Journeyman’s Road by Adam Gussow, pt 2

Journeyman's RoadIgnoring the politics of blues music is like ignoring the crocodile swimming in your Coco Pops. Elwood the Apprentice looks at Gussow’s essays on how to position yourself within the blues tradition.

He was wearing a pink tuxedo and patent leather shoes. He towered over me… Suddenly he was quivering with anger, his finger in my face. You don’t know me. You don’t know anything about me. You don’t know where I’ve been.– Whose Blues?, Adam Gussow.

Note: This is a long post, so I’m going to reward those who read to the bottom by revealing the identity of the man in the pink tuxedo who challenges Adam Gussow backstage in the late 1990s.A few weeks ago I posted a review of the first part of Adam Gussow’s collection of essays: Journeyman’s Road: Modern Blues Lives from Faulkner’s Mississippi to Post-9/11 New York. Therein I promised that the second half of the collection is where you’ll find the really good stuff: bundled under the header “Talking the Talk”, these are essays on ways of thinking about the blues.

Gussow’s lined up some great essays on blues literature (novels, memoirs and plays arising from the bluse tradition): This is Gussow the scholar at work, giving us the reading list for a freshman class in bluesology, and you’d do well to take a look. There are a few conference papers in there, one on Faulkner, and one on racial violence. There’s also (for those who would find this maddeningly abstract and theoretical) a practical guide to “Sitting In” at your first jam session. Preview it here.

But where these essays hit the spot is in Gussow’s discussions of what I’ll call the politics of the blues. A lot of harp players don’t want to hear about politics. I’ve been told more than once: “Forget about it, man; just blow!” There’s also no shortage of harp masters with great tone and a truckload of scorching licks, but who are completely inept when in it comes to the higher thinking about how to position onceself within the genre… ideologically.

Hey! Stop snoring, this is important.

Ignoring the politics of blues music is like ignoring the crocodile swimming in your Coco Pops. You do so at your peril.

For harp players, the founding fathers were almost exclusively disenfranchised African Americans with barely two coins to rub together. Nowadays it’s a global practice, featuring a broad range of participants but with strong representation from white American and European males.

This is a culture borne out of unspeakable violence, oppression and dispossession – a history that can’t be owned by most people reading this blog. To steep yourself in that legacy is to grapple with some pretty heavy issues about race, privilege, entitlement, and authenticity. Can white men (or women) sing the blues? Can a white person even have the blues? (Or does he just get sad?) There’s also a question of appropriation: Should a well-scrubbed English boy like Mick Jagger be allowed to sing something written by Willie Dixon, who once worked the soil on a Mississippi prison farm?

But what is the real blues? And who gets to own it? These are questions explored in the second half of Journeyman’s Road, but for the purposes of this post I’ll put the spotlight on just one essay: Whose Blues?, a funny, provocative article that should be compulsory reading for aspiring blues players. Subtitled “Eight Infuriating (or Hope-Inducing) Half-Truths about the Modern Blues Scene”, this essay sees Gussow complicating the hell out of all the tired old 2-D arguments (many of which I trotted through in the paragraphs above). At the same time, he manages to point out a bunch of political beartraps that contemporary fans of the blues are constantly blundering into. (Also see that essay for further details about the man in the pink tuxedo: a younger, hotter-headed Adam Gussow publishes a critique of some well-known harp players. One of them takes offence, leading to a heated, pink-tuxedo’d backstage exchange.)

For starters, Gussow has long pointed out that blues has always been a creole form: there’s never been such thing as “authentic” blues, so you can stop worrying about that. And they say in blues you’re either black and authentic or you’re white and faking it, right? How, Gussow asks, can one explain the fact that as a white man in New York he tutored a number of older black men in harmonica? And an American Indian blues band playing SRV Texas shuffles? Just where the hell do they fit in? And what does it mean when people talk about ‘keeping the blues alive’?

