I consider myself a blues fan. I’ve visited the Crossroads, stayed in historic blues hotels, been to classic juke joints, and have a pretty decent collection of blues albums. But I think white people ruined the blues.
Maybe it was Stevie Ray Vaughn. Maybe it was Eric Clapton. Maybe it was the Yardbirds or the Rolling Stones. Somewhere along the way, the blues was appropriated by white musicians. They played the licks. Some played them very well. Some even had feeling. But through no fault of their own, these musicians inspired scores of imitators, some who made it big and some who only play for fun.
None who can really play the blues, despite their mechanical prowess.
Although buried in the archives now, fifty years ago there was a debate on who can sing the blues. In 1964, a young Rod Stewart was criticized for his cover of Sonny Boy Williamson’s 1937 blues song “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl“. Not coincidentally, this song also features future Led Zeppelin members Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones.
“A white person can sing the blues with just as much conviction as a Negro. All these coloured singers singing about ‘Walking Down The Railroad Track’…they’ve never walked down a railroad track in their lives. Nor have I. You’ve got more to sing the blues about in the Archway Road, near my home, than on any railroad track I know.”
(Click here for a great article on the role and importance of the railroad in the Mississippi Blues. In short, the rail was the lifeline between the cotton fields of the Delta and Memphis, its closest city.)
Despite his attempts at establishing his credibility, Stewart still had the fear of rejection. In a 2012 NPR interview, Stewart says:
Because I was a white boy from North London trying to sing rhythm & blues and soul music, I was paranoid that the curtain would go back and it would be all full of black people, and they’d yell, ‘Fraud! Fraud!’
While Stewart’s early blues career wouldn’t amount to much, he continued in music and became one of the most respected singers in American history, selling over 100 million records.
But recent issues in a more contemporary genre forced me to look up Stewart, Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and white men who ventured into traditionally African-American music.
Over the last week, Australian rapper Iggy Azalea has attempted to defend herself from a barrage of critics who claim she does not have the credibility to be a respected hip-hop performer. The critics charge that she doesn’t understand the roots of the culture she is making a very good living on.
To recycle the Stewart criticism, they claim Azalea has never “walked down the railroad track”.
According to her bio, Azalea came to the US when she was 16 in 2006 with the intention of getting into music. After several years in the underground scene, she finally released her first major album in 2014 and has since been nominated for several Grammy awards. Her videos have over 400 million views on YouTube and some have even claimed she “runs hip-hop“.
That is much further than Stewart got in his blues career. But Stewart never changed his voice to sound like a black farmer from Mississippi as Azalea as changed her accent to sound more “hip-hop” on her songs.
In response to a back and forth between Azalea and New York-born rapper Azealia Banks, one of Azalea’s most recent critics, long-time New York rapper and producer Q-Tip released a long diatribe on twitter about hip-hop, its roots, and why there is defensiveness when outsiders attempt to work their way into the scene. The whole speech is worth the read.
“HipHop is a artistic and socio-political movement/culture that sprang from the disparate ghettos of NY in the early 70’s Coming off the heels of the CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT and approaching the end of the Vietnam war it was a crossroads 4 America specially for blacks in the US our neighborhoods were PROLIFERATED w/a rush of HEROINE.”
“Our school systems here in NY dungeon traps with light for learning… blk men some of whom didn’t return from tours of duty n the ones who did came w/war baggage (agent orange, addiction, ect..)… these men had families but due to these events and throw into the mix the public emasculation… they proved to be handicapped parents. The surrogate parents? The STREETS… the streets of gangs, crimes, and the hustlers coddled us and swept us up.”
“But! Being a spirited, rhythmic & expressive people music art dance outlined our existence… it proved a way for us to exhault to scream to dance to laugh and find OUR VOICE… we weren’t at the time skilled musicians as kids. We had records, turntables, ideas and INGENUITY being natural chemist we took from whatever was availed to us and we created something mighty and special.”
“We cut breakbeats back n forth we took a hybrid of Jamaican toasting along w/ radio jock rap( hank Spann, Gary Byrd, ect.) and we put our rap down.. it was a neighborhood thing really. Black and Latino Kids were carving out their space and it became infectious… eventually Keith Cowboy coined the phrase hiphop . Yrs later the first rap record was recorded and now we r moving.”
“But during these strides this country still had the monster of racism and racial insensitivity breathing and ruling… believe it or not young black n Latino lives specifically weren’t acknowledged in mainstream American culture unless Of course.. the convo was abt gangs , being criminals or uneducated. And hey! Like I stated early our families were rushed our schools sucked and we were left to put devices to survive… but HIPHOP showed that we had DEPTH, fire, and BRILLANCE… the music was undeniable! It moved from NY N became national and even GLOBAL.”
