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September 3, 2010 / VC

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.

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.

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  1. Hugues / Sep 7 2010 10:28 am

    There is a lot of middle class black people that use to listen a lot of blues music (and still listen to this day) in there living room with their families but of course they can more directly relate to the experience that you find in the lyrics and in the feeling of blues music.

    But it’s not because i can relax to a John Lee Hooker or a Mance Lipscomb song that i can’t understand or feel that thoses musicians went trough a lot.

    I think that blues music is a testemony of hard black life experience in the U.S. but it’s also about life experience in general and all the feelings and pains that goes with it, it means that all kind of people can relate to it.

    It’s music for mature ears, it’s a music of intimity but sometimes it’s also a dance-music.

    In the 60′s the folk scene that was full of young white middle class people helped a lot to make re-discover a lot of forgotten old blues artists like Son House, Mississippi John Hurt and other great blues-men.

    Music travels and the emotions that goes with music travels too, when something in the music grabs you, you don’t heave to analyse it, or to feel guilty for some social or race differences.

    But i do understand about what you’re saying, it’s like reggae music, people don’t know that guys like Louis Armstrong or Dizzy Gillespie who were smilin’ most of the times on picture covers were also wearin’ guns all the times.

  2. Hugues / Sep 7 2010 10:28 am

    it’s like reggae music or jazz music *

  3. Chad / Sep 12 2010 2:23 pm

    I think there is a big difference between certain white people putting an Ipod on in a resturaunt or bar or any public place and shuffling up a “mixed” playlist that happens to include alot of enjoyable black music i.e. blues jazz reggae perhaps mixed into stuff deemed more white.I do find it inappropriate for certain white people to put together a black themed based playlist in their black themed resturaunt/bar in a historically black cultured neighborhood that they most likely did not grow up in.It seems like a form of black exploitation.Where as the ipod on shuffle seems more like the appreciation(although the white person may not actually understand the pain or messages or the history or the depth to anywhere near the fullest capacity)of blues and other historically signifigant black music.
    And of course white musicians playing music made by black people has brought more attention to black musicians.But thats a double edge sword because it just proves how Effed up things are.It shouldnt have taken white people playing black music to make black music less obscure.Also,as much as that did bring the original black artists to the surface,how many people to this day(casual music listeners)believe that the rolling stones wrote time is on my side(to state just one)ALOT!Despite there intentions(whatever they are) white people still get alot of credit for the greatness done by black people.Which further illistrates my views on the themed resturaunt.
    Now.I loveeeeeeee ALOT of music.Music from everywhere!I like many forms of black music.Listening to certain Nina Simone songs will make me cry uncontollably.But so what?does that mean I can relate to her at all???I can only try to understand the message as a biography of her life experiences and her hard times and good times.It is not about me.Its about her.
    That being said I think I would find it sad if I were to walk into a public black themed venue owned by a white person where a white person was using an artist like Nina Simone to portray that they somehow fell like its providing themself with a cultureally black experience and even CREATING one!
    I dont mean this to be confrontational but you should interview the owner of the resturaunt.

    • the black scientist / Sep 14 2010 7:03 am

      Word! The restaurant situation blew my mind… you’ve illuminated for me some of what is so troublesome about appropriation :)

  4. db / Sep 14 2010 6:40 am

    This is a powerful piece and thanks for writing it. One of the problems with the conversations around the issues is that we want to be able to connect our own lives to the world around us, and of course the blues is a prime example of that impulse, both for the creator and the listener. But the social context that springs a cultural form or genre or style is much bigger than all of our individual experiences – it was there before we were born and in the case of civil rights it will, despite anyone’s best efforts, be there after we depart. Our own responses to a track might be similarly heartfelt, but still totally different at the sociological level. Or, we might share an emotion but have radically different reasons for that feeling. To be in a privileged position means you can ignore that difference and concentrate on the feeling – but many do not have that luxury.

    • the black scientist / Sep 14 2010 7:06 am

      Extremely well-put. Thank you for reading :)

  5. Chaz / Oct 16 2010 9:12 pm

    Really good read. You ever see the ‘Blueshammer’ scene from ‘Ghost World?’

    • the black scientist / Oct 22 2010 6:06 pm

      Thank you. Quite glad you enjoyed it. I haven’t seen that movie – I’ll add it to my list.

  6. TAT / Oct 22 2010 5:27 pm

    “the consumption of black pain as product” –dope line. dope post. good shit.

  7. Enjoy the music / May 21 2011 4:15 pm

    I disagree, all music is made for listening pleasure. People don’t have to have experience in the blues to appreciate it. Mayhaps people just listen to the blues (or any genre) for the sake of the beat, rhythm, solos, vocals, etc. Who are you to tell people what is and what is not an acceptable reason for listening to music? Enjoy!

  8. Hand / Dec 1 2011 8:26 am

    I agree with the post above.

