The blues community’s silence on Ferguson.

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.

#BlackLivesMatter

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‘On a kind of vacation’: Reexamining African American blues musicians’ visits to Britain, 1950-58

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In this blog post, I examine how American blues musicians’ visits to Britain have been written about. I argue that these accounts primarily serve to endorse our existing understandings of the musicians in question. This approach often does not take into account the concerns of contemporary British audiences, and reveals an underlying misunderstanding of the contemporary British blues and jazz scene.

 

Throughout the 1950s, British union and governmental labour restrictions on visiting American musicians began to relax. After nearly two decades, British musicians and enthusiasts no longer needed to rely solely on their record collections, finally able to witness African American blues performers live and in person. Many musicians key to the development of the blues in general – let alone the development of the blues in Britain – visited in this decade, including: Josh White (1950, 1951) Big Bill Broonzy (1951, and several years thereafter), Lonnie Johnson (1952), Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1957), Jimmy Rushing (1957, 1958), Muddy Waters and Otis Spann (1958), and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee (1958).

These visits were undoubtedly important in bringing the blues to a wider audience, and studying them gives us a glimpse into how British enthusiasts developed their understandings of the style. Jazz critic Dave Gelly, for example, recalls hearing Broonzy at the age of fourteen, describing his singing as ‘candid and genuinely passionate…delivered with a sincerity that disarmed all criticism.’ At the same time, many musicians were not so well received: Lonnie Johnson’s first concert was, in the words of Stanley Dance, ‘[ruined by his] ambitions as a ballad singer.’ Likewise, one reviewer for the Manchester Evening News reported of Muddy Waters: ‘Although his singing is authentic and he uses his voice as an instrument for conveying melancholy and dissatisfaction, I cannot class him as a true blues artist…most of his songs seemed to me to owe too much to the rhythm and blues style.’[1]

It’s quite something to read about blues legends such as Waters being received negatively, especially given their canonised status in the history of the blues as we know it today. Broonzy’s success in Britain relied on his ability to meet the expectations that he was a genuine folk blues singer from the Deep South. This elicited much evangelism on the subject of Broonzy’s unwaveringly authentic and non-commercial qualities in the British press, including a somewhat overzealous article by French critic Hugues Panassié, who surmised that Broonzy ‘came to Europe on a kind of vacation…his work for the time being is to open his heart and soul to us over here.’ It was a good move on Broonzy’s part – then working as a cleaner on a Chicago college campus – reigniting his performing career for another seven years. Importantly, Waters’s reception forced his devotees into a new understanding of the blues: that, as a ‘folk’ musician, Waters could still be true to the spirit of the blues by singing in a more modern and urbane style, because it reflected his changed circumstances and success. As Waters himself admitted in a contemporary interview, thumbing through his wallet: ‘There’s no way in the world I can feel the same blues the way I used to…How can I have that kind of blues with this in my pocket?’ British critics read Waters’s changing style as evidence of ‘folk’ music’s role as a tonic for the ills of society; if Waters had made it from Mississippi sharecropper to Chicago superstar, it was because he had stayed true to the spirit of the blues, always singing about his (changing) experiences rather than selling out.

Yet it is also important to dig a little deeper into how these musicians’ reception has been studied and written about since. Reception narratives of these musicians often tie into larger narratives about the birth of the blues in Britain, as well as biographical narratives about the musicians in question. For example, accounts of audiences’ displeasure at the volume and style of Waters’s first appearances are often used to connect him to the in-your-face rebelliousness of 1960s rock that Waters’s music would later inspire. Biographer Robert Gordon reproduces one critics reaction, now thought to be apocryphal: ‘Muddy fiddled with the knobs [of his guitar], and struck a fierce chord…I realised this was the established order of things. As he reached for the volume knobs again, I fled from the hall.’

Although British audiences hearing Waters in person for the first time in 1958 were clearly taken aback by some aspects of his performance, it’s important not to attribute this, as Gordon does, to a sense that British audiences were ‘not ready’ for Waters’s music. This encourages a view of Waters as a visionary musician ‘ahead of his time’, which, although a great compliment, is not a helpful approach to take if we want to properly understand blues musicians’ initial reception. For musicians – or artists, writers, or any other type of creative person – can only be a product of their times, even if they do seek to innovate beyond these constraints.