Hiphop now was FOR EVERYBODY!! All of those who cld relate to the roots, the spirit, the history, the energy.. It reached YOU… it touched your spirit n took u up. We magnetized you! That’s what BRILLANCE does… now u are fulfilling your dreams … BUT! you have to take into account the HISTORY as you move underneath the banner of hiphop. As I said before… hiphop is fun it’s vile it’s dance it’s traditional it’s light hearted but 1 thing it can never detach itself from is being a SOCIO-Political movement.”
“U may ask why … Well once you are born black your existence I believe is joined with socio-political epitaph and philos based on the tangled and treacherous history SLAVERY alone this is the case it never leaves our conversation… Ever. WeAther in our universities our dinner tables our studios or jail cells… the effects still resononates with us. It hurts… We get emotional and angry and melancholy… did u know president Clinton was the ONLY PRESIDENT to apologize for it? did u know that remnants of slavery exist today thru white privilege? When certain “niceties” r extended your way because of how u look? Isn’t that crazy?”
“I say this 2 say u are a hiphop artist who has the right 2 express herself however she wishes… this is not a chastisement this is not admonishment at ALL this is just one artist reaching to another hoping to spark insight into the field you r in. I say this in the spirit of a hopeful healthy dialogue that maybe one day we can continue… I’ve been on twitter a long time and this will probably be my last series of tweets pretty much but I’m Kool with it as long as I got to share this w u. Zzzzzzz’s up! Peace!”
The biggest take-away in the long speech is how Q-Tip labels hip-hop as a sociopolitical movement. In a 1998 essay, writer Bari Lehrman describes the Blues in similar terms.
During slavery, secular music was considered blasphemy and forced underground. What emerged from this was the blues, as a”form of art, modern mythology, and a secular religion”(Spencer 55).
According to author Larry Neal, the blues represents”the essential vector of Afro- American sensibility and identity”, and represents the”ex slaves’ confrontation with a more secular evaluation of the world”( Spencer 36). It was shaped by social and political oppression and it reflects a defiant attitude toward life. The blues represents survival during hard times and it tells the basic facts of life. As can be seen in the music, there is an emphasis on the”immediacy of life, the nature of man, and human survival…”formed from a history of mental and physical hardships (Spencer 39). It is a direct expression of the post-slavery world view, linked to freeing the individual spirit.
The ‘old blues’ redefined America’s traditional values, and led to the”vision of a new establishment”(Spencer 56). It directly spoke out against white America and the Puritan ethos that was forced upon the slaves for centuries. The lyrics helped release America from the”moral prison”of this Puritanism, and questioned the morality of Christianity and white society. In the music, there is an emphasis on unity, with the joining of man and woman together, and their ultimate triumph over the machine (Spencer 57).
Despite the obvious separation between the blues and the church, the blues is often seen as a”secular religion”, as well as a form of art and modern mythology (Spencer 55). In comparing the blues singer to a preacher, Charles Keil states,”Blues singers and preachers both provide models and orientations, both give public expression to deeply felt private emotions, both promote catharsis- the blues singer through dance, the preacher through trance; both increase feelings of solidarity, boost morale, and strengthen the consensus”(Spencer 64).
Despite his claim otherwise, there is no way Rod Stewart could have had the same feeling in his blues as an African-American from the Mississippi Delta. Likewise for Iggy Azalea in hip-hop. Both could understand the mechanics of their genre and perform them perfectly, but the heart of the music – that indescribable credibility that underlies every song – will be missing.
Because neither could ever “walk down the railroad track”.
Which brings me back to my problem with many contemporary white blues players. While their life might have problems, and they might have the blues, the depth and historical context is not there.
This is not to say people of European descent can’t have sociopolitical music. There are generations of Irish protest songs, hundreds of anti-government punk rock songs, and even country music was born from the bluegrass tunes of the Appalachian coal workers.
There would also be no problem if Iggy Azalea went back to Australia and used hip-hop as a medium to communicate local sociopolitical ideas. Socially conscious hip-hop is heard all over the globe, from Soosan Firooz in Afghanistan to Thufail al Ghifari in Indonesia to Turkish rappers in Germany.
But someone who comes to America and celebrates their mastery of an art form without tipping their cap to the heart of the music should be criticized.
Now if Iggy Azalea covered Florence Reece, we might be having a totally different conversation.