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The Color of the Blues: Considering Revisionist Blues Scholarship

From: Southern Cultures
Volume 19, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 61-81 | 10.1353/scu.2013.0007

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Seasick Steve's appearance on BBC breakfast television in 2009 and the acceptance within the public domain of a white man as a traditional blues musician also points to the possibility that, while some stereotypes remain, others, such as the fact that real bluesmen are black and from the Deep South, may have faded. Seasick Steve, Stockholm, 2009, courtesy of the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Presenter:

It's blues music that evokes a kind of hobo lifestyle, and people talk about your background in that way. Tell us a bit about where you were before you got to where you are.

Seasick Steve:

Well, you know, that's like another problem I have. People think they found me under a bridge a few years ago, but I raised five boys, you know, I had normal jobs, I had thirty-five years . . . But when I was a young fella, I had to leave home when I was thirteen, and I did some pretty rough living and wandering around. We used to ride trains or hitchhike and follow migrant work around the farm work. But, you know, that ended many years ago, and I just sort of had to be, tried to be, a regular fella.

Seasick Steve's appearance on BBC breakfast television in 2009 to promote his aptly titled album, Man From Another Time, was an uncanny reminder of the post-war blues revival, when aging and forgotten African American blues singers, such as Mississippi John Hurt, Sleepy John Estes, and Son House, were rediscovered and presented to mainstream white audiences. The interview revealed how images and stereotypes conjured up during the blues revival of the mid-twentieth century—the bluesman as wandering hobo or anti-conformist rebel—are still with us in the twenty-first, a perception of blues musicians which, as the singer demonstrates in his response, needs to be repeatedly refuted. The acceptance within the public domain of a white man as a traditional blues musician, however, also points to the possibility that while some stereotypes remain, others, such as the fact that real bluesmen are black and from the Deep South, may have faded.

In recent years, a number of writers have sought to deconstruct old stereotypes about the blues. Jeff Titon, Elijah Wald, Marybeth Hamilton, Patricia Schroeder, and Karl Hagstrom Miller have challenged depictions of the blues as an "authentic" folk music with roots firmly within working-class African American culture, most often presented at odds with modernity and consumer capitalism. This has taken the shape of dismantling the myth of the "bluesman," revered as a rebel that renounced the worldly benefits of commercial success for his music. In essence, these revisionist writers have emphasized the irreconcilable variance between the blues as it really was and that which white middle-class enthusiasts and record collectors of the Sixties "invented" and wanted to see. This chosen view has resulted in obscure singers from the South, such as Son House, Skip James, and Robert Johnson, being idolized as archetypal blues heroes, at the expense of musicians like Leroy Carr and the Mississippi Sheiks, who were both more widely known among African American audiences and commercially successful during the Race Records era of the interwar years.

However, while revisionists have highlighted the socio-cultural distances between commentators and the music, they have often limited their efforts by presenting the "invention" of the blues—that is, the rediscovery of the blues during the 1960s revival—as predominantly an American story. This has either neglected or downplayed the fact that the blues reached audiences far beyond the geographical borders of North America. The blues is American music with origins within African American culture of the South, but its story has not been limited by these national or cultural boundaries. Thus, to fully understand the nature of blues historiography and the way the blues has been "invented" since the revival, it is necessary to acknowledge that from the middle of the last century the blues was consumed, performed, and interpreted within a transatlantic context.


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Revisionist writers have emphasized the irreconcilable variance between the blues as it really was...



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