Black and White and the Blues: Who profits from a cultural tradition?

Excerpt from Princeton Alumni Weekly‘s March 2021 issue is reblogged below with permission.

By Adam Gussow, author of Whose Blues? Facing Up to Race and the Future of the Music

Speaking very broadly, people who have emotional investments in the blues — people who like, play, think about, talk about, and identify themselves with the blues — have two diametrically opposed ways of configuring the blues in ideological terms. An ideology is simply an idea-set: an intellectual orientation that governs the way one sees the world and thinks through the problems it presents. One way of ideologizing the blues is to say, “The blues are black music.” They’re a black thing. When you look at the history and cultural origins of the blues, when you look at who has a right to claim the social pain expressed through the blues — what you might call the “I’ve got the blues” element of the blues — and when you look at who the most powerful performers and great stylistic innovators have been, it’s black people who have a profound, undeniable, and inalienable claim on blues in a way that whites just don’t. The history, the feelings, the music: They’re a black thing. And when whites get involved, as they always do, black people suffer.

This ideological position, a form of black cultural nationalism that I term “black bluesism,” is expressed with great clarity and power by Roland L. Freeman, an African American photographer and cultural documentarian, in a poem titled “Don’t Forget the Blues.” Freeman composed his poem in 1997 to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Mississippi Delta Blues and Heritage Festival — the oldest black-run blues festival in the country — and he read it out loud to the crowd. “Do you see ’em,” the poem begins, “here they come”: 

Easing into our communities
In their big fancy cars,
Looking like alien carpetbaggers 
Straight from Mars.
They slide in from the East,
North, South and West,
And when they leave, 
You can bet they’ve taken the best. 
Listen to me, 
I’ve been drunk a long time
And I’m still drinking.
I take a bath every Saturday night,
But I’m still stinking.
This world’s been whipping me upside my head,
But it hasn’t stopped me from thinking.
I know they’ve been doing anything they choose,
I just want ’em to keep their darn hands off ’a my blues. 

That aggrieved “I,” demanding our attention, is an avatar of the blues, his blackness unmarked but evident, who refuses to say die: Drunk and stinking, beaten down by the world, he is still “thinking,” still conscious and resistant. The poem’s omnipresent “they” is white people — more specifically, white blues tourists, fans, producers, musicians, anybody who seeks pleasure and profit from the music. “They” is the oppressive white world, an all-points barrage (“from the East / North, South and West”) that surrounds, exploits, and unmakes black people (“us”) and their (“our”) world, body and soul. Playwright August Wilson evokes both worlds in his “Preface to Three Plays” (1991) when he talks about how the blues gave him “a world that contained my image, a world at once rich and varied, marked and marking, brutal and beautiful, and at crucial odds with the larger world that contained it and preyed and pressed it from every conceivable angle.” 

Like Wilson, Freeman sees the blues as an art form that contains an image of his humanity, but, unlike Wilson, he sees the blues themselves as something that the white world has purloined and profited from, an expropriation anticipated by the earlier refashioning of rhythm ’n’ blues into rock ’n’ roll. “How can we stop ’em,” he cries as the poem rolls on, “or will it ever end?”: 

Mama’s in the kitchen
Humming her mournful song.
Sister’s moaning in the bedroom,
Crying some man has done her wrong.
Papa’s in the backyard sipping on his corn-n-n-n . . . liquor,
He’s just screaming, hollering and yelling.
And the old folks on the front porch keep saying,
“There just ain’t no telling
How long it’ll take ’em to leave us alone.”
They have taken our blues and gone. 

“Don’t Forget the Blues” speaks to the blues from a beleaguered black nationalist perspective. At the heart of the poem is a contemporary black folk community in crisis. There’s mama, there’s sister, there’s papa and the old folks, and there’s the poet himself; the family is a microcosm for Black America, and everybody is hurting. Freeman’s black family has the blues at the very moment when the surrounding white world is consuming and capitalizing on the blues. That white world, these days, is populated by self-styled blues aficionados who claim to love the music and who shout things like, “Keep the blues alive! Let’s drive on down to Clarksdale, Mississippi, and listen to the real blues at Red’s Lounge! Let’s pay five thousand dollars and take a blues cruise to the Bahamas! Let’s fly our Dutch blues band to Memphis and compete in the International Blues Challenge.” Freeman’s poem articulates the pain created by the juxtaposition of, and the power differential between, two radically different blues worlds: an immiserated but tightly knit black community on the one hand and, on the other, a widely dispersed mainstream blues scene that takes pleasure and profit from the music. When Freeman cries, “There they go, with our gold,” he is, at least implicitly and with prophetic foresight, taking aim at my viewers, my customers, and me — millions of blues harmonica players from 192 countries and territories around the world who enjoy the hundreds of free instructional videos I’ve uploaded to YouTube since 2007, a modest percentage of whom visit my website every year and sometimes buy my stuff.

Adam Gussow is professor of English and southern studies at the University of Mississippi and author of four previous books on the blues, including Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition. He appears in Satan & Adam, an award-winning Netflix documentary about his thirty-five-year partnership with Mississippi-born bluesman Sterling “Mr. Satan” Magee.