“What many whitefolks want to keep alive, to be blunt, is what might be called the Pristine Black Folk Subject, the postmodern reincarnation of the Old Time Negro.”

Sound familiar? I’m always surprised when someone remarks that African Americans “turned their back on blues.” [Even Jerry Portnoy said it in a Harp Surgery interview.] You may as well lament people turning their back on doing the Charleston.

The middle class white folk who so gleefully took up the blues mantle in the 1960s are obsessed with the authenticity of poverty: everyone likes a bit of authentic black bluesmanness, to the extent that it becomes a fetish. To quote a multitude of regional sales managers in ugly hats: “Them’s the real blues.” (By the way: any person who attended a decent school and got three meals a day does NOT have the right to say “ain’t” just because they’re wearing an ugly hat.)

Resolving these issues – or at least calling a mental truce with them – is crucial for anyone who plans to sit in for twelve bars of anything. Gussow can get you partway there.

…And the guy in the pink tuxedo? Well, I can’t be sure, but my money’s on Rick Estrin. Hope he doesn’t get to read this…

What do you think? Let’s hear it in the comments box.

16 thoughts on “Journeyman’s Road by Adam Gussow, pt 2

  • November 20, 2009 at 8:45 pm

    First up:

    “The middle class white folk who so gleefully took up the blues mantle in the 1960s are obsessed with the authenticity of poverty..”

    Are they really?

  • November 21, 2009 at 1:57 am

    For ‘authenticity of poverty’ perhaps read ‘romantic notion of poverty’. The real thing is plain nasty, authentic or otherwise. You don’t want to go there in a hurry.

    By the way, in Chicago back in March, Billy Branch and I stumbled onto the same plateau. See gig reviews. [Billy asked the Doc an impossible question. “Why do white folks like the blues?” He motioned to the audience. Turning round, the Good Doctor contemplated the sea of white faces. “I know why I like the blues”, he responded].

    You can sometimes analyse this question (which is healthy) until you come full circle. Life’s as much an individual experience as a collective one. We all get our bite of the shit sandwich at some point. Ultimately the music transcends everything – and either it flips your switch or it don’t.

    And as for the man in pink towering over you Elwood, it’s just a trick of perspective.

    Blimey – time for a lie down.

  • November 22, 2009 at 5:13 pm

    A “google alert” brought your second column on JOURNEYMAN’S ROAD to my attention. Thanks! Your commentary was generous, thoughtful, and provocative. You’ve already got one skeptic commenting, I see, but it’s hard to tell whether he’s going after you or me. In any case, thanks much. I feel as though you read–and accurately described–the book I actually wrote, which is all any writer wants. Total agreement on all points certainly isn’t necessary.


  • November 23, 2009 at 4:28 pm

    I think one of the main reasons many old black bluesmen want to keep the blues to themselves is because of what happened in the sixties: many white bands just stole their music, and made a lot of money doing so. How many Willie Dixon riffs did Led Zeppelin claim as their own? The Who (under a different name) ripped off Slim Harpo. Canned Heat ripped off Henry Thomas. The list goes on. Although personally I think the blues belongs to everyone (and no one), I can understand the attitude.

  • November 23, 2009 at 5:22 pm

    Cap’n — I have a feeling we’re never going to agree on this, but to your point: well, naturally I’m going to say yes, really.

    I’m grateful to Wilf for offering a useful alternative definition.

    I would argue that this obession with authenticity is one of the reasons that British blues culture seems to hand out extra credit for any performer who started life on a cotton plantation in the deep south… or, with regard to the various art school drop-outs who started the UK blues movement, there was also validation by association.

    This forms part of the significance of the European appearances of various ‘authentic’ bluesmen in the 1960s alongside new Brit blues bands: Rice Miller, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, etc. Yes, the local lads got to share a stage with their musical heroes, yes, the aging heroes found a new audience to resurrect fading careers*, but surely there was also an element of hoping some of the grit of authenticity would rub off on the new generation of bluesmen?

