because I’m white? I think you’re marginalizing white people. I listen to jazz, blues, symphony, all sorts of latin, arabic, afro-beat. Honestly, if white people didn’t listen to jazz or the blues, no one would. And then you wouldn’t have anything to fuss about.

    • Sarah

      You can’t marginalize white people, because white people overall have more power and privilege in society. White people are not racially profiled, Stopped and Frisked, or sent to prison for being white. Although there are many poor white people, the average white family has a net worth close to $100k while the average black family has around $11k.

      If you enjoy jazz and blues and appreciate its origins, maybe consider donating to a grassroots black-led community organization…
      http://www.dailydot.com/opinion/reverse-racism-doesnt-exist/

  • Taylor Conrad

    Yeah, this is garbage.