Whose Blues? How we risk destroying blues music’s heritage even as we try to celebrate it.

The blues is a landmark of African American culture, and has become popular around the world. Yet efforts to celebrate the importance of this music often ignore its most vital messages.

Today is ‘International Blues Music Day’. Around the world, but particularly in the United States, blues fans are getting together to listen to, perform and celebrate a style of music that is widely recognised as one of the most influential cultural achievements of the twentieth century. If you’re at all familiar with the genre, you’ll know of its history: from humble beginnings amongst African Americans in the segregated South of the early twentieth century, the music moved north to Chicago as postwar African Americans searched for a life away from Jim Crow. And then to 1960s Britain: a generation of young musicians and listeners successfully brought the genre back into the public eye through the popularity of blues-tinged rock by groups such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Yardbirds.

The worldwide recognition of the blues has since continued apace, especially since the United States Congress declared 2003 the ‘Year of the Blues’, in light of the music’s influence on subsequent genres, and its role as an international ‘ambassador’ for American culture. I’m writing this blog post from the Orkney Islands, surrounded by fishing boats and sea birds off the northern coast of Scotland. In September, they’ll hold their annual Blues Festival.

Yet while the success of the blues across the globe is undeniable, I don’t think that emphasising the music’s worldwide acclaim is necessarily the best grounds for celebrating the genre. Rather, there is a more immediate value in the music: its historic role in twentieth-century African American culture.

Most readers will probably be rereading the sentence above; it sounds obvious, doesn’t it? More to the point, we already know and recognise that the blues was born of the social experiences of African Americans. In this blog post, however, I want to demonstrate how well-meaning people and organisations are actually neglecting this aspect of the blues’s importance.

Take a look at this video about Muddy Waters below, published by the Mississippi Blues Commission (hereafter MBC) in 2010.

It begins straightforwardly enough, highlighting Muddy Waters’s role in the transformation of rural ‘Delta’ blues into ‘electric’ blues. As Living Blues founder Jim O’Neal points out, this development coincides with the journey that Waters and countless others made to industrial cities in the north, such as Chicago, in search of better employment prospects. In Waters’s words: ‘I felt like I was good enough to get on record, and where I was living I didn’t have a chance.’

The film then highlights the popularity of Waters’s ‘urban’ sound with Chicago’s black audiences, and its influence on other blues musicians such as B. B. King. At this point, the film turns to the first impressions of British musicians Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin) and Bill Wyman (Rolling Stones) on hearing Waters’s music. Their responses are innocent enough: they give us an idea of what it must have been like to hear for the first time a genre that, in Plant’s words, provided ‘a window into a culture that we had no idea about’.

Yet it is Bonnie Raitt’s statement that becomes slightly problematic:

…and then some little kid in California, or Elvin Bishop, or Paul Butterfield, or the Rolling Stones, get to celebrate and somehow relate to the universal call and the power of this music, and to blow it out into rock n’ roll. And then to turn around and be able to give Muddy what he deserved, which was worldwide acclaim.

As far as the MBC’s film makers are concerned, Raitt’s words are the icing on the cake: the blues has gone from a music of the African American south, to Chicago, to (white) Britain, and then to the world. The blues has more than just global appeal; it has ‘universal’ power.

I want to look more closely at this transformation from rural South to ‘universal power’. The blues has always meant something to its performers, because of its connection to the performers’ direct experiences of the society in which they lived. For Waters this was to do with his own journey from the Delta to Chicago; for Robert Plant it was discovering a new form of cultural expression that offered something different compared to his existing worldview.

But is it right to interpret the blues as having ‘universal’ appeal when the music originated in a society so affected, so determined, by the institution of segregation? The idea that the blues is ‘universal’ often draws our attention away from really understanding what the blues meant to communities under the hand of Jim Crow, both in the south and in Chicago.

