Do White Folks Get the Blues?

If Bessie Smith had killed some white people, she wouldn’t have needed that music.
— Amiri Baraka, Dutchman

Recently, I’ve had no less than four different people, in widely varying contexts, describe their alleged appreciation of music in the following way: “I love all kinds of music, except rap”. All of these folk were white. All of them basically people of good will, not a closet cross-burner in the bunch. All of them are representative of the history of white cluelessness about the cultural influences of American music. The fourth time I heard this caused me to break down and sputter that “rap is all kinds of music”, evoking little more than a blank stare for my effort to remind that all music is a ghostly chain of influences, voices long dead and yet rhyming.

The typical white music lover of a certain age probably does like the beat, bass, and production values of most current hip hop. What they may not love is the anger that seethes in the rhymes, the sometimes withering and relentless critique of white pretensions, the rhetorical violence against anyone or anything that affronts black manhood. Some may joke about the tendency of hip-hop superstars to prove how “street” they are. For many whites, however, the truth is that there is way too much street in the rhymes and rhythms of hip-hop. Go on and joke about 50 Cent and his “street cred”, but there are plenty of white folks who will shut him off, not because he doesn’t have enough cred, but because he puts too much South Jamaica Queens in their face and the anger that goes with it.

My acquaintances’ attitude toward rap raises some questions about the relationship of white folks to black music in America. One could argue, of course, that essentially all American music owes much to the African experience in America, the greatest majority to the African experience in the American South. Rap is not, after all, the original music of black anger and alienation. There is anger in the blues, anger mixed with the sadness of loss and the sadness of history. Lots of blues folk will argue that you actually have to be African American to really sing the blues, that its more than a musical style . . . it’s the long, sad wail of Africa in America.

Interestingly the blues-lovers I know, and I know a good Baker’s dozen, are, with one or two exceptions, white as chalk. I suspect, on almost wholly anecdotal evidence but I still think its true, that a survey of blues aficionados would uncover the fact that most of the audience for Charley Patton, Son House, Bukkha White, Mississippi John Hurt, and Howlin’ Wolf are white, male, and urban with some level of post-graduate education. Francis Davis, in his excellent The History of the Blues: the Roots, the Music, the People (Da Capo, September 2003) notes the irony that many of the most dedicated blues purists, those who hate the use of the amplifier the way a 14th century Inquisitor hated heresy, are themselves white.

The explanation for the phenomenon lies close at hand. Historically, most bluesmen and women depended solely on the endorsement and support of white agents, folklorists, and record companies. Indeed, it’s easy to find example after example of blues greats who had their heyday chanting up their woes in the work camps of the Mississippi Delta, green and cotton-rich east Texas, or the hard-knocks Carolina Piedmont, only to drop out of sight for the better part of the 20th century. Frequently we know about these genius’s only because of the work of Alan Lomax and other white folks with tape recorders.

Bukkha White best represents this experience. Born in Mississippi in 1906, Booker T. Washington White spent most of his teens and twenties riding the rails between Mississippi, St. Louis and Chicago. According to Bill Dahl, White supported himself as much by boxing professionally and pitching in baseball’s Negro Leagues as by his music. Spending at least a few years at Parchman prison, White did make a series of recordings for the Chicago label Vocalion. Bukkha never became a star and, following a stint in the navy in World War II, he settled in Memphis where he worked as a day laborer and played local juke joints. Oh yes, and he did provide some inspiration and tutelage for his cousin, Riley B. King, who had fled to Memphis after wrecking his bosses tractor. Bukkha reportedly helped Riley, who would became known to the world as B.B. King, with his first musical gig.

Bukkha may have been lost to us almost completely had it not been for some white students at Berkeley who found some of his rare recording and sought him out. Writing to Aberdeen, Mississippi in 1963, their letter fortunately fell into the hands of one of White’s relatives who sent it on to Memphis. This rediscovery of the great bluesman eventually led to a new set of recording, performances at the American Folk Blues Festival, and even a European concert tour.

If white folks don’t really get the blues, they certainly preserve it, record it, and put together and attend festivals where the music is rightfully celebrated. Is this another example of “Love and Theft” as Eric Lott and Bob Dylan put it? How can a music born out of the roughhness and sadness of the African American experience become anything but something sentimental and inauthentic in white ears? At least part of the answer is simply that the blues, majestic in its lowdown sadness, evokes themes universal in the human experience. White people have hard times too, after all.

At the same time, the power of the blues (and its other country cousins like barrelhouse music and hillbilly music) comes from its historical particularity, born as it was from the suffering of poor people in hard times. The blues comes weighed down with a history, whereas so much contemporary pop has an essential placelessness and homelessness about it. The background of blues gives muscle and sinew to some of the central themes of this music; loss as central to the human condition, suffering as the key to wisdom, the sense of being a pilgrim upon the sad and lonely earth.

These are, of course, largely biblical metaphors, images borrowed from the Jewish and Christian tradition. This is part of the blue’s particularity. The blues, we would do well to remember, did not come from a trendy record store in the east village where collectors gather, or even in a juke joint on Beale Street. Ultimately, it came from a people who read the bible, not as a literary text, but as a living word of wild prophecy and frightening warnings, a collection of threats and promises. This sense of sacredness led to Bukkha White looking across the inhuman flatness of Delta and singing, “I am in the Heavenly Way”, and then giving in to the murdersome violence that would soon have him singing his “Parchman Farm Blues”. It was born in the chasm between the church and the juke-joint, the paradox of being a soul with a body, of loving both Jesus and “an evil cross-eyed woman.”

The blues then, belongs not only to the African American South, but grew out of the sacred South, the so-called Bible belt that embraced black and white and created the biracial gospel music tradition. Out of this world where the soul stood naked before God in the cotton fields came bluesmen like Blind Willie Johnson, whose rhythmically creaking old shack of a voice sang bluesey gospel and mixed an earthy language of southern sinfulness with hopes for redemption. This world created the Reverend Gary Davis, born in Laurens, South Carolina in 1896. Davis had a religious conversion in the early 1930s, receiving his ordination as a Baptist preacher in 1935. He knew his Bible but he also knew that other side of the southern experience, the devil who met Robert Johnson at the crossroads. Davis sang about those “cocaine blues” and how lust and evil and transcendence could intermingle even in a soul seeking redemption. This was a music born in confrontation with Christ and the Devil at a lonely crossroads.

The context of the blues suggests that it’s a music that offers much to both black and white listeners, that it’s a music that opens up our imagination to a social world, and a worldview, mostly lost. Certainly this has become a lost world to most listeners of American popular music. Africa gave America rock ‘n roll and yet popular “music” has become a series of rote syncopations that Ryan Seacrest reminds us that we enjoy. Top 40 radio too often gives us music that doesn’t know God but has never really met the devil either, a music too tepid and thin to even sing properly about lust and desire. It has the same powerful backbeat that came from the shores of the Gambia to the plantations of the South and to the streets of Harlem and Memphis and Chicago’s south side. But, as the Reverend Davis might say to us while he thumps his worn bible, “you have ears but you cannot hear”. The words, if not the music scaffolding that holds them up, are without history and without blood.

Maybe it’s the emptiness of much top 40 music even helps explains why white folks decide to get the blues, to learn all they can about a music born from a historical experience of a people rather than the abstract paradigms of sentiment. So, long live the white blues-lover. Most of them have a passion for the music because they have a passion for understanding a world so different from their own.

And I will light a candle to Bessie Smith and hope she hunts down the next paleface who says they “love all kinds of music, except rap”.