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In this essay, I focus on the emergence of a transatlantic blues culture by analyzing the work of two German concert promoters, Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau. Lippmann and Rau organized the American Folk Blues Festival in both Germanys and other European countries beginning in 1962. I argue that Lippmann and Rau supported attempts to claim middle-class respectability for jazz and the blues and saw a potential for modernizing West and East Germany through black music and tapped into Romantic constructions of authenticity and blackness that posited the blues as the premodern or “primitive” root of jazz. They aligned jazz and blues in the earlier years of the festival but gradually began to cater to the less “respectable” young fans of the emerging rock culture in the latter half of the 1960s who saw the blues as the “primitive” root of rock and roll. Lippmann’s and Rau’s claim that listening to blues music could serve as an antiracist strategy in the larger context of German denazification was undercut by their deployment of racialist ideology and their ignorance of then-current black civil rights politics. Despite its specific localized meanings in the postwar Germanys, the American Folk Blues Festival revealed the more ubiquitous problematic construction of blackness that has informed white countercultural discourses of the 1960s and beyond.
The American Folk Blues Festival employed a specific German primitivism, which had been developed through German colonialism, scientific racism, and German Expressionist art, and other factors and which implicitly negated the history of Afro-Germans and other black people in Germany. By invoking this history, I argue that in their conceptualization of the American Folk Blues Festival Lippmann, Rau and their stage designer Günther Kieser relied on a conservative or preservative approach to blues. The organizers of the American Folk Blues Festival made no references to civil rights struggles in the U.S. until 1965, and then only did so from the safe distance of an ostentatiously liberated, anti-racist West Germany. However, conceptualizations of blues as simple, raw and uninhibited but ultimately non-threatening were occasionally challenged on and off stage by the participating musicians. It is important to acknowledge the local specificity of the blues in both Germanys and the way in the music has been used in efforts to overcome the Nazi past and, to a lesser degree, to resist East German authorities while simultaneously adhering to colonialist and primitivist traditions. Although I emphasize the specific localized context for the American Folk Blues Festival, I argue that its authentication of blues worked strikingly similarly to other Eurocentric discourses. The American Folk Blues Festival helps us to understand that what other scholars have carved out for a specific U.S. context was (and is) a transatlantic phenomenon in which problematic racial conceptions easily travel from the United States to Europe and back.