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Do White Folks Get the Blues?

W. Scott Poole

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.

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".

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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