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

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Tim K:
I'm extremely late to the party, but then I just heard about Corey Harris' post through an old episode of Joe Dappa's Blues podcast ( And can't resist commenting.

Honestly, I find it deeply saddening to read through most of this thread. And it makes me question reality a bit – did I even read the article as most of the people writing here? Corey Harris said there are white musicians who play the blues well and that white musicians just need to make sure to sing blues in their own voice and out of who they are, rather than as a pale imitation of black blues musicians, while giving credit to the source.

And you know, this is exactly what a lot of innovative white musicians did, from Jimmie Rodgers to Jack White. Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash both played blues in their own way, without pretending they were from black culture, and I imagine that's why Corey honours them by playing their songs.

Blues is Black music just like classical music is European music. Of course people from other backgrounds can play it – it's kinda hilarious to hear people cite black opera singers like this contradicts Corey's point – but to deny the background, history, and culture that produced it is silly. Charlie Patton couldn't have written or even conceived of an opera aria anymore than Puccini could've written or conceived of a blues song. (And personally, I'd take Patton any day.)

What's the point of loving blues music if you don't appreciate the struggle it came out of? Or understand that the struggle continues?

I'm sure most of us would like to think that if we had been alive in the 1920s or '40s, and Blind Willie Johnson or Howlin' Wolf had spoken up about the racism they faced, we would have been sympathetic and supportive. Even if that would have meant re-examining some of our assumptions, prejudices, and actions. Here Corey Harris speaks up today about racism in blues music and he's mostly met with defensiveness, personal attacks, and mischaracterizations of what he said. (And why would black people want to be part of the blues music scene if the message from white audiences is still "shut and play" if they dare speak up about racism?)

Music isn't universal – at least not, in terms of communicating the same meaning to everyone. A song by Charlie Patton can never mean to me – a white kid from the suburbs of Canada – what it meant to him, or to a black sharecropper in the South in the early 20th century. What's beautiful is that it still means something to me.

What's beautiful about the blues – what's beautiful about any music– is it can create empathy in me for someone different from me. It can make me want to emphathize more. It can make me aware of their existence in a visceral way, it can make me appreciate who they are even if I don't understand them, it can make me curious to learn more, to try to understand them so that I can understand where this amazing music came from.

At least, that's what I thought. This thread makes me question my faith in music and my faith in the blues.

I do hope that in the years since this was posted, some of what Corey said (and 'joebanjo') and what Black Lives Matter has shown has sunk in some more. Who knows?


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