    But it’s difficult to evaluate your perspective without hearing you out. Care to share your thoughts?

    Wilf – you’re absolutely right that this is a circular process. You’re also right that it’s a healthy one. Note that neither I nor the author in question claim that only some people should be allowed to play the blues. (Or indeed that biting the shit sandwich is anything but a universal experience.) All I ask, for my part, is that people think long and hard about how to clear a space for themselves in the genre.

    *This point is made somewhere in Journeyman’s Road by noting that B.B. King, for his part, remembers his career in terms of a gladdening resurrection at the hands of predominantly white audiences.

  • November 23, 2009 at 7:25 pm

    “surely there was also an element of hoping some of the grit of authenticity would rub off on the new generation of bluesmen?”

    I don’t know, you’d have to ask those ‘middle class white folk’.

    And I’d like to know where you’re drawing the line.. how about a working class white person? Is their motive the same?

  • November 23, 2009 at 11:25 pm

    I bet you’re wrong, Elwood. My money is on Rod Piazza. :^)

  • November 25, 2009 at 9:21 am

    And if it was?

    I’m not surprised offence was taken. William Clarke’s drinking, Lester Butler’s drug abuse.. you’d hopefully acknowledge there’s SOME kind of pain there. Oh hang on, but they’re white. Damn, can’t sing the blues. But wait, I need some clarification, so let’s just put the ‘white blues bad’ argument aside for one moment.

    Minstrelsy – let me sow a seed here, just sowing seeds, see what grows.. Louis Armstrong and Paul Robeson. Who’s more ‘blue’? Who’s more entitled to sing the blues? I’d be interested on your opinion, Adam, since they’re.. both black. Armstrong conciliatory, accepted, legendary. Robeson mighty, politically active, confrontational.. ostracised. Who’s feeling more pain?

    Truth is we’ll never know. But here’s a thought.

    I say Tiger Woods can’t sing the blues. I say Sonny Liston could.

  • November 25, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    But Cap’n, I know you read the “Whose Blues” essay. So I’m surprised that “white blues bad” is the message you take away from it. The message I got is that “white blues that fetishes black blues bad”. Moreover, I agree with you – and judging from “Whose Blues” so does Gussow – in the Tiger Woods/ Sonny Liston hypothesis.

    (In Tiger’s defence, Sonny Liston probably plays a dreadful game of golf.)

    The arguments laid out above are patently against that old refrain that all black people have instant access to blues culture, and all white people are just faking it. Since this post was published, a debate has emerged on Gussow’s website. See his comments (as “kudzurunner”) for his views.

  • November 25, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    And, come to think of it, some of mine too.

  • November 25, 2009 at 8:18 pm

    The message to me seems to be ‘anything other than black blues is bad (with qualifications)’ and it’s the hamfisted pitching of dividing lines between what’s good and bad that gets on my wick.

    Black blues with a French accent? Or African blues? Nope, can’t be good. ” To get blues you need America, in all its miserable, miscegenated, Jim Crow glory.”

    So Palestinians, Armenians and Maori can’t sing the blues?

    Oh hang on a minute, section 5, Rory and Bonnie. So now white people CAN sing the blues, but only if they’re Rory and Bonnie. Seems to me like this article is shaping up into ‘who Adam considers worthy enough’ rather than a serious discussion. It all depends on which side of his line you fall. Or did he miss out a few smileys and winks? Did I miss the irony, this early in the morning?

    And on which side of his own line does he fall? (smiley, wink)

    P.S. 3) White Americans can play the blues.. I note with interest the name of Eric Clapton, who originates from that famous part of white America, Ripley in Surrey-shire. Nowhere near the Thames delta.

    P.P.S. I can’t join another internet forum. I would get no work done.

