The African American blues was often imitated and appropriated by white musicians and fans. It didn’t hurt him.
The reactions to his essay were different. “Can white people play the blues?”, Corey Harris asked himself on his blog in 2015 – only to immediately formulate a negative answer. The African-American blues and reggae musician from Denver, Colorado, based himself on seemingly simple considerations: “Music is the voice of a culture,” he said. “Separate the two and the music can never be the same.” Just as klezmer is the music of Jews, the blues belongs to the culture of African-Americans.
Harris also resumed the argumentation of authoritative civil rights activists. Frantz Fanon had once declared that the blues was unimaginable without oppression and racism. But since white blues performers were spared such experiences, Harris concluded that they were denied authentic expression. They could indeed play the blues, similar to Chinese in a mariachi band. But their music is of little importance for the blues culture. Their singing, which deviates from the actual slang or imitates it ridiculously, makes this particularly clear. If you want to read more about Blues, click here: https://www.theguardian.com/music/blues
Corey Harris reaped some verbal hugs for his defense of the black blues. But there was also criticism. On the one hand white blues musicians felt alienated. But the answers of African-American colleagues were much more poisonous: Some chalked it up to the educated middle-class milieu from which the musician came: As a Northern bourgeois, he could certainly not be the spokesman for the true blues. And what about the right to play reggae as an American? others mocked.
The discussion around Corey Harris’ blog is exemplary for the recent controversies about so-called cultural appropriation: opinion leaders from various minorities are fighting against the appropriation and exploitation of their cultural resources by the majority and the mainstream, especially in the USA. Their discourse seems like a somewhat ill-considered response to current slogans from the ranks of culturalists, neo-nationalists or identity activists. In the case of the blues and African-American music, however, the problem has been discussed for a long time. And often ironically, it was the white blues-understanders who wanted to imagine the real blues musician with dark skin only.
From a relaxed distance, one can say that such disputes have never harmed a tradition. As long as jazz and rock were controversial, they enjoyed a dynamism and relevance that is missing today. And the same applies to the blues, which repeatedly came into conflict with different influences and positions.
The oppositions did not only run along the neuralgic border between black and white. The secular blues was always in competition with spiritual spiritual and gospel. And it split early into rural and urban branches. The blues queens of the 1920s, who allowed themselves to be accompanied by jazz combos, were replaced in the following decade by singing guitarists from the rural south. Later there were conflicts between followers of a purely acoustic or electrified instrumentarium. And to this day one may argue about whether blues is a folk music that serves primarily for entertainment and dance, or whether it is an art music that gravitates around feeling and ability.
No copyright for cultures
Who would go through the whole range of such cultural, social and musical contrasts and always make the “only right” choice aesthetically – would he find the only true Blues in the end? The idea seems absurd. What is revealing, however, is that on this path the sphere of the social and cultural would thin out more and more until one would end up with a few authentic bluesmen. Their true work could now indeed be protected against plagiarism, appropriation, pollution: thanks to copyright law. But this is just not possible for larger groups and cultures.
So the tradition in the blues has been formed from many different influences and perspectives. Individual contributions and tendencies possibly blended into one essence in the middle. But the culture remains open to the outside world. Outside the museum and archive it manifests itself in dynamic momentary manifestations and combinations – no less susceptible to appropriation and dilution than to new impulses and inspirations.
The sensitivity of black musicians to white interference and encroachments is certainly understandable. The history of Afro-American music has been marked on the one hand by discrimination in the music business, and on the other hand by persiflage, plagiarism and reinterpretation. One thinks, for example, of the rock’n’roll of the fifties and sixties, which strained the twelve-bar blues form in order to sell African American cultural assets to the white youth. And that was certainly not the last appropriation and certainly not the first.
In the 19th century already, so-called minstrels sang songs that they had taken over from black slaves. For the amusement of the audience they painted their faces black and their lips red. This naive and crude form of racist imitation was immensely popular, as the blues historian Elijah Wald reports. It lasted into the 20th century. And while this “minstrelisation” may have been frowned upon by better-off blacks, African-American musicians increasingly used this form of make-up to match the caricature – also for the amusement of the black audience.
At the time of the minstrels, the awareness of a separate African-American musical tradition was hardly widespread. The concept of the blues also only consolidated later under the influence of new phono technology and the new music business. Even in the early days of the record industry, a special niche was created in response to the demand of the black public: “race music” – the term was intended as a quasi “correct” synonym for “negro music”. It was this pigeonholing that fostered the sensitivity for African-American music styles.