Many modern blues audiences understand the music to have originated as a form of authentic African American ‘folk’ music, immune to commercial influence and set apart from other types of music. While thinking of the blues as ‘folk’ music is a good way of demanding recognition for the genre (i.e. it is important cultural heritage and needs preserving), the category of ‘folk music’ ignores the complexity of the blues’s meanings for its original audiences. African Americans in the 1930s, 40s and 50s heard the blues as popular entertainment, where the boundaries between what we would today call ‘jazz’, blues, and ‘rhythm and blues’ were considerably more permeable. We would be surprised, for example, to learn that the semi-professional Muddy Waters (still living in Mississippi) enjoyed listening to Fats Waller, Louis Jordan, Count Basie, and even Gene Autry.

That the urbane, sophisticated sounds of these musicians were readily available in the Delta gives lie to the narrative of rural ‘Delta’ blues becoming urbane ‘electric’ blues when Waters moved to Chicago. What would be infinitely more interesting to explore, of course, would be the ways in which ‘urbane’ and ‘rural’ sounding styles of blues coexisted in both the Delta and Chicago, or that Waters’s more direct and ‘downhome’ style actually follows on from the more sophisticated sounds of contemporary rhythm and blues.

Thinking along these lines would lead to a further investigation of what the distinction between ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ meant in postwar African American culture. As historian Adam Green has pointed out in his book Selling the Race, the postwar period saw the growth of a nationwide black American sense of identity with a markedly cosmopolitan outlook. Musicologist Guthrie P. Ramsey has also highlighted the reciprocal nature of cultural exchange between northern and southern states at this time, showing how people, music and performers circulated far more freely than our current narratives allow. What, then, does ‘downhome’ mean, if people ‘downhome’ were listening to music from the urban north, and if musicians from the urban north were frequently traveling back down south?


The story of the blues we’re most used to hearing – where the music develops in tandem with its movement from the American south, to the north, and then out into the world – has been set up with this end point in mind. Promoters, critics, listeners and performers alike want to recognise the ‘universal’ appeal of the music, setting up a narrative of the blues’s growth that leads towards this goal.

But this has serious implications. By taking the blues’s universal appeal as evidence of its cultural worth, we are effectively saying that the music’s role in African American culture isn’t enough to grant the music recognition. Understanding what the blues meant to black Americans throughout decades of racist oppression is held to be less important than recognising the blues’s adoption by people around the world, who have often not faced racist oppression.


Under the watchful eye of Jim Crow – Clarksdale MS (1939)

The MBC video does not tell us why Muddy Waters was important to African American audiences, aside from that he ‘updated’ the sound by adding harmonica, electric guitar, and piano (he wasn’t the first to do any of these – but that’s another story). But what is impressed upon us when watching the video is that Muddy Waters’s music meant something to white people. As Bonnie Raitt points out, the Rolling Stones ‘[turned] round and gave Muddy what he deserved, which was worldwide acclaim.’ This implies, as blues scholar Ulrich Adelt has pointed out, that a blues musicians’ popularity with his original African American audience is viewed as only incomplete success.

The MBC video could have validated the blues by focusing on the music’s meaning for the African Americans who lived through the decades when American white supremacy was at its most ugly and most untenable. Instead, the video validates the blues by focusing on how important it is to everyone else. The genre’s ‘complete’, ‘worldwide’ of ‘universal’ success is granted – apparently – by white people’s acceptance and recognition of it. Does this suggest that African American cultural value on its own isn’t important enough?

So, on International Blues Music Day, let’s take a rain check on applauding the blues’s ‘universal’ or ‘worldwide’ acclaim. Let’s ask ourselves how important it is to hear the blues as an international music if, by doing so, we omit to hear it as part of African American history, society, and identity. This does not invalidate white American or white British enthusiasts’ deep-felt love of this music (I include myself here). But I do think we should stop pretending that the best way to honour the blues is to celebrate its supposed universality, as though recognising its historic meaning for black Americans isn’t sufficient. To do so isn’t to celebrate the blues – ‘the soul of America’ – at all; rather, we celebrate only one part of it, and continue to ignore the African American history that has always been ignored.