  • November 27, 2009 at 10:05 am

    If a black man can be president…

  • November 27, 2009 at 5:56 pm

    The Captain has flattened my dialectics and avoided engaging the paradoxes that I specifically highlighted. “Whose Blues” was subtitled “half-truths.”

    May we stipulate that Bonnie Raitt can indeed sing some remarkably soulful blues? May we also then agree that it’s a surprise, on the face of it, to realize that she was an undergrad at Harvard (Radcliffe) and was the daughter of famous actors? If it were possible to make reduce blues-playing ability to the most obvious sort of geographical, racial, and socioeconomic/class background–poor, black, and hailing from the Jim Crow South–then she shouldn’t be able to sing as well as she does, and WOULDN’T sing the way she does. A paradox.

    I do indeed like some artists more than other artists, and discuss the aesthetics of artists whom I do like in my article. I don’t see why this counts as evidence for my article not being “a serious discussion.”

    The blues is a world music at this point. Palestinians, Armenians, and Maori are welcome to try singing it. One of the best blues singers & guitarists in New York City was Joe Taino. The Taino Indians were one of the groups, along with the Arawaks and Carib, whom Columbus wiped out. He happens to have paid his dues, played with a lot of great players, and is a fine player himself. But there’s no necessary one-to-one correlation between tracing one’s heritage to an oppressed group and being able to sing the blues. An apprenticeship process of some sort, an acculturation process, is necessary.

    I’d encourage the Captain to purchase my most recent book, JOURNEYMAN’S ROAD, and read the introduction–the whole book, in fact. WHOSE BLUES is merely one stab at talking intelligibly about the blues. In JOURNEYMAN I have long interviews with three New York blues performers: one white & southern, one black, one Italian. They’re all terrific blues performers, each in a different way. They authentic postmodern American blues performers. The condition of postmodernity means that we no longer fall for the old notions of pure, authentic, internally consistent origins. Everything is mixed. Charley Patton was mixed–literally. He was black, white, and Indian. He played for black folks and white folks. Muddy Waters was mixed: he played lots of country music for Delta audiences, especially Gene Autry tunes. Racist A&R guys wouldn’t let him record that stuff. “Purist” folklorists told him he was inauthentic when he first visited England because “real” bluesmen were supposed to play unplugged. Nobody ever gets the blues entirely right, including me. That’s a good thing, I think.

  • January 21, 2016 at 8:51 pm

    I’ve been reading all of this and I’d like to quote Junior Wells, speaking in a jam recording of ‘Trouble Don’t Last Always’:
    “He [Buddy Guy] just wanna do one thing, it’s to get his game up tight and let everybody know that he’s a soul brother. And a soul brother consists of one person: black, white, blue, green, purple, any kind of thing you want to name a body. He’s a soul brother, you only have to do one thing which is let everybody know you a man”.

    I’ve always figured this as meaning that anyone can play the blues, if they’ve got the blues. As the Good Doctor said on his third position primer, I believe “blues is a feeling”, and whatever kind of hardship you’ve got it’s worth singing about. Doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, poor or rich, healthy or ill, if you’ve got the blues in you then you play the blues.

  • January 21, 2016 at 8:59 pm

    Okay, I retract my earlier comment after actually thinking about what I was saying. Blues is a feeling, but it’s so tied in with history and politics that it’s a tricky issue to deal with who’s ‘allowed’ to play. I’ll have a deeper think about this.

  • January 21, 2016 at 10:10 pm

    Okay, I think I’ve figured out what was trying to say. Blues, to me, is different for everyone and we should celebrate that. You need to know the roots, and homage to the greats (almost exclusively black) is good, but trying to be something you’re not takes the purpose of expressing your feelings away.

    So yes, I think anyone can play or even sing the blues. But they’ve got to be their blues, not ones they’ve borrowed off someone else. I know Mr Gussow has told of many a time where his mentor Mr McGee reinforced the idea of making his own stamp on the music rather than trying to sound like anyone else, and I’m beginning to understand that now.

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