Cultural Appropriation and the Blues

Sure, white people can perform Blues songs. But can we sing the Blues?

The Blues originate from a particular cultural and social history unique to Black people. Yes, the musical form was a fusion of European folksong and African musical and folksong techniques – but the emotion underlying the Blues was something special, and the characteristic musical style of the Blues (the blue note) can be traced back to Africa.

The Blues began as a particular type of Black folk music that was first heard around the plantations of north-western Mississippi at the very end of the 19th century. It originated in the area known as the Delta, the flat plain between the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers, over the next few years. It was further disseminated throughout the Southern States over the first two decades of the new century by travelling shows and wandering songsters.

All About Blues Music

The first audiences for Blues music were segregated; there were separate performances for Black and white audiences. The Blues were born out of the pain of Jim Crow, segregation, slavery, sundowner towns, lynchings, chain gangs, and all of that pain. That is why it’s called the Blues.

The Blues… its 12-bar, bent-note melody is the anthem of a race, bonding itself together with cries of shared self victimization. Bad luck and trouble are always present in the Blues, and always the result of others, pressing upon unfortunate and down trodden poor souls, yearning to be free from life’s’ troubles. Relentless rhythms repeat the chants of sorrow, and the pity of a lost soul many times over. This is the Blues.

W C Handy (1873-1958), “Father of the Blues”

So if a white performer sings a blues song, and fails to acknowledge that history, and makes more money off of it than Black performers… now we are moving into cultural appropriation territory. At the very least, they should credit the song to the original artist (which of course they are legally required to do), and make it clear what the song means – whether it is a happy song which seeks to chase the blues away, or one of the sad songs that we tend to think of when the Blues are mentioned.

Blues is not always a sad music and up-tempo tunes are great for dancing, and there was always competition to show off the best moves and attract a partner. The other great function of the Blues is to articulate the hardships of life, richly expressing the pains of love, loss and bad luck, and helping to lift the burden by sharing the load. Both kinds of Blues touched the people who heard it.

~ All About Blues Music

Remember that, up until relatively recently, white people wouldn’t buy music performed by Black people, and that Black culture was considered “inferior”, “strange”, or “exotic”. Then white performers repackaged the Blues for a white audience, and suddenly they were respectable, and the origins of the Blues as a culture of resistance and the expression of a particular experience were often erased and denied. And remember that this happened during or not long after segregation… I would say that was cultural appropriation.

"Bunk Johnson, Leadbelly, George Lewis, Alcide Pavageau (Gottlieb 04541)" by William P. Gottlieb - This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Music Division under the digital ID gottlieb.04541.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information.العربية | čeština | Deutsch | English | español | فارسی | suomi | français | magyar | italiano | македонски | മലയാളം | Nederlands | polski | português | русский | slovenčina | slovenščina | Türkçe | українська | 中文 | 中文(简体)‎ | 中文(繁體)‎ | +/−. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bunk_Johnson,_Leadbelly,_George_Lewis,_Alcide_Pavageau_(Gottlieb_04541).jpg#/media/File:Bunk_Johnson,_Leadbelly,_George_Lewis,_Alcide_Pavageau_(Gottlieb_04541).jpg

Bunk Johnson, Leadbelly, George Lewis, Alcide Pavageau (Gottlieb 04541)” by William P. GottliebThis image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Music Division under the digital ID gottlieb.04541. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In fact this is a perfect example of the difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation. Musical genres are freely exchangeable when the cultures involved have equal prestige – but when one of those cultures is persecuted, and the musical genre involved is an expression of the pain of that persecution – then it becomes problematic.

Of course, there are many excellent Blues musicians who are white… but the best ones have made some kind of attempt to understand the particular cultural and social history that gave rise to the Blues; or they have created a fusion with another style, and connected it with their own history of oppression.

Similar arguments happen about klezmer music as well, and probably cajun and zydeco, for all I know.

I think that it is acceptable to perform songs from another culture or musical tradition, as songs are generally “open-source” – but if you start making a lot of money out of it, or erasing the existence of the originators of that genre, then an examination of the ethics would be a very good move; and if the genre is born out of a particular history and culture, then one ought to learn about that culture and history; and most importantly of all, if the originators of a culture ask others to back off, we should honour their request.

Most performers recognise that to perform a song really well – to really express it, not just give a technically good rendition of the song – you need to try to understand the meaning of the song.

How does this insight help with Pagan instances of cultural appropriation?

  • Boundaries are often fuzzy, so approach these issues with caution and sensitivity
  • Cultural appropriation is about identity theft, commodification, and inequality of power – so if any of these are present, be aware that you might be appropriating
  • Real examples from history and culture can help us to understand what cultural appropriation is and is not
  • We need to examine the relationship between us and the culture we want to borrow from
  • We need to understand the history of a cultural form, and how it works in its original context, before lifting it out of that context
  • We need to understand the difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation
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