What’s Wrong with White Boys Playing the Blues?

Blowhard, Esq. writes:

The L.A. Weekly recently ran a feature on the “20 Worst Hipster Bands.” Here’s the entry for No. 20:

Fifty years after the Rolling Stones and we’re still upset about this? They “lack authenticity,” you see, b/c they aren’t black. Thus, they’re forever barred from using a I-IV-V chord progression and playing a minor pentatonic scale.

By the way, a question: how many young blacks are even drawn to playing guitar? Very few in my admittedly limited, anecdotal experience. It seems like most blacks who pursue music get into DJing, hip-hop, or R&B, all of which put more emphasis on voice or keyboards/programming than guitar. Given the relative dearth of young black blues musicians, shouldn’t we be happy someone is carrying the torch for this essential American art form?

OK, OK, OK — if it sounds like I’m taking this a little personally, it’s b/c I am. First, I think the Black Keys‘ latest album, El Camino, is a great rock ‘n roll record. Freewheeling, raucous, and energetic, it’s packed with dirty hooks and low-down riffs. Eleven tracks and not a single one of ’em is filler. And I used the phrase “rock ‘n roll” intentionally. In his autobiography, Keith Richards laments that fact that a lot of modern rock music puts all the emphasis on rocking and none on rolling. “What happened the groove?” he wonders. (My short answer: blame Johnny Ramone.) The Black Keys didn’t forget the groove. Unlike a lot of the music you find on alternative rock radio, you can dance to it. Here’s the second single off El Camino, “Gold on the Ceiling.”

The second reason this nonsense pisses me off is that I’m kinda, sorta an amateur blues player myself. After messing around on the guitar for years, I recently decided to take formal lessons. My teacher, who is white, was born and raised in Whittier, got his music degree at UC Irvine, and now lives in Aliso Viejo. In other words, cracker as can be. He’s an incredible guitar player whose favorite music is jazz and reggae. At my first lesson, within 15 minutes of meeting him, he taught me the basic blues scale and had me improvising over a rhythm track. It was a blast. Scary and exhilarating at the same time.

But I guess I shouldn’t enjoy myself too much, seeing as I wasn’t born to the right type of people in the Mississippi Delta during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, thus my playing will never be more than ersatz. Nah, fuck that and fuck these pinhead humanities-major music critics who probably couldn’t strum a C-chord if their tickets to Coachella depended on it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go practice my scales.

UPDATE: Stuff White People Like weighs in.

About Blowhard, Esq.

Amateur, dilettante, wannabe.
This entry was posted in Music, Personal reflections and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to What’s Wrong with White Boys Playing the Blues?

  1. Sax von Stroheim says:

    The authenticity argument is a huge drag, and should have been settled for all time by Leiber & Stoller’s “Baby, That Is Rock and Roll”.

    Also, what’s with the gratuitous swipe at the White Stripes? Who says that the guitar-drum combo wasn’t a good idea? Seems like it was a good idea for Jack White, at least!


    • Blowhard, Esq. says:

      I’m not much of a fan of the White Stripes, but I agree the jab at them was stupid too. Granted it’s just a little blurb, but nowhere does Mr. Pell say the songs are not well-made, just that the’re not “real.” So who’s being the hipster exactly — the bands or the critic?


    • Blowhard, Esq. says:

      Something I forgot to add in my original post: do these same critics get upset when they see Asians playing classical music? Does anyone say to Yo-Yo Ma, “Nice try dude, but that music is for white Europeans.” And if not, why not?


  2. FENSTER says:

    We ought to have some posts here on the death of groove/Ramone meme and if you don’t start one I will. Roll on!


    • Blowhard, Esq. says:

      Fenster, per your encouragement, I will. I’m no pop music scholar, but this is topic definitely worth exploring.


    • Steve Sailer says:

      To toot my own horn, I extolled The Ramones’ third album in 1978 in the Rice U. newspaper in almost exactly those terms: something like, The blues are great, but it’s refreshing to finally hear some rock that’s not blues-based.

