Adam Gussow – Whose Blues?: Facing Up To Race And The Future Of The Music
The University Of North Carolina Press
332 Pages Paperback edition
There is no question that blues music was born out of the experiences of a subjugated population brought to this country in chains, enslaved, and treated as property. From that misery came sounds that shared the pain, heartache, and hope of these people, often sung in coded language to express the raw emotions and thoughts on a world dominated by white people, without incurring the wrath that would follow a more forthright declaration.
Over a hundred years later, blues music has spread around the world. While it has never represented more than a minuscule share of the overall total of recorded music sales, the genre has still managed to be the catalyst for several unique businesses, including the Blues festival circuit and the Legendary Rhythm & Blues cruise, not to mention an international assortment of clubs that had featured live blues music in the days before the pandemic.
Yet, as the music extended it’s reach, some began to question if the true roots of the music were being lost as white musicians, promoters, record label moguls, and club owners always seemed to get the attention, along with the power that comes with the spotlight. That is the question that author Adam Gussow examines in his latest work. Is blues a black music, rooted in a culture of surviving and rising up against the forces of oppression – or is it now a music of universal appeal, welcoming any and all who choose to embrace some aspect of the musical legacy?
Gussow is uniquely qualified to delve into this issue. He has authored five other music-related books, including Mister Satan’s Apprentice, which chronicled his partnership with Sterling “Mr. Satan” Magee that started as they busked on a Harlem street corner and eventually lead to record deals and international tours. He also has been in the forefront of on-line teaching through his Modern Blues Harmonica website. In his spare time, Gussow is a professor of English and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi.
He sets the stage by establishing the opposing viewpoints. There is the “Blues is black music” ideology that artists like Corey Harris, Billy Branch, and Sugar Blue have been eloquently supporting. The other side of the coin advocates that color does not matter, it is just the blues, a sentiment that Gussow points out was once a very popular phrase on a best-selling t-shirt in Memphis stores.
The author than delves into an in-depth examination of the merits of both positions, taking readers back to the early days of the first blues recordings. The early blues “stars” were women like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, establishing blues as black popular music for a period of four decades. Gussow devotes three chapters to separate elements of the music. In “Blues Conditions,” the focus in on forces that shaped the music, particularly the constant fear of violence from the racist white system that far outweighed any pain from troubles with love.
Those conditions naturally lead to “Blues Feelings,” and how blues artists express their reactions to loneliness, abandonment, hopelessness, rejection. Those feelings come out through “Blues Expressiveness,” using the familiar AAB song form, call and response, signifying, and talking drums. Together these parts form the “blues ethos,” which Gussow describes as “An attitudinal orientation toward experience, a sustaining philosophy of life”.
Subsequent chapters find the author assessing W.C Handy’s self-proclaimed status as the father of the blues before making a case for the impact of the poetry of Langston Hughes on the blues ethos. Author Zora Neale Hurston’s best works sprang from her experiences in the jook joints surrounding a Florida lumber camp, earning her a spot in the blues literary tradition. The impact of southern violence is illuminated through works by Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison.
Gussow also looks at the black arts movement that sprang up in 1965 in response to the dominance of white culture. While blues music was not at the forefront of the movement, it certainly was part of the foundation for jazz music, performing arts, and poetry that were used as the voices for equality.
Throughout the book, questions are raised, and information is shared, that challenge readers to move beyond t-shirt slogans to do some deep thinking on a critical issue in the blues community, with all of it’s components. Could blues music survive without the white audience, or white artists? If it is a black music, where do artists of other colors fit in? How do women get their equal share? Have things progressed past the point of no-return, that the music’s universal appeal has pushed it far beyond the claims of any group, as righteous as they might be?
This thought-provoking work comes highly recommended for anyone interested in stepping beyond the music itself to gain a broader understanding of the forces that have fashioned it into a powerful musical form that transcends boundaries of all kinds.