Goosing up the African song

Men with broken hearts For years after the end of slavery, spiritual music remained in the hearts and minds of freed slaves. They performed it in their newly established neighbourhoods in the Mississippi Delta, Louisiana, Texas and Georgia. Blues embodied the aftermath of a life lived in sadness. It was a time of identity search and the sense of loss. Freed slaves found themselves thrown about in a strange world where they still had to make something out of nothing. It was a world where oppression and inhumanity for blacks ruled supreme. This brought about the melancholy in blues music. From the communities in the early emerged groups and individual who performed in their neighbourhoods. With time, each region developed its own type of blues. Some of the names of the blues came from the types of instruments used. Traditional country blues was the shade of the blue rural Mississippi Delta and the Piedmont, while jump blues – founded by Louis Jordan – involved the swing dance. This became the foundation of “Rhythm and Blues”. A piano version of blues got the name boogie-woogie and Chicago blues were an electrified version of the Delta blues, with the cool blues being a sophisticated piano-based version. There are various other forms such as West Coast blues, Texas blues, Memphis Blues Kansas blues and British blues which was more rock. Some of the black musicians who pushed blues music up were John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, Charlie Patton, Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson. In fact, Hooker is said to be the first artist to electrify the blues, and he brought in drums and added a piano in the 1940s. Blues was regarded as music for blacks until the early 1960s when whites heard the music being played and, like Elvis Presley, “goosed it up”. Among the earliest white musicians who “goosed up” the African song were Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, the Rolling Stones, and Canned Heat among many others. For the first time in history, music brought together both whites and blacks. In those early days of segregation, black and white audiences were kept apart by a rope but by the end of the show, the rope would have been ignored with all races dancing together. Part of the goosing up meant that the blues music wasn’t supposed to maintain its form. So it was transformed to fit in with the white audience. Before dealing with the whites who turned slave music into big business, it would make much sense if we look at whether people from privileged classes created by the system that dehumanized blacks can and should sing blues. And if they did, since music is a culture and a way of a people’s life, whose culture did they push and for whose benefit? This debate has been going on in some quarters with people asking who “qualifies” to sing the blues, and if suffering and pain are ingredients needed to inspire blues musicians. American poet, writer and political activist Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) in his seminal study of Afro-American music titled “Blues People (Negro Music in White America)”, notes that the idea of white guys playing blues music is a “violent contradiction”. “The idea of a white blues singer seems an even more violent contradiction of terms than the idea of a middle class blues singer.” Paul Oliver too in his book, “Thirty years of Blues Commentary: Blues off the Record,” notes his concern that blues music lost its value when “the young white college copyists” took it up. “It is unlikely that (the blues) will survive through the imitations of the young white college copyists, the ‘urban blues singers’ whose relation to the blues is of the ‘trad’ jazz band to the music of New Orleans; sterile and derivative. “The bleak prospect is that the blues probably has no real future; that folk music that it is, it served its purpose and flourished whilst it had meaning in the Negro community,” Oliver writes. The late Ralph Joseph Gleason, a respected Afro-American music critic and writer, does not mince his words when it comes to whether whites can be blues musicians. “Blues is a black man’s music and whites diminish it at best or steal it at worst. “In any case, they have no moral right to use it,” he is quoted as saying in the Journal of Aesthetics’ and Art Criticism (1994). Actor Wesley Snipes, as Woody Harrelson in the movie “White Men Can’t Jump”, adds: “You can listen to Jimi (Hendrix), but you can’t hear Jimi.” This is in apparent reference to the fact that although a white man can sing the blues, they lack the soul and the emotions to deliver convincing acts. Needless to say, blues music has undergone several changes to suit the type of market and the audience. The white musician has also refused to give in. We have seen musicians such as Johnny Otis, Steve Ray, Lou Ann Barton, Mike Bloomfield, Roy Rogers, Steve Ray Vaughan and Charlie Musselwhite hitching onto the blues band wagon. To conclude this segment, country musician Hank Williams’ lyrics of his song “Men with Broken Hearts” and that of Joe Smith’s “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” seem to justify why whites too can be blues musicians. Smith’s sings: “You’ve never walked in that man’s shoes/Or saw things through his eyes/Or stood and watched with helpless hands/While the heart inside you dies.” Williams croons: “Help your brother along the road/ No matter where you start/For the God that made you made them, too/These men with broken hearts.” These were Elvis Presley’s most favourite songs during performances. • Next week we look at white blues musicians who goosed up the African song.

August 2011
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