a bluesman’s lament

By the time the British Invasion in the 1960s had re-stimulated an interest in traditional American blues, the still-living masters were aging. Mance Lipscomb of Texas was in his 70s, Muddy Waters of Mississippi was in his fifties, and many other such performers were already senior citizens. Even the understudies of these old masters are now in their senior years. Take Buddy Guy (born 1936), who performed with Muddy in Chicago for years, is now in his mid-80s. This blues icon worries that the traditional blues of the South, the music created and performed for and by African Americans, may be disappearing forever.

When Buddy Guy played in Germany at the American Folk Blues Festival in 1965, he got booed, he said, because the audience thought he “looked too young, dressed too slick, and my hair was up in a do. Someone said he was also disappointed that I didn’t carry no whiskey bottle with me onstage. They [white Germans] thought bluesmen needed to be raggedy, old, and drink,” stated a 2019 article by David Remnick called “Holding the Note” in The New Yorker magazine.

Back in the United States, Guy