Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Authenticity Under Glass

By Stephen Grimstead

MAY 10, 1999:  In almost every American city of any size one can find areas of town that have been proclaimed by local, state, or federal powers to be "historic" in character. Those buying property in such neighborhoods find that they are, by force of law, compelled to adhere to specific, often astonishingly rigid standards regarding architectural style, building materials, even paint color. ("Prescribed code requires that the shingles of your home must be asphalt, dark grey, or black; all door knobs must be brass; curtains [not blinds] will be hung in the windows; shutters and exterior doors must be painted 'eggshell' white [not 'bright' white].")

Measures such as these are obviously intended to preserve an area's distinctive identity, and to protect it from the ravages of urban development. Fine and dandy -- just don't invest in the area with expectations that new businesses (or other interlopers) will come in and create what most urban planners and economists would describe as a healthy social and commercial interaction between citizens, thereby driving your property values up to a point where you might hope to secure a reasonable return on your investment.

In terms of music categories, the style known as the blues finds itself similarly trapped by its "American icon" status. The genre is sick on several levels, but some of its biggest problems are fairly comparable to those afflicting its brat offspring, rock-and-roll: that is, advanced symptoms of creative anemia. Fiercely sanctified definitions of what is and ain't the blues are smotheringly restrictive, thus undermining the patient's powers of regeneration.

One frequently aired opinion on the subject states that the blues are suffering from dilution at the hands of young white poseurs who would be hard-put to make distinctions between Slims Harpo and Whitman. As for myself, I can't fully agree with that assessment. I haven't noticed much in the way of significant innovation from the aforementioned youngsters (not lately, at least), but I don't think they are doing damage to the genre, either.

I find it interesting to note that, more often than not, cries of "inauthenticity" come from highly educated Caucasian intellectuals of privilege, many of whom graduated with degrees in journalism and function as music critics. I've always wondered just how it is that these writers have managed to connect so unfailingly with the genuine pain and suffering of Delta sharecroppers and unemployed ghetto dwellers, while the white kid from a working-class family who plays his or her guitar for five hours every day and knows every tune ever recorded by John Lee Hooker remains clueless. Actually, many of these music reviewers aren't even musicians themselves, yet feel perfectly qualified to expound upon the topic. Perhaps the bogus young white blues hopeful would do well to attend some journalism classes, so as to cop some real down and dirty life experience. ("Oh baby, I spent 30 minutes in the hole 'cause I wouldn't reveal my sources/But if I can't meet your deadline, I think I'll just lay down and die!/Good gawd, y'all!")

How different the music world would be if performers like the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and so many others had concluded that they had no business emulating their black heroes. As sure as whites and non-musicians can legitimately write newspaper articles about the blues, whites can play the blues. (By the way, it seems to me that blues culture had better be thankful for support from the young Caucasians, because, generally speaking, young blacks sure don't seem to give a damn. When did you last witness a caravan of homeboyz bouncing hydraulically rigged rides through the 'hood in rhythm to a phat, sub-bass-enhanced Furry Lewis groove?)

Carte blanche exclusion of any vigorous set of influences and dynamics (racial or cultural) works against the very phenomenon that drives creativity, namely synthesis. Without a means by which to evolve new forms, any given genre of art is doomed to extinction, bound for the museum. When diverse elements are brought to act upon a style, that style eventually mutates into fresh and potentially exciting territory.

In the '70s, Frank Zappa cracked, "Jazz isn't dead, it just smells funny!" In the '90s, a similar observation is appropriate regarding the blues, its industry, and its culture.

Those who care and are in a position to change things would do well to think about that.


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