Further Reading

Adelt, Ulrich, Blues Music in the Sixties: A Story in Black And White (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010).

Gordon, Robert, and Bruce Nemerov (eds.), Lost Delta Found: Rediscovering the Fisk University-Library of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941-1942 (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2005).

Green, Adam, Selling the Race: Culture, Community and Black Chicago, 1940-55 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

Miller, Karl Hagstrom, Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005).

Ramsey, Guthrie P., Race Music: Black Cultures From Bebop to Hip Hop (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
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8 thoughts on “Whose Blues? How we risk destroying blues music’s heritage even as we try to celebrate it.

  1. I’ve certainly seen worse and more ill-founded views on blues…and having observed as a record industry professional for many years how blues and blues culture in the core black audience continues to exist, I’d just wish to remind all how this music provides the spine and informed so many other American music genres, from country to jazz, soul and rock. I NEVER felt it necessary that for blues to be ‘successful’, it had to reach beyond the culture & community it originally served. But it did. Everything else is after the fact and a dividend to the larger world. Still…I was thrilled to see my favorite living blues artist, Bobby Rush, on the Tonight Show, in 2014. So many roads, so many trains to ride…

    • Hi Tom,

      Thanks for your comment, especially as you’ve drawn on your industry experience to contribute to the discussion.

      I think you’re right about the continued existence of an African American blues audience. What’s especially interesting is how some musicians have retained this, whereas others have less so. I would actually also go further and say that the blues that the majority of African Americans listened to historically, and the music that many white fans think to be emblematic of blues history, aren’t the same. That is, while we think of people like Robert Johnson and Son House as musical innovators, they weren’t necessarily regarded as such by contemporary African American listeners. The Ink Spots, Buddy Johnson, Louis Jordan, or Lil Green, on the other hand, are more likely to have been. The same is likely to be true of Chicago in the 50s: although the MBC video I looked at credits Muddy Waters as being a founding father of popular music (because it was then picked up by British musicians), he was never as successful amongst record-buying African Americans as musicians such as Bill Doggett, Guitar Slim, and Andy Tibbs were. (What is especially interesting, and something I hope to look at further, is the way in which Waters’s *earliest* Chicago recordings in 1947-48 sound a lot like those made by Andy Tibbs.)

      What I wanted to get across in my post is that we should be careful about seeing the blues’s wider recognition as a transaction that happened on equal terms. As you say, “a dividend to the larger world” – but a dividend for whom? Although we recognise the cultural importance of African American musicians, we often do so in a way that omits mention of how the increasing recognition of the blues has taken place in a world where the social and economic cards have often been stacked *against* African Americans. As you’ll see in my response to Matt’s comment above, while some people prefer to talk about the blues as African American cultures’ “gift” to the wider world, I think its more responsible of us as blues fans to think more critically about how white people have historically profited from African American labour (whether that’s musical labour, or picking cotton). This is part of what is so complex and fascinating about the “gift” narrative – it purports to recognise African American cultural contribution, but does so in a way that glosses over the continued social and economic marginalisation of African Americans by asserting that culture can be freely given.

      Take, for example, ‘race records’. Until the 70s, one could only copyright the written score of a piece of music. Consequently, many of the most famous blues songs (particularly those of the “Bluebird” school e.g. Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy, etc) were written down and copyrighted by publishing companies – in particular Lester Melrose’s Wabash Music Co. The performer, most often credited as the lyricist on the Bluebird records, received a much smaller share of royalties. The point here is not that Melrose was necessarily a bad guy or exploitative, but rather that this is exactly what the system expected him to do. While the performer was acknowledged as the “author” of the music, the rights to the music’s reproduction and licensing (allowing white rock n’ roll musicians to play songs in the same style) was held by an industry dominated by white men.

      So, if we’re going to celebrate the important role the blues has played in the history of popular music (which I definitely think we should), then we should do so in a way that acknowledges how this didn’t always take place on equal terms. You can’t reap dividends unless you hold shares, and you can’t hold shares unless you have capital to invest – and in Jim Crow America, capital was usually white.