Indeed, visiting musicians were often unsure of what British audiences would want to play. Unused to coming into contact with throngs of appreciative white audiences – let alone playing for them – is bound to have contributed to some of the mismatches in programming. Lonnie Johnson, for instance, made his first appearance playing popular ballads, including ‘Stardust’, ‘Careless Love’ and ‘Just Another Day’, to poor reviews criticising both his programme, and his crooning style of delivery., His next appearance could not have been more different, featuring instead the songs he had recorded for US ‘race’ labels Okeh and Bluebird.[2]

Yet even the reporting of this ‘about turn’ can also serve to emphasise Broonzy’s success a year earlier, through the strength of his apparently more rough and ready, authentic performances. In some ways this is surprising, given that Broonzy had an equally soft spot for popular ballad performance, especially during his subsequent visits to Britain. The programme of his first 1951 concert advertises a ‘Recital [of] Blues, Folk Songs, [and] Ballads, by the Famous American Singer Big Bill Broonzy.’ Both ‘Careless Love’ (performed by Johnson the following year) and another ballad, ‘When Did You Leave Heaven’, appeared on the programme amongst a mixture of blues and spirituals.[3] It is clear, then, that audiences expected at least a modicum of ballad performance from visiting blues musicians. What is more, ‘Careless Love’, performed by both Broonzy and Johnson, was standard repertoire for British blues and traditional jazz performers, recorded by Neva Raphaello, Ottilie Patterson, Humphrey Lyttelton (to name a few) between 1950 and 1955.

 

In addition to falling into established narratives and biographical accounts, it’s also important not to miss another vital aspect of British accounts of visiting musicians: the presence of British musicians! Visiting musicians were only able to enter the UK as ‘variety artists’, meaning that they came without their normal backing bands. This meant they had to perform solo, or with British backing musicians. Tours were booked with little rehearsal time; Chris Barber remembers meeting Muddy Waters for the first time only hours before taking to the stage with him. Moreover, the standard traditional jazz concert often featured multiple bands on the lineup, meaning that the visiting American musician would not have been the only draw for prospective audiences – British fans were coming to hear their home favourites, too. In 1958, for instance, Muddy Waters and Otis Spann shared the billing with Chris Barber’s band and Ottilie Patterson, at that time the only traditional jazz band to be playing sellout nationwide tours in provincial theatres.

Modern writers have frequently used these collaborations as an opportunity to assert the abilities of American musicians at the expense of their British counterparts. In recounting Waters’s first British performance, Robert Gordon speculates that ‘Muddy spent the first half of the evening subjected to Dixieland, and wondered if anyone in the entire country of funny-speaking people knew anything about the blues.’ In Gordon’s mind, this linguistic divide covers all manner of sins: Brits are too British, and too white, to play the blues.

Nevertheless, Broonzy certainly seems to have played on contemporary anxieties regarding British musicians’ blues abilities. ‘You’re too quick, buddy! You gotta be lazy to play the blues. Don’t snap at them keys!…That’s bop you’re playing, boy;’ so Broonzy chastised the young pianist Roy Sturgess during rehearsals for his London debut. These remarks can be read in the context of Broonzy’s overall project to authenticate himself as the archetypal ‘folk’ musician. From the same interview, we find Broonzy questioning ‘Twelve-bar blues, what is that? I can only sing the way I feel. It might be eleven bars, it might be thirteen, and it might be one. I can’t sing no other way…I don’t know what note I shall sing till I’ve sung it.’ Broonzy’s insistence on the individuality of his performance, as well as the precision needed to accompany him, chimed perfectly with the British consensus that Broonzy was one of the few remaining ‘true’ blues singers.

And yet, at the same time, it is important to identify tensions in how these collaborations were reported. For instance, reports of Broonzy’s precocious and taunting direction of his accompanists does not chime well with contemporary descriptions of his offstage poise, modesty, and even occasional shyness, all evidence of decades of having to defer to white employers. That’s not to say that Broonzy could not have come to interact on more egalitarian terms with his contemporaries; rather, it’s important to look closer at the politics of these transnational encounters – more than likely they were not always on equal terms. Interestingly, too, Hugues Panassié identified Broonzy’s slow blues – such as ‘Trouble in Mind’ or ‘How Long Blues’ – to be some of his most poignant and heartfelt performances, yet at his Kingsway concert the majority of these slow blues were performed during his accompanied slot, rather than during the solo slot.

