The blues’ influence on rock ‘n’ roll is well documented. Likewise, the Rolling Stones’ reverence for blues music is equally chronicled. Therefore, the compilation Confessin’ the Blues makes sense. Attempting to refocus the public’s attention onto the bluesmen who inspired the legendary rock band, the album is composed of classic blues tracks curated by the Rolling Stones. Part of the album’s proceeds benefit Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation, an organization devoted to promoting blues music in addition to preserving the genre’s cultural heritage. Despite the charitable donations, Confessin’ the Blues is unimaginative and reaffirms problematic race and gender narratives. The album is simply a re-release of classic blues songs using the Rolling Stones’ brand name to repackage the blues artists.
Confessin’ the Blues compiles the musical contributions of eminent bluesmen including Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, Elmore James, Otis Rush, Big Bill Broonzy, Magic Sam, and Robert Johnson. Throughout the Rolling Stones’ legacy, each member earnestly professed their reverence for the blues genre. These blues artists’ influence on the Stones’ instrumentation, lyrics, and vocals has been paramount. Confessin’ the Blues fittingly opens with Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ Stone“, the track from which the British rock band adopted their moniker. Notably, Confessin’ the Blues differs from the Stones’ 2016 release Blue & Lonesome, an album of blues covers. This compilation reprints the work of the original musicians, the Stones themselves do not contribute any new or old tracks. The album’s cover, however, was drawn by guitarist Ronnie Wood.
This project chronicles a vibrant cultural history but would benefit from contextualizing the album’s selections. The liner notes do include brief write-ups by music journalist Colin Larkin. Yet Confessin’ the Blues fails to extrapolate the blues’ and Stones’ overlapping and distinct cultural contributions. In the BBC documentary, Blues Britannia: Can Blue Men Sing the Whites?, Keith Richards addresses the connection between the band, the cover, and Howlin’ Wolf. He mentions that with the popularity of their cover “Little Red Rooster”, the Rolling Stones’ wanted to increase Howlin’ Wolf’s stardom. Confessin’ the Blues lacks this type of contextualization. The album subsequently comes across as a generic blues mixtape with the Rolling Stones acting as the connective, albeit superfluous, theme.
Noticeably and problematically, the compilation only includes male performers. It’s hard to believe the Stones were not equally influenced by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Bessie Smith, Queen Victoria Spivey, and Big Mama Thornton. Turn on almost any Memphis Minnie track, and the overlap with the Rolling Stones’ early music is indisputable. Her guitar playing also directly influenced Chuck Berry, who is featured twice on the compilation despite being extraneously connected to blues music. Blue & Lonesome also excluded the contributions of women artists. Perhaps this reveals a larger problem for the Rolling Stones in addition to situating these two albums as popular cultural artifacts reaffirming androcentric discourses. Confessin’ the Blues is regressive as it puts women blues artists under erasure.
Arguably, the Rolling Stones are using their prominence to re-engage an interest in blues music. Brandishing the compilation with the Stones’ logotype will certainly attract a new audience to blues music. More so, the financial contributions to Dixon’s charity are commendable, especially if we ignore the apparent white saviorism. Yet the blues don’t need the Rolling Stones to ensure its importance. The blues’ cultural relevance is maintained by the influence of respected artists including John Lee Hooker or Muddy Waters; both featured prominently on the album. Furthermore, Confessin’ the Blues reaffirms the problematic racial injustices proliferating popular culture.
The album centralizes white men’s perspective of blues while marginalizing the original African-American artists. This certainly isn’t the Rolling Stones’ first run at facing this type of criticism. As early as 1965, poet Leroi Jones pondered the difference between the Stones and Minstrels while in 1973 Margo Jefferson wrote the subversive article “Ripping Off Black Music” for Harper’s Magazine. Both Jones and Jefferson condemned the appropriation of black culture and censured the Stones for reaping capital gain from commercializing black artists. Confessin’ the Blues is no different, however now, the misdeed is masked as a charitable homage rather than overt cultural appropriation. It’s alarming to identify the same misconduct 45 years later.
The charitable donations and the introduction of blues to a new audience demonstrate some of the importance of Confessin’ the Blues. In general, the album highlights the importance of blues music, but next time, remove the Rolling Stones from the conversation. Popular culture must allow these formidable blues musicians to stand on their own merit and legacy without leaning on white men’s legacy.