  2. If you’re recognizing the blues artist’s agency, then you have to ask not what Bonnie Raitt or anyone from the pop world thinks would constitute Muddy Waters’ success, or whether success among African-American audiences is “supposed” to be sufficient cultural achievement–but what he wanted himself. If he wanted multi-racial, multi-cultural and global audience response and recognition, it’s difficult to see how any ideology would have been right in telling him that was wrong. If he didn’t (though I think the biographical evidence is more that he did), then he certainly understood his high standing in his own community and among artists from it. We should hold for respecting the artist and his own goals and tell that story. Other people’s goals for him–well, that’s sociology, sure, and may have impinged on his fate, as the marketplace did, but getting past that is a way to rate and respect his art.

    • Hi Barry,
      Thanks for your comment. You’ve raised an important and difficult question here – it’s very hard to know what individual musicians wanted, compared to what their “high-profile” fans (e.g. critics, other musicians, etc) wanted for them. I’ve been doing some work on the guitarist Robert Lockwood (stepson of Robert Johnson) in this vein, and its quite interesting how he had considerable misgivings about the recognition he got – not because of the recognition per se, but because he didn’t want to *only* be known as the stepson of Robert Johnson and as one of the “last of the great Mississippi bluesmen”. For example, in one interview he complained: “Why do you keep asking me about selling my soul to the devil. You should ask the Rolling Stones – they’re the millionaires!”. At the same time, he also turned his accolades round to claim that he had more influence than he actually had. In another interview I found, he claims to have been the leader of B. B. King’s band, Muddy Waters’s band, and Little Walters’s band!!

      More generally, and with reference to your argument that we should “respect the artist and his own goals and tell that story” – I think you’re absolutely right. It’s surprisingly difficult, but it’s certainly something we should aim for. What makes it particularly difficult with Muddy Waters is that there are already multiple ideas about the cultural meaning of his music, even before he becomes famous. When Lomax recorded him in 1941, Lomax was in the Delta looking for examples of African American folk music that either displayed evidence of previous decades of musical tradition, or music that displayed evidence of undergoing the same social and technological transformations that were happening in the Delta (e.g. influence of urban music). In comparison, Waters seems to be most concerned not with having his music collected and preserved as historically important (which is what Lomax wanted), but instead commercially released. He wrote several letters to Lomax, each asking when the record would be “put out”. So even in 1941 we have two contrasting ideas about what Waters’s music meant, and what he wanted to achieve by it.

      It’s also difficult because recognising worldwide success once it’s been achieved is inherently retrospective. Although I’m sure that it’s very unlikely that Muddy Waters (at least until the late 50s) would have had any inkling that white people (British or American) would have taken a serious cultural interest in his music, because he lived in a world that was so profoundly segregated. To most African Americans in the 1950s (and to a certain extent even today), the vast majority of white people in contact with African Americans were either bosses (e.g. record producers, cotton farm managers, etc) or policemen. The odd enthusiast like Lomax (as he himself observes in his book Land Where the Blues Began) was often treated with intense suspicion until he made his full intent clear – and even then, as Waters’s letters suggest, there may have been some misunderstanding as to why Lomax wanted to record him.

      Perhaps, then, we *do* need to think about what other people say about Waters’s importance, if only so that we can distinguish his ideas from other peoples’, and also work out (like Robert Lockwood) to what extent he might or might not have agreed with them.

