Saturday, June 25, 2011

"People Think That When White People Scream That’s It's Soul"

I am in the middle of reading John Einarson’s Forever Changes: Arthur Lee and the Book of Love (Jawbone Press), which details the rise and fall of the pioneering Los Angeles band and its charismatic leader. In the book, Lee recalls his first appearance at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium. The opening act was Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding company and Lee was not overwhelmed by her singing.

“We headlined at the Fillmore and I remember I had to stand and listen to Janis Joplin scream. She was the great white hope for the blues, but all she did was scream. You see, people think that when white people scream that’s it’s soul. But that isn’t soul, it’s just screaming. I remember being in Washington, D.C. once, and the security guard asked me, when i walked on stage, “Hey Arthur, you gonna go up there and do some more screamin’?” Man, that really hit my heart and I haven’t written a screaming song since.”

I have about 2/3rd of this to still read, and up next after it is Phillip Radcliffe’s recently published biography of Mississippi john Hurt. (Both are purchases).

Oh here is another quote from pianist Brad Mehldau (from the Ottawa Citizen’s website) discussing non jazz acts at Jazz Festivals such as they hold in Ottawa. He recognizes the economic reality but he also mentions one aspect of what might be called other genres trading on jazz.

Brad Mehldau's most recent solo recording.
“The ill will starts when people trade on the term “jazz.” When I started doing the festival circuit, around 1990, I noticed that each year there would be a different genre to appear -- you’d have acid jazz, Klezmer music, DJs, etc. Not to belittle or question the validity that surrounds these kinds of music, but merely to show what I mean by trading on jazz, I’ve observed a common byline in the media that surrounds these different genres. It’s like “This is the new music that’s going to release us from a narrow definition of jazz.” The implication is that jazz isn’t hip enough in its own right, that it needs fresh blood, and aren’t we the listeners lucky that we’re going to get pulled out of the cobwebs? But this sentiment is full of bad faith. Why is this music appearing on a jazz festival then, when the whole subtext is that it’s too hip for jazz? In fact you could argue that often it’s the opposite case -- often musicians trade on the allure of jazz as a term to get over, simultaneously thumbing their nose at jazz. That’s a drag.

The full quote can be found at

I can find parallels with what he says with a lot of the so-called new blues, that I might suggest is similarly trading on blues as a genre. Artists playing music that twenty years ago would have been labelled rock without controversy is supposedly going to expand the blues audience, but bring an audience that will pretty much ignore “traditional blues.” 

I have a lot of respect for Ray Manzarek’s work with the Doors and Roy Rogers work with the late John lee Hooker and his own blues-rock music, but I don’t see a lot of festivals going out of their way to feature blues legends like Jimmy Johnson and Jody Williams, as they seem to be to feature this pair. A woman is featured on the cover of Blues Revue and yet I would be hard pressed to name one blues song on her most recent CD (which isn’t saying the music isn’t good, just that it ain’t blues). 

If promoting music like this (music that one might suggest is 'trading on the blues") is keeping the blues alive, perhaps the blues would be better off taken off life support. Let the music rest on its own qualities but just don't try to call it what it isn't.

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