      But that was 34 years ago! The permanent ideological triumph of punk has been almost as bad for pop music as the permanent triumph of rap.


  3. dearieme says:

    Terribly overwrought, the Blues.


    • Blowhard, Esq. says:

      How so? I think it’s pretty primative and direct, actually. Are you referring to the temptation to interminable soloing?


      • dearieme says:

        Interminable dull soloing. Mechanistic, formulaic repetition. Lyrics that would shame a schoolboy.

        I’m not referring to Miss Smith or Mr Jelly Lord, for example. Full of music, some performers. But not all.


  4. Sir Barken Hyena says:

    dearieme! Folks, we’ve arrived now that we’ve got the mysterious dearieme commenting.

    The authenticity thing is baked in to modern culture. I don’t get why but ever since punk it’s been unavoidable.


  5. dearieme says:

    Mind you, some beautiful stuff has been played under the name “Blues”. I mean, nobody would call this Blues nowadays would they?


  6. j r says:

    Why would you take that article seriously? Number 19 is TV on the Radio, another great band. It’s pretty obvious that article is an exercise in trolling. Someone said, “hey, I bet if we shit on twenty really popular indie bands, we’ll get a lot of page views.” The reasons they’re giving for disliking these bands are flimsy and ad hoc. It’s pretty transparent.


    • Blowhard, Esq. says:

      Yeah, you’re probably right that the article itself is deliberate trolling, and thus nothing to get worked up over. OTOH, as others have pointed out in this thread, the “authenticity” argument comes up a lot and that’s what I was really taking aim at.


  7. Where creating art-and-entertainment goes, people can do whatever they want to do, as far as I’m concerned, as long as they don’t ruin my neighborhood (or anyplace pretty, come to think of it). Architecture’s the big exception. Bad work in architecture can destroy beauty and wreck lives. But a poem that misses the mark? A song that doesn’t quite work? A pretentious movie? Who really cares? Most critics (and journalist-critics) should cut it with the critiques and try making fun and pleasing art-entertainment themselves.

    I’ve only heard the Black Stripes once, and it was on the speakers at a restaurant. (A really good college-type hipster restaurant in Iowa City, come to think of it.) Loved what I heard. What’s the album of theirs to start with? Hey, it’s a new age: I don’t have to buy “an album,” I can buy individual tracks. Still hard for me to get used to that. So: how about some cool individual tracks for me to start with?

    FWIW, the Wife and I once attended a blues festival down in a super-poor town in the Delta — can’t get any more “authentic” than that these days, unless you’re willing to risk knife fights at an actual juke joint. Performers were maybe 50-50 black/white. The audiences were 90% white. The locals were mostly poor black people, and in every store and restaurant of theirs that we went into, a TV was roaring and hiphop music was playing. The “authentic” people didn’t seem to want anything to do with the blues, aside from taking the money of blues fans.

    Great to see Dearieme! One of the web’s great commenters.


  8. HoopsDogg says:

    Screw you LA Weekly. The Black Keys worked their freaking asses off. 8 years, 5 albums and 2 EPs before they got a platinum album. A couple of working class kids from Akron basically had to live out of a van for years before they got anywhere… Why begrudge them their success? If you’ve been to the crappier parts of Akron (which are more numerous than the parts that aren’t crappy), or to any of Akron’s high schools, you know what the blues are.


  9. Thanks for the YouTube links. Should have thought of that myself. Getting old.


  10. shelley dell says:

    kind of bored with the whole authenticity topic. I’ll stick with paraphrasing The Velveteen Rabbit on this one: the learning, and practice and comprehension is how you become real.
    Is rudimentary guitar playing by a black human more “Blue” than great playing by any human with any other Pantone number? I agree with the Paleo Retiree: critics should try to actually make something.


  11. Pingback: NY Times Jumps the Shark, or, Trolling Becomes Journalism’s New Standard | Uncouth Reflections

  12. Pingback: White Boy Blues update | Uncouth Reflections

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