  3. The Postwar era during the late 1940s through the 1950s was a time when the music was strictly created, sung and played by black Americans. During the early 1960s a token few white folks liked the music, decided to try their hand at playing it and were adopted and encouraged by the original black players. At that point simple intent was enough to get by. They had a limited grasp of the craft of the music but the fact that they were out there trying earned them “Good Will” points with the real craftsmen of the music. A decade later a fresh crop of white players aspired to learn the craft of the Blues. They were readily adopted and encouraged and instructed by the black players and over the years many developed a genuine understanding and the ability to play the music but they realized that by definition alone they could never become bone fide Bluesmen, it was, after all, an African-American folk music and they weren’t African-Americans. These white players served extended apprenticeships with many of the biggest names on the scene. Many developed a real talent – a few were even capable of singing the music but they all realized that they served as squires but could never become full-fledged knights regardless of the quality of their craftsmanship. Thirty years later only a very few of the original black players were active and on the scene but their approval, their endorsement, and their musical instruction was no longer needed or wanted by the current generation of young players, both white and black. Like Frankenstein the entire scene has taken on a life of its own – and is just as welcome. These new players ply their craft without any of the subtleties or nuances that the made the work of original black players music to be cherished, yet they give themselves blues names, finance their own recordings and despite their lack of craft and exposure to the original craftsmen, they expect the public to take them seriously.

    • Hi Steve,

      Thanks for your comment. There’s actually quite a bit of evidence that British musicians began to play the blues in the late 40s and early to mid 1950s – check out my earlier blog post titled “What if the Godfather of British Blues was Actually a Woman?” The title is meant to be a bit provocative, but I wanted to get people thinking that just because the people we regard today as the most popular British blues musicians all hailed from the 1960s and 70s, that doesn’t mean that nobody was playing the blues in Britain before then. Indeed, I’ve been surprised to discover just how early – and also how late – recordings by iconic American musicians were released in Britain. Muddy Waters’s first British release was in 1951 or 52, I think, and a Sleepy John Estes record came out in 1944. Yet no British record company released anything by Robert Johnson until the 1960s! A lot of this is covered in Roberta Schwartz’s excellent book “How Britain Got The Blues” – it covers the 60s and 70s too, but she starts her research with the musical events of 1890!

      Part of the difficulty with explaining how the blues has become popular across the world is, as you say, trying to work out what it meant to be white and play the blues when by definition the blues was a product of African American experiences. In the above blog post I was trying to make people a bit more cautious about saying that it’s simply a case of brilliant music being recognised for its greatness. This feels too fuzzy and too much like “let all the world hold hands and sing in harmony” – which we know simply isn’t how history tends to pan out. Another way of thinking about it is to try and get past the idea of the blues as “folk” music, as most of the people who have called it “folk” music throughout its history have been white folklorists. Instead, most blues musicians had wider and more varied performing repertoires, often including contemporary jazz and Tin Pan Alley hits – indeed, Elijah Wald points out in his book “Escaping the Delta” that when Muddy Waters was interviewed by Alan Lomax in 1941, Waters listed more songs by Gene Autry (a “singing cowboy”) in his performing repertoire than by any other.

      Of course, Lomax wouldn’t have wanted to record Muddy Waters singing Gene Autry – he wanted to record Muddy Waters playing Muddy Waters! But this says just as much about white folklorists’ own ideas about African American musical culture as it does about Waters’s musical tastes.

  4. Well, your argument is interesting, but what about the mountains of blues, yes also from African Americans such as Robert Cray or Joe Louis Walker, that were created and existed in a post-segregation society? A certain portion of blues as a whole was created before civil rights won over segregation, but a lot was also created afterwards. We should celebrate both, not one or the other.

    Additionally, it may not quite be the same in Scotland, but I’m in both the delta and Chicago often, and I haven’t seen the importance of African American culture ignored. Not by blues fans. I’ve seen the importance of BLUES ignored by everyone else though. The fact that music from a very disenfranchised people became so widely popular that everyone, even across continents, could relate to it’s emotion and feeling, is incredibly important. You say yourself that all of those guys like Plant aren’t talking about the ‘universal appeal’, they’re saying the guys that came before them, the rural blacks in the south, need to be celebrated above anything.

    I personally haven’t seen an ignorance of the historical significance of African Americans in the music. I agree with your argument that the history of the music and it’s importance in the African American experience should be held in high esteem, but I disagree that it should be held in high esteem at the expense of it’s broad appeal. I also don’t feel that the broad appeal of the music is detracting from the appreciation of it’s history.