  9. damon / Jan 27 2012 6:24 am

    white people don understand our music, perhaps the greatest form of music in history. blues speaks directly from the soul. white people music is rather bland and dull,
    thats why they listen to the blues, hiphop, rap, jazz and rock n roll which is originally black too!
    what music do white people got? nothing. thats why they imitate our music

  10. 0_0 / Feb 17 2012 7:12 pm

    For the post above your ignorance and stupidty is sickening and you need to evolve.People can use culture and experience to create music but i agree with the couple posts above about music being created to be shared, who are you to even question if it is social acceptable for someone to listen to certain genre’s of music based on their colour. I know and agree some music started off and emerged (blues obviously) through negative history but the purpose of some music is to relate…make one feel better and typically enjoy. Maybe this white person can relate to having had pain in there life or just likes the skill and talent thats playing. . Yes granted rock music evolved from the blues but has evolved from a number of various trends and social demographics including all races and is not even remotely the same now as it was then. Lets not forget classical and pop music as well. When I see a black punk, indie or heavy metal fan or black family listening to opera or classical I don’t think for one second and question if that person should be listening to that in a specific social setting or due to historical value that piece of music has. If someone listens to a piece of music that has specific historically content and enjoy it let them be. If you start getting that cynical your letting underlying prejudice affect your cognitions, even if you don’t mean too. All cultures and races bring something to the world and it’s that sharing is how we’ve gotten so far.

    Feel happy not just white but other races enjoy blues, would you feel so funny if a dark asian listened instead? Your starting line to your friend “You know how white people will come home after work and turn on the blues” instantly suggests you have a problem with white people and blues and for someone who writes so well and articulate its a shame you feel uncomfortable. In our more liberal society you shouldnt have felt bad in the restaurant. That person played that song to enjoy the positives of Bessie Smith while you could only feel negative. That should tell you something.

    your topics are interesting none the least.

    • VC / Feb 18 2012 8:43 am

      The main thing I think is missing from your post is an acknowledgement of racism and how that changes everything, including the history of blues music in particular, and who gets to nonchalantly “enjoy” music with no other obligations. I think it’s a mistake to declare that all music is simply for everyone’s enjoyment when there are clear histories of violence and exploitation attached to the development of certain music. Let’s not act ignorant.

      • Hugues / Feb 23 2013 6:44 pm

        Read Peter Guralnick and you will see if white people don’t know nothing about african-american music…

      • Mike Doss / Jan 20 2014 6:45 pm

        Oh, not only does he acknowledge racism, he gives a perfect example of it. What “obligations” do you suggest we attach to music? Do you think we should drink from separate fountains of musical expression? Or do you just want white folks to have to sit at the back of the Blues bus? We still have a long way to go, some of us, it seems.

  11. Max Millwood / Jan 23 2013 12:27 am

    Janis Joplin
    Stevie Ray Vaughn
    Joe Cocker
    The Allman Brothers
    Eric Clapton
    Jeff Beck
    Delbert McClinton
    Davy Knowles

    Blues is a poor southern thing dude. ’nuff racist posts like these and listen to the music

    • Hugues / Feb 24 2013 11:09 am

      Have you heard about a group called Booker T & The Mg’s ?
      Is it white music or black music to you FUCKHONKIES ?

  12. Hugues / Feb 24 2013 11:11 am

    There is another group called Sly & The Family Stone, so is it not black music ? Because there is white people in the group ? And what about Steve Cropper from the Mg’s who co-wroted many songs with Otis Redding ?

  13. Hugues / Feb 24 2013 11:20 am

    soul/jazz/r’n’b artists like Ray Charles, Candi Staton and others were listenning country music as much as blues or r’n’b music when they were kids.
    One of the first hits by Solomon Burke is “Just Out Of Reach” it is a country music cover.

  14. Kerby Hendricks / Aug 1 2013 3:10 am

    Music is to be enjoyed by anyone and everyone. I’m Black American. I discovered, and became interested in blues music about 15 years ago while randomly channel surfing. I happened to come across a PBS episode of a miniseries covering the genre. As I listened to the tale, and Music of Robert Johnson, I fell in love with the old acoustic delta blues.
    I’m 40 years old, which means I remember a time before hip hop. I have always loved guitar music, and grew up a fan of some of the British Invasion bands (though they were way before my time) and was a huge hip hop fan. My favorite songs and British bands were the blues influenced bands like Cream, The Stones, and Zepplin. I hated what was called “blues” when I was growing up. Particularly Stevie Ray Vaughn ( great guitarist, just didn’t like the oveall structure of the music) . I now know that I generally prefer acoustic country blues. No offense to BB King, or Clapton or the modern guys because they are great. To me however, the context of the old country blues is the poverty, powerlessness, superstition ( Robert Johnsons “hellhound on my trail”, or Skip James “devil got my woman”) . I began to study the music, lyrics, and the Delta itself to understand the people and the times. I began to understand the hopelessness of a man who might be forced to work on building a levee (Son House “levee camp moan”) and as I began to claim the blues as my own, I admit that a certain amount of jealousy and sadness began to overtake me. Jealousy that it took British folks and white folk musicians to rediscover Black musicians long forgotten by their own people, and sadness over the lack of knowledge that I and many of my peers had of our own musical past. Sadness, that the guitar skills of blues playing had been largely forgotten by American Black folks. I am very thankful for the White musicians who have preserved this art for me to learn, and pass on to my kids. The Blues is for everyone. Skip James, Robert Johnson, Son House, thank you for sharing your art with us. I promise to pass along what I know to my kids, and if God is willing, to the generations after that.

  15. Hugues / Feb 24 2013 2:52 pm

    Iam not talking about so called blue eyed soul singers…you are ignorant…oh and by the way rock’n’roll is not only a “white music”, first rock’n’roll artist were black : Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, …

  16. VC / Feb 24 2013 3:34 pm

    Had I paid closer attention to this person’s handle I wouldn’t have approved their first comment. I don’t think they’re really here to engage. I think I might delete their comments. Sorry you’ve had to deal with it!

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