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1 I I Is a White Musician Playing the Blues Wrong?

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1 1 I I Is a White Musician Playing the Blues Wrong?

2 2 Eva Cassidy “Stormy Monday”

3 3 Rudinow’s Central Questions Joel Rudinow: “Race, Ethnicity, Expressive Authenticity: Can White People Sing the Blues?” Can white people sing the blues? Can white people play the blues?  Do the notes sound different when played with black fingers? Critic Ralph J. Gleason: “[T]he blues is black man’s music, and whites diminish it at best or steal it at worst. In any case they have no moral right to use it.” (409) It seems prima facie racist to restrict access to the blues as a medium of artistic expression. Is there some crucial difference between John Lee Hooker’s blues and John Hammond’s?

4 4 A “Racist” Argument? A doctrine is racist which presupposes that there are “races” whose members share genetically transmitted traits and characteristics not shared by members of other “races” and which make moral distinctions or other distinctions with moral implications, on this basis alone. Essentially, racism seeks a biological basis for differential treatment of human beings: discrimination on the basis of nature. Critiques of racism have been made primarily on two bases: 1)There is no genetic or biological basis for morally significant classification of beings into races.  Those characteristics used to distinguish races are not morally significant, and those human characteristics that are morally significant do not vary significantly with race. 2)“Race” itself is an artificial and harmful construct without objective basis or foundation in science.

5 5 A “Racist” Argument? (cont’d) Let’s distinguish race from ethnicity: Unlike race, which is supposed to be biological, ethnicity requires no genetic or biological foundation.  “Ethnicity is a matter of acknowledged common culture, based on shared items of cultural significance such as experience, language, religion, history, habitat, and the like. Ethnicity is essentially a socially conferred status—a matter of communal acceptance, recognition, and respect.” (410)  To argue that white people cannot play the blues would be racist if it held that white people were genetically incapable of producing the sounds essential to the blues. The very question, “Can white people play the blues” seems to presuppose race as a morally significant human category.

6 6 A “Racist” Argument? (cont’d)  There are many differences between John Lee Hooker’s blues and John Hammond’s blues: diction, phrasing, intonation, instrumental technique…  But the question raised by proponents that white people cannot play the blues is not genetically-based but rather one of authenticity.  What makes one blues performance “authentic” and another “inauthentic” is really a matter of credentials.

7 7 The Authenticity Question  The valuable status of authenticity is conferred on those artifacts and rituals “acceptably derived” from original sources, and not on those that aren’t.  A given work of art may be more or less authentic than another. Authenticity is a kind of value—a credibility that comes from having the appropriate relationship to an original source. Just as we apply talk of authenticity to issues of forgery, authenticity is applicable to the artifacts and rituals of which are a culture’s “currency”. Blues “compositions” tend to consist in simple chord progressions, with no universal key signature or instrumentation, and lyrics open to ad lib interruption, interpretation, and elaboration in performance.

8 8 The Authenticity Question (cont’d) “As a musical genre, the blues is characterized by what we might call ‘compositional minimalism’ and a complementary emphasis on expressive elements.” (411) Regarding a blues performance, then, its authenticity will depend upon its stylistic and expressive elements being acceptably enough derived from the original source of the blues. To claim, then, that white people cannot play the blues is to claim: “[W]hite musicians cannot play the blues in an authentic way because they do not have the requisite relation or proximity to the original sources of the blues.” (412)

9 9 The Proprietary Argument The Proprietary Argument focuses on ownership, asking “Who owns the blues?” or “What has the legitimate authority to play (or interpret, or draw from, or contribute to) the blues?” The Argument P1The African American community owns the blues. P2To sing the blues is to appropriate the blues. P3A white man does not belong to the African American community. P4It is always wrong to appropriate something that belongs to others. CIt is wrong for a white man to sing the blues.