    • Hi Matt,

      Thanks for your comment – you’ve raised some important points, and it’s great to get a conversation going about these issues. I should probably start by clarifying that I’m not trying to get anyone to ignore the blues’s worldwide popularity – it simply can’t be ignored. (My main research project at the moment is actually on blues in Britain.) So the issue I’m trying to deal with is not so much “should we recognise the blues’s worldwide acclaim?”, but rather “how do we responsibly recognise the blues’s worldwide acclaim?”

      The idea that the blues was born out of terrible poverty, but eventually became recognised across the world as the root of many other genres is an important one. It derives from a wider narrative about African Americans’ “gift” to humanity and culture as a whole. African American culture produces this wonderful music, and in return for its worldwide popularity, white musicians, critics, and cultural heritage organisations help to give its original performers the recognition they deserve.

      But what I want people to think more about is that this transaction has never really been on equal terms when we look at it socially and economically. Instead of thinking about African American cultures’ musical “gift” to the world, I think it’s more responsible for us to remain mindful of the times when this transaction might be thought of more as “theft” or “exploitation”. A very well known example, of course, is Elvis Presley’s cover of Arthur Crudup’s ‘That’s All Right Mama’. What I’m trying to say is not that we shouldn’t listen to Elvis (or ignore what a good performer he is), but rather that when we talk about Elvis’s success/quality we should be aware that he lived in a society and time period where it was very easy for white people to generate financial and cultural success out of African American labour. That doesn’t make Elvis a bad guy, but if we as blues fans are *seriously* committed to recognising how the blues has been shaped by African American experiences, then it is irresponsible of us to omit to mention these issues when talking about the blues.

      I wanted to use this MBC video as an example because I think it makes us think more deeply about how organisations that are designed to promote cultural heritage might accidentally do so in misleading ways. (That’s part of the complexity of this “gift” narrative: it does, on one level, recognise that the African American experience has shaped the music that was produced. But it does so in a way that ultimately glosses over the many other ways in which African Americans are exploited and marginalised.)

      There are several organisations in the Delta that are trying to recognise African American history, but unfortunately do so in a way that ultimately isn’t respectful of that history. The Shack Up Inn, a hotel on Hopson’s Plantation in Clarksdale, provides tourist accommodation in renovated ‘shotgun shacks’. According to the Shack Up Inn’s website, this allows you to “immerse yourself in living history” and offers “glimpse of plantation life”. Staying in the shacks (which have been updated to include bathrooms, air con, refrigerator etc) provides “comfort as well as authenticity”.

      This might sound like a great experience for blues fans – it gives people a greater understanding of what life was like for the blues’s original creators. Or does it? All the houses have been upgraded to a standard of living that their original inhabitants could only have dreamed of. And, more importantly, visitors can leave when they want – their original inhabitants didn’t have that choice, because the sharecropping system held African Americans perpetually in debt to the farm owner. This starts to feel quite irresponsible when we consider the extent to which African Americans were persecuted throughout the history of the plantation and sharecropping systems, often in their own homes (the ones that tourists are now staying in). Neither the Shack Up Inn, or some of the other Delta farms (e.g. Dockery’s Farms) that have been preserved as landmarks to the blues or Delta life force visitors to confront this. If, as the Shack Up Inn says, they offer a “glimpse of plantation life”, then the glimpse they’re offering is entirely fictional. It’s been sanitised to remove the bits of African American experience that are most gruesome, but arguably most important not to forget.

      This is what I mean about talking about responsibility: don’t these cultural landmarks (many which are funded in part by US tax dollars) have a responsibility to make sure we don’t forget the sheer terror of African Americans’ southern past?

      So, while I don’t want to get people to ignore what has been gained by the blues’s has spread around the world (a lot of good music, for one!), I think we should be cautious not to be too celebratory about how this has been achieved. Not only did it come at a cost for African American performers (who found their white counterparts making more money from the same music – this happened in jazz too), but now also the stories that heritage organisations tell about the blues and African American history are being replaced with “feel-good” narratives about how important the blues is, without really recognising why it’s is so important.

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