Chris Thomas King – The Blues: The Authentic Narrative Of My Music And Culture
400 pages – Hardcover edition
It is a bit bewildering at times these days as the status quo in many areas has been questioned seemingly at every turn. For some, this questioning of long-held beliefs is unnerving, leading to strong emotional reactions. For others, issues like racism demand immediate and definitive action, along with equally passionate emotional investments.
In the blues community, Adam Gussow’s recent work, Whose Blues?, delved into the white influence on a music that sprang from a black culture, rooted in a system of slavery. The author offers up compelling points on both sides, giving credence to claims by a number of black musicians and writers that the music is rightfully theirs, and theirs alone, then examining where the music might be without the support and participation of white fans and musicians.
Blues artist Chris Thomas King expands the discussion even further in his new book. The son of Baton Rouge legend Tabby Thomas, King grew up surrounded by the music his father played, and later the blues he heard at his dad’s club, Tabby’s Blues Box and Heritage Hall, a funky club that anchored the local blues community for several decades until falling victim to urban redevelopment. King has had his own successful career, with over twenty recordings in his name as well as starring roles in the big screen motion pictures O Brother, Where Art Thou (playing Tommy Johnson), and Ray (as Lowell Fulson).
His contention is that blues music came into being in New Orleans, well before the Mississippi Delta region had been tamed by the US Army Corps of Engineers. King makes his case that trumpeters Buddy Bolden and King Oliver, along with the esteemed piano man Jelly Roll Morton, were playing the blues in the early 1900’s. The author takes exception to the “Father of the Blues” title bestowed on W.C. Handy, an honor that King argues overlooks the contributions of a host of New Orleans musicians.
One point of contention that he brings up throughout the book is that the “myth” that blue music sprang from the Delta became basis for the “white blues mafia,” a group of record collectors and music industry insiders who created the Delta narrative to highlight the “rediscoveries” of artists like Son House and Rev. Gary Davis. This narrative favored raw, more primitive musicians playing music that was born on the back of slavery. King refutes that line of thinking as it devalues the contributions of Lonnie Johnson, one of the finest guitarist of all time, with a sophisticated style that far too advanced and lacking in primal energy. Yet Johnson, born in New Orleans, started recording in 1925, well before many of the country blues artists had their chance.
In setting up his premise, King guides readers through a well-researched history of slavery and its impact in the US as well as Caribbean nations. He notes on page 6…”To justify the rise of barbarism toward Black human beings, a racist ideology began to coalesce among elite colonists in the New World in the sixteenth century,,,,a new “White” political class emerged, in part to divide unfree labor.” Later he lays out a withering dissection of the rise of the French colony of Haiti, the largest producer of sugar bound for European countries. “Sugar was “white gold”: an addictive and unquenchable drug…Sugar ignited the Atlantic slave trade…There is nothing patriotic or noble about sacrificing a person’s limbs or life simply for a decadent pleasure commodity for royals and elites”.
King weaves his treatise through time, adding discussions on his perceived key points including the influence on the music by the all-white Original Dixieland Jass Band, how Johnson impacted the work of Bob Dylan, and how black record producer Tom Wilson ignited Dylan’s career by expanding the singer’s sound, as well as the impact of writers like Zora Neale Hurston on solidifying the standard blues primitive story line.
Half way through, King switches gears to tell his own personal story, taking readers from his childhood through the various phases of his career. He started on the cornet, encouraged by his uncle who played in the marching band. But it wasn’t long before the guitar captured his imagination. As he relates, “But I lost interest in the cornet as my chops and reputation on the guitar grew. The guitar made a lot of a lot of racket….the guitar had become the loudest and most popular instrument in modern music”.
Readers will certainly enjoy his reminiscing about his Hollywood experiences in addition to the ebb and flow of his career, including details on the times he himself has run afoul with the “blues mafia,” particularly for his efforts to meld blues with hip-hop musical influences, raising issues about respecting traditions, which makes King wonder, who’s traditions?
The other theme that winds trough this work is the complicated relationship that King had with his father. Despite his success, the son often felt marginalized by Tabby, often having his ideas rejected out of hand. When the powers that be started making noise about closing the Blues Box, King rallied the troops to try and save the day. In the end, “progress” won out, but King clearly understood the importance of the club for the city of Baton Rouge. “For some, Tabby’s had been a reminder of a crude past, best forgotten. The demolition would be a victory for the moralists and old-time racists……Over the years, the Blues Box had become an iconic hall representing a slice of Americana. Through the power of music and dance, Tabby’s helped to bring our segregated community from post-civil rights movement era race riots to the door of America’s promise and Martin Luther King’s dream.”
This book will challenge readers in a good way. While you may disagree with some of King’s contentions, you certainly will find that he has delved deep into history for the information to support his theories, and makes a convincing case for reconsideration. Highly recommended!