How Blue (or Black, or White) Can You Get?

My father, who is in his 80's, grew up 2 miles off Highway 61, plowed with a mule that died every two weeks because my grandfather was a shitty trader, cropped a cane lot till he ran away to live in the woods, got an orange for Christmas, heard Peetee Wheatstraw in a blind pig, knew the field hollers, has forgotten the names of a dozen musicians down the road that Blind Possum AND Alan Lomax would give anything to record, hummed the sound to me when i was a baby, the whole nine yards.

And is white. Remembers a lynching victim hung from a bridge girder down there that was left to hang 2 months as a warning to teach them all How Things Were. Hates the south. (For future reference, this is all getting worked into a novel called either "Cypress Grove" or "Don't Let the Sun Set on You Here".)

I introduced him to reggae week before last, and we were talking about why we liked about the sound, and that turned into a conversation about country being ruined by Vegas and Top 40, and he (not the most introspective man) said of reggae and blues, "you can't fake it,", i.e., you can't add Vegas and studio production and caesuras and 'sweetening' to an inauthentic sound and retofit it into an authentic sound. Think of Pat Boone trying to sing Little Richard, or Elvis doing Hound Dog-- five seconds of Big Mama Thornton's version knocked all the Elvis out of my head (okay, okay, 'he was great before he went in the Army', can we give it a rest? Jeez.)

Funny sidebar story: when I was helping with a community theatre production of a play called "Ladyhouse Blues", they needed a street vendor calling off stage-- and because I could mimic the "black" sound I'd heard from my father (and Leadbelly, and the folks picking cherries next door until they were replaced by mechanical shakers), the play's director recorded me selling vegetables and for the run of the show I was Kalamazoo's Elvis, a white boy singing black. if I'd stepped from behind the curtain, it would have destroyed the illusion, because in person I look like a long lost Clancy Brother. Maybe when I'm so old and wrinkly that I've moved beyond categories, I'll put on a panama hat and sing the blues in public-- I kid, I kid. I'll have to learn the piano first. Another nice thing about "authentic" musics-- you just get better as you get older.

That being said, I DO cringe at a lot of white-boy-garage-band-blues, but it's because of the sound and the too-many-notes suburban lyrics that whinge instead of howl, not the color of the musicians. Eric Clapton fans, he's very nice-- now give it a rest.

And I've also seen more than one plump pale white boy step in fron of a skeptical audience and rip a sound out of his guitar or his voice that has everyone in the audience murmuring, "Shiiit.." and the black blues fans in the audience lean forward with a little open mouthed smile. The best version of "God Bless the Child" I ever heard was an impromptu performance by a Little Stoner Hippie White Chick that shuffled in to a New Orleans bar (Storyville) after hours. And I've seen black musicians fake it, and black folks dismiss Muddy Waters as "that old country music" in favor of forgettable pop vocalists with lots of faked caesura.

The cry from the heart in the Caucasian sea chanty "Venezuela", or an honest version of "The Parting Glass" can hold it's own with Keb Mo's version of "Love in Vain" (my current favorite), and the pain in that sound earns a respectful hush from Robert Johnson up in Heaven. It's in the color of the sound that comes out of the musician, not the melanin in his skin: Blue in all its shades. Otherwise we're going to have to come up with a new category for Fate Marable.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There's turquiose, cerelan blue, azure, sapphire, lapis, and so on.
I agree --many shades. Johnny Lang --young boy, old man voice.
Don't look, just listen.
Smiling, Dee Ann