Blues audiences the world over recognise the genre’s origins in the oppression of African Americans under slavery and segregation. But when it comes to racial tensions in the present day, blues blogs, websites, and facebook groups are surprisingly silent.
The time difference between the US and the UK being what it is, I went to bed last night with that all too familiar heaviness; the feeling you get when you know you will wake up to bad news. My radio, set for 6am, punctured the morning gloom with the words I that had been hoping not to hear for several weeks now – that a Grand Jury has failed to indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson for shooting unarmed African American teenager Michael Brown, Jr. (1996-2014). Brown, who was eighteen years old, was shot six times, including twice in the head, on 9th August.
As I logged on to social media this morning, my various news feeds loaded up the various topics, groups and voices that reflect my three main internet reading habits: a healthy dose of populist left-wing writing; a number of prominent African American and black British cultural and political commentators; and numerous blogs and groups devoted to the blues.
What struck me, however, was that the first and second groups – the left-wing writers, and my snapshot of ‘black Twitter’ – were talking about roughly the same thing: Ferguson. My blues groups, on the other hand, chugged away as usual, blithely unaware of recent developments. One account tweeted a well-known blues lyric, another reviewed a recent CD, another posted a series of grainy photos to mark the anniversary of a bluesman’s birth.
So why don’t the talking points, posts, likes, shares, and retweets of the blues groups I follow not match up more with those who discuss African American culture and politics in the present day? Why is the blues community so silent on Ferguson – or, for that matter, on the recent deaths of Jonathan Ferrell (1989-2013), Tamir Rice (2002-2014), or Aiyana Jones (2002-2010) at the hands of the police?
I should make clear at this point that I do not wish to question the legality or the outcome of the Ferguson grand jury. As President Obama has pointed out, we have to hope that the grand jury assessed the evidence presented to them in a fair and just manner, and that the evidence itself was a fair and reliable account of the event. Nor am I interested in getting into a discussion about the precise events that took place; there are so many conflicting accounts, and many people more qualified than I am to assess their legal implications.
What I am concerned about is how victims such as Michael Brown have been presented in the media, and the atmosphere of suspicion and fear that causes armed law enforcement to make the terrible and irreversible decision to end someone’s life. I am concerned that the blues community makes few connections between modern day depictions of African American society and culture, and those of the past that we celebrate in the blues.
Very soon after Michael Brown’s shooting, many media outlets started to question the young man’s integrity. Some commentators suggested that Brown may have had marijuana in his bloodstream, and evidence emerged showing Brown taking some cigarettes from a local store in the hour prior to his death.
Again, I do not seek to cast doubt on these claims – although it is worth stating that neither theft nor narcotics use are punishable by death under US law. Instead, I want to compare them to some of the common depictions of blues musicians that are regularly celebrated by the music’s fans.
Stories of blues musicians’ substance abuse are ubiquitous. They appear in many songs, from Big Bill Broonzy’s ‘When I Been Drinking’ to Muddy Waters’s ‘Champagne and Reefer’, and in musicians’ biographies. Robert Johnson is famously thought to have died from drinking poisoned whiskey given, continuing to drink more and more despite the protestations of his friends.
Likewise, bluesmen’s petty crimes are often treated as a simple fact of life, sometimes even necessary to their success. Harmonica player Junior Wells often recalled how he acquired his first instrument, in a story eerily reminiscent of Brown’s. After saving his pennies as a teenager, Wells found himself short on the price of a Hohner Marine Band. Exasperated, he threw what pennies he had on the counter, and took the harmonica. Brought up before the judge a few days later, Wells admitted to stealing, because he ‘just had to have that harp‘.
‘Can you play that thing, boy?‘ questioned the judge.
Wells blew a few choruses. When he was finished, the judge tossed the shop owner 50 cents, and shouted ‘case dismissed!‘
Blues history also valourises the apparently aggressive and dangerous nature of the African American entertainment scene. Many blues musicians were renowned ‘hotheads’; there is a memorable scene in the 2008 film Cadillac Records, where harmonica player Little Walter calmly shoots an imposter taking advantage of the success of his song ‘My Babe’.
‘Which one of you motherf*ckers is Little Walter?‘ demands Walter.
‘I am, fool!‘ retorts one.
Walter turns, pulling a revolver from his waistband, and fires. The imposter drops to the ground. Returning to the car, Walter coolly draws on his cigarette.
Blues fans tolerate – even celebrate – their heroes’ excessive, immoral and criminal tendencies. Broonzy’s drinking songs match the singer’s own enjoyment of liquor. We reminisce over Muddy Waters’s womanising. We chuckle at the overzealous store clerk who took a young Junior Wells to court over a 50 cent debt. We present Walter’s aggressive streak as integral to his image and to his uncompromising, innovative harmonica style.
And yet Michael Brown, who appears to have dabbled in rap music, was a ‘thug’. Newspapers adorned their front pages with photos of the teenager in a hoodie, ignoring many of the more childlike photographs available. This tactic is commonplace and has prompted the social media campaign #iftheygunnedmedown, where young black men and women highlight the multiple personas presented in their social media photo albums.
‘They wouldn’t show the smiling girl who graduated abroad at one of the best schools in the country. The media would portray me as a hard and mean-looking girl who was asking for it.’ states one contributor.
‘They wouldn’t honor the life I had lived, but rather justify the reason I was dead.’
As blues fans, the stories we tell about our favourite musicians often justify their misdemeanors and misfortunes. Robert Johnson ‘couldn’t help himself’; Junior Wells ‘just had to have that harp’. Little Walter’s own, violent death is seen to be symptomatic of a mean-talking fast-shooting aggressive life, lived at double speed.
But it would be incorrect to say that these depictions of our favourite blues musicians are simply voyeuristic fantasies. Blues audiences know their history. We know that the reason why Junior Wells worked a dead end job for a whole week and yet only made $1.50 was because African American workers were routinely paid less than their white counterparts, or had their earnings docked to pay for the equipment they used. We understand when we read the story of how Bessie Smith died after being denied treatment at the local ‘whites only’ hospital following a car accident (although this story is now thought to be apocryphal). We know that the emotional intensity of the blues was a response to the oppression of its performers by their white oppressors.
And yet we tell jokes about ‘proper blues deaths’: ‘If it occurs in a fleabag hotel or in a shotgun shack, it’s a blues death. Other blues deaths: being stabbed in the back by a jealous lover…You cannot die a blues death during a tennis match or while getting a liposuction treatment…Persons with names like Sierra, Sequoia or Chauncey will not be permitted to sing the blues no matter how many men they shoot in Memphis‘.
Of course, it’s a joke. But it’s a joke that happily ignores the many instances where blues and jazz musicians have suffered at the hands of police brutality. It ignores the fact that Junior Wells might have come off a lot worse had he stolen his first harmonica from a shop in twenty-first century Ferguson.
I am not saying that the blues community is responsible for, or complicit in, the many vindictive slurs against Michael Brown’s character. Neither am I saying that Brown was a saint, but then neither were any of our favourite blues musicians. I simply have one question: why is the blues community – for all that it does to recognise the historical achievements of its idols – not more vocal in condemning the many aspects of American racism that are still alive and well today? The silence is deafening.
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