The Unwound Third > Jam Session

Get off my lawn? Corey Harris' blog post "Can White People Play the Blues?"

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Prof Scratchy:
One does, therefore one can.

banjochris:
My biggest objection to that piece is that it's sloppily written -- I'm still not sure what his point is. Blues is black music, yes, and white people should sing in their own voice, but then anything white people sing in the blues genre will be a sorry imitation of the real thing, so don't bother. Huh?

Some of his points about "guitar heroes" and so forth I agree with. But there's an awful lot of BS mixed in there too.

Mr.OMuck:
My response on his blog:
(sorry for the length)
Several points.
What if in this article the word Black were replaced with German and we were not talking about Blues but 17th through 19th century German Baroque and Classical music? What if someone made the claim that this music couldn't really be understood
by anyone who wasn't German and hadn't experienced the particular culture of Germany during those periods even though that era's culture had changed through time, enough to make it almost unrecognizable? What if the article went on to label the playing of that music by Black artists like Andre Watts, or Leontyne Price as somehow inauthentic because they were Black, or Yoyo Ma because he is Chinese?
What if it criticized singers like Paul Robeson, Marion Anderson, Leontyne Price, Jessie Norman, Katherine Battle, for proper pronunciation of Italian, German or Russian lyrics because doing so was not expressing their true voice, i.e. not giving clues as to their ethnicity?
One could argue ,as you have eloquently, that the SOUND of an artist's singing is an essential component of the music and not an afterthought, and therefore in order to make Verdi sound the way Verdi intended his music to sound, the singer is obligated to stay true to the composers intent by shaping the sounds according to how they were conceived.
If a White artist were foolish enough to try and play the work of Sleepy John Estes for example, one of the greatest vocalists ever, would he or she not be obligated to try to reproduce the sound of his vocals as closely as they could? Since his vocal inflections, timing, accent, and timbre are essential, defining qualities of his work?
The Blues, for better or worse has gone from being an obscure local music to being a recognized part of universal human culture more quickly than any other Art movement in history as far as I can recall. Has something been lost in the process? Undoubtedly. Many if not all of the original motivating forces which created it have changed in their particulars or have vanished along with a million other cultural behaviors and artifacts of the same initial period.
We are now two or three generations distant from the original creators of this music. I think you'd admit that even someone as gifted and studiously committed, and Black, like yourself can't quite get the "thing" that inhabits this music like the original players did. Neither can Jerron Paxton or Dom Flemons, close as they come, and much as I think they're great.
So you can view the participation of American Whites, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Arab, Italian, Israeli, Jamaican, French, German players as an example of cultural imperialism, and not be entirely off base, or, as the fabulous and extremely unlikely triumph of the music and culture of the most downtrodden, disenfranchised and brutalized segment of the American population of its time.
Either way the Blues has started to morph into what can only be described as a "Classical" music
with an established core repertoire, and the equivalent of conservatories, albeit pay as you go online ones, to teach the basic guitar skills needed to play this music somewhat credibly.
I agree wholeheartedly that to ignore singing is to miss the point of the music almost entirely, but clearly disagree that Whites, Asians and others should not seek to reproduce the vocal sounds of
the original players. I believe to do so is to disrespect the intentions of the original artists. Like it or not the original records have become something akin to scores and as people attempting to play or reproduce this music it is incumbent upon us to sing the vocal parts as close to the originals as possible. An impossible task.
Behind all this is a labor issue. Do White people intrude on Black artists getting a fair share or even the Lion's share of what little money is devoted to this music? I think its fair to say yes.
Its a problem. I personally stopped playing out for many years when I realized that Larry Johnson whom I knew from when I studied with Rev. Davis, and with whom I was friendly and whose playing I admired ,could not get enough work to survive. That was in the early seventies. The situation has somewhat self corrected due to audience preference for seeing modern Black musicians play this music rather than a White player. As far as how I choose to sing, well, Rev. Davis called me one of his boys and a right sportin' Gitar Player..so I answer to an even HIGHER AUTHORITY!

Lastfirstface:
I guess what I was struggling with while reading this piece is how little room he leaves for cultural interchange in his history and understanding of African American music. When a New Orleans brass band broke into "Didn't He Ramble" were they playing "black music" or "white music"? How about when Charlie Poole sang it? In mutating from a version of The Derby Ram into an entirely new song, did it become the cultural property of one group or race? How does the white 19th century parlor guitar tradition relate to blues guitar in terms of pieces like Spanish Fandango? I'm not sure Buddy Bolden needed Sousa's  permission to rag out a version of "Stars and Stripes Forever."

Blues and jazz are black music, and there's no denying that, but they didn't come into existence and flourish in a vacuum. I think in some ways it does a disservice to the music to ignore the ways in which white reaction and participation affected the path and development of these forms of black music. I think its possible to do so while also acknowledging the deep-seeded racism in our countries cultural history and the tendency for white musicians to appropriate and strip away black forms of expression.

islandgal:
Why does Corey teach the blues to non black people?

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