Five crimes committed against the blues by white people

Five crimes committed against the blues by white people
April 24, 2009
by Steven Hyden
Milwaukee Decider

CAUTION: This article contains language which may be offensive to some.

White people and blues music go back a long way. It hasn’t always been an easy relationship, but white people have definitely played an important (and underrated) role in the genre’s rich history. While the blues was invented by southern blacks, it was “discovered” and disseminated in part by northern whites like folklorist Alan Lomax, who captured early recordings of Son House and Muddy Waters, and Leonard Chess, founder of venerable Chicago blues label Chess Records. Later on, white British rock groups such as The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin covered—or flat out stole songs from—blues legends like Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf, helping to ensure that these artists would be remembered today.

So, congratulations white people. You’ve done some good for one of this country’s greatest art forms. (Though you did help yourselves in the process.) You’ve also done plenty of damage to the blues throughout the years. In honor of Gregg Allman’s concerts on Saturday and Sunday at Potawatomi Casino, Decider looks back at five crimes committed against the blues by white people. (Yes, we know there are way more than five, but it’s not like we have all day here.)

1. The video for Gregg Allman’s “I’m No Angel”

Gregg Allman deserves props for being a founding member of The Allman Brothers Band, perhaps the greatest and most enduring southern blues-rock group. His solo material, however, is a different story. Like most weathered bluesmen who were lucky enough to still be standing upright in the late ’80s, Allman stayed on the charts by going along with the Michelob-ization of the genre. The video for the title track of Allman’s 1986 album I’m No Angel is an illuminating snapshot of the era: It’s all mullets, bad acting, tinny drums, synthesizers, and awkwardly enthusiastic percussionists.

2. Jonny Lang's guitar face

Just because white people didn’t invent the blues doesn’t mean they don’t feel it, man. Among modern bluesmen, nobody experiences the music quite as intensely as Jonny Lang, a blonde-haired guitar virtuoso from Fargo, N.D. whose handsome face is twisted into painful contortions by the awesomeness of his own playing. This guy literally shits blazing guitar solos, and, man, does it burn.

3. Taylor Hicks winning American Idol

The blues has gone from being the music of grizzled sharecroppers and working class Chicagoans to the favored party jams of aging stockbrokers cutting loose down at Buffalo Wild Wings. Taylor Hicks winning American Idol marks the point where this public perception of blues music reached critical mass. Even Idol judge Simon Cowell, who wouldn’t know Robert Johnson from Robert Goulet, could see through this guy’s fourth-rate, caterwauling Ray Charles impression, memorably comparing him to a drunk dad at a wedding. But the public seemed to love Hicks because he couldn’t credibly sing the blues. At least until he asked them to buy his record, that is.

4. Stevie Ray Vaughan’s wardrobe

The fun of being a bluesman is that you always get to be the coolest motherfucker in the room. Blues guys always look sharp; it’s why they make all those pretty women jump and shout. Then there’s Stevie Ray Vaughan, whose mismatched wardrobe was apparently assembled by a blind, blouse-loving cowboy. Vaughan has influenced every bar band that’s strapped on Stratocasters and Hawaiian shirts for the past 20 years, but fortunately few people have emulated his fashion sense.

5. The Blues Brothers

The Blues Brothers were sort of good back on Saturday Night Live—as long as you understood that the idea of John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd singing classic blues, soul, and R&B songs was supposed to be funny. But by the time the duo released the smash hit 1978 album Briefcase Full Of Blues, it was clear that even the creators were forgetting that Jake and Elwood were a joke. Now, 30 years later, you can’t go to a county fair without seeing two fat white guys in black suits and sunglasses singing “Mustang Sally.” And, inevitably, somebody will say, “Hey, this is a Blues Brothers song!” Only in hell, people. Only in hell.
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