10 10 The Proprietary Argument (cont’d) In fact, the originators and major innovators of the blues were members of the African-American community. The Proprietary Argument claims that because the African- American community created and developed the blues, it owns the blues, and that white musicians who perform the blues misappropriate it.  Amiri Baraka: “[A]fter each new wave of black innovation, i.e., New Orleans, big band, bebop, rhythm and blues, hard bop, new music, there was a commercial cooption of the original music and an attempt to replace it with corporate dilution which mainly featured white players and was mainly intended for a white middle-class audience.” (412)

11 11 The Proprietary Argument (cont’d) Part of the claim lies with its origin in the African American community. But why should its origin be so connected with ownership? The analog is to the modern notion of intellectual property where an individual is understood to have certain rights regarding the products of his creative work; similarly, the music of the blues belongs to certain members of the African-American community. But ownership by members of a community is not equivalent to ownership by the community. Further, the modern notion of intellectual property can support ownership claims to particular compositions, but not to such ideas as elements of style. Objection: How is the claim that the blues as genre and style belongs to the African American community warranted?

12 12 The Proprietary Argument (cont’d) Historically, the blues involve interaction between the performers and audience, blurring the line between the two. The notion of intellectual property misleads attention from the real source of communal ownership of the blues: its genre and style originated as a communicative idiom and practice within the African-American community. It is this practice that gives rise to meaning in the blues: “[T]he elements of blues style, when understood within the context of the music’s historical origins and the social context of its production, take on crucial semantic and syntactic significance.” (414)

13 13 The Experiential Access Argument Where the Proprietary Argument focuses on ownership, the Experiential Access Argument addresses questions of meaning and understanding as they bear on issues of culture, its identity, evolution, and transmission. The Argument P1One cannot understand the blues unless one knows what it’s like to live as an African American. P2One cannot know what it’s like to live as an African American without being an African American. P3Singing the blues without understanding them is inauthentic. P4It is wrong to sing the blues inauthentically. CIt is wrong for anyone who is not an African American to sing the blues.

14 14 The Experiential Access Argument (cont’d) Who can legitimately claim to understand the blues? Who can speak authoritatively about the blues and its interpretation? Who are the real bearers of the blues tradition? Essentially, the Experiential Access Argument says one cannot understand the blues unless one knows what it’s like to live as a black person in America, and one cannot know this without being one. The experience of living as a black person in America is a precondition of the felt emotion essential to authentic expression in the idiom of the blues. One needs direct access to this experience, otherwise one’s attempts to perform the blues will tend to be shallow and superficial.

15 15 The Experiential Access Argument (cont’d) Baraka: “The idea of a white blues singer seems an even more violent contradiction of terms than the idea of a middle-class blues singer.” (414) All things being equal, the more directly one’s knowledge claims are grounded in first-hand experience, the more unassailable one’s authority. Objection: “The access that most contemporary black Americans have to the experience of slavery or sharecropping or life on the Mississippi delta during the twenties and thirties is every bit as remote, mediated, and indirect as that of any white would-be blues player.” (415)

16 16 The Experiential Access Argument (cont’d) To gain access to the deeper layers of meaning, one must have the keys to the code. But obtaining this requires extensive and detailed familiarity with the historically unique body of experience shared within and definitive of the African-American community. As such, the keys are therefore available only to the properly initiated. Reply: The blues is essentially a cryptic language, a kind of secret code with multiple layers of meaning.

17 17 The Experiential Access Argument (cont’d) Evidence of such strategies within the African-American community is well-documented. Leo Strauss: Where the thought and communication of one population is subjugated by another, the subjugated group will “continue to seek, recognize, and communicate the truth privately in defiance of even the most repressive regimes.” (415)  “Black English” has employed crucial ambiguity, understatement, irony, and inversion of meaning.  “Lyrically the blues are rife with more or less covert allusions to the oppressive conditions of black life in America,” (416) with innocuous words given secondary meanings closed off to all but the initiated.  The blues also employs references to the esoterica of African religions prohibited and systematically repressed in 20th-Century America.

18 18 The Experiential Access Argument (cont’d) Although the Experiential Access Argument has moral force, it leaves open the possibility that a white (or other non-black) musician could be properly initiated—if not to the African American community as a whole, then in the use of the blues as an expressive medium, and so into the blues community. Authenticity, then, is to be determined on a case-by-case basis. As authenticity turns on an issue of ethnicity, and not race, while the performances of some white blues musicians may turn out to be inauthentic, so too may those of some black blues musicians. Problem: None of this secures the thesis that white people cannot authentically sing or play the blues.


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