 

Although labour restrictions sometimes provided British musicians with an opportunity to perform alongside their idols, these concerts also fell foul of industry politics; groups such as the National Federation of Jazz Organisations (NFJO) used high-profile concerts (and any American visitor counted as ‘high-profile’) to expose what they saw as the absurdity of labour restrictions on American musicians. Antagonism between the NFJO and the Musicians’ Union (MU) came to a head in June 1952, surrounding the appearance of blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson the following month. Johnson was to appear at an all-star NFJO concert, sharing the bill with American boogie woogie and ragtime pianist Ralph Sutton, who was also visiting, as well as British groups including Roy Simpson’s Commodores, George Webb’s Dixielanders, British blues vocalists George Melly and Neva Raphaello, and Ambrose Campbell’s West Africans.

The plan was for Johnson to play part of the concert solo, and another part accompanied by the assembled British musicians. On 14th June, however, the MU decided that, although Johnson and Sutton could share the bill with British musicians, on no account were American and British musicians to perform together. The resulting furore in the musical press caused the BBC to withdraw from its planned broadcast of the event. This left Johnson to perform accompanied by Ralph Sutton – an unplanned pairing – until several British musicians defied the MU’s edict and joined Johnson on the stage impromptu. By the end of the month, the union had expelled the offending musicians for their misdemeanours, and the NFJO widely discredited for having failed to stand up for its members.

With these circumstances in mind – which, incidentally, are absent from Roberta Schwartz’s account of Johnson’s reception in Britain – it is possible to see audiences’ dissatisfaction with Johnson’s first concert as having just as much to do with the shambles arising from these disagreements, as it was with Johnson’s inauthentic style or poor programming. Indeed, critics in the Melody Maker seem to have been far less concerned with the quality of the performance, than with the embarrassment of such a wasted opportunity for US-UK musical collaboration.

 

In this blog post, I’ve tried to show that there are a number of additional factors in play regarding the reception of visiting blues musicians in Britain. These include the politics involved in staging collaborative concerts, as well as American musicians’ difficulty in ascertaining their audiences’ tastes. Most importantly, it is vital that these performances be viewed in the context of an existing British performance scene, complete with its own presentation formats, standard repertoire, and entertainment traditions. There is much more work to be done here. The omission of this context is, I think, primarily due to the fact that accounts by authors such as Schwartz and Gordon do not believe in the existence of a ‘British blues’ scene during the 1950s. Rather than remaining open to British musicians’ ability to assimilate blues performance, these authors consign them to the position of well-meaning imitators. Most uncomfortably, this effectively reifies African American performers as inspired creators simply by virtue of their nationality and ethnicity.

 

Works Cited

Asman, James, ‘Frankly, I am Disgusted!’, Musical Express (September 28 1951).

Barber, Chris, (with Alyn Shipton), Jazz Me Blues: The Autobiography of Chris Barber (Sheffield: Equinox Publishing, 2014).

Bell, Graeme, (with Jack Mitchell), Graeme Bell, Australian Jazzman (Frenchs Forest, NSW: Child & Associates, 1988).

Gordon, Robert, Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters (London: Jonathan Cape, 2002).

Panassié, Hugues, ‘Big Bill doesn’t sell his music – he gives it away’, Melody Maker (September 15 1951), 9.

Riesman, Bob, I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

Schwartz, Roberta Freund, How Britain Got The Blues: The Transmission and Reception of American Blues Style in the United Kingdom (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007).

Standish, Tony, ‘Muddy Waters in London’, Jazz Journal 12/1 (January 1959), 2-4.

 

[1] Here, ‘rhythm and blues’ refers slightly ambiguously to two types of mid-50s popular music: rock ‘n’ roll by artists such as Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, (USA) and Tommy Steele (UK); and African American ‘RnB’ by musicians such as Wynonie Harris, Earl Bostic, and Jimmy Witherspoon. Both styles were lambasted for their pollution of the true ‘folk’ nature of the blues, and were frequently associated with youth immorality and Americanisation.

[2] I have not yet researched this revised programme, but for a list of Johnson’s Okeh sides, see http://www.redhotjazz.com/ljohnson.html.

[3] It is also apparent from contemporary recordings at this time, and other concert programmes from his European visits, that ballads such as ‘Blue Tail Fly’ and ‘Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home’ made regular appearances in Broonzy’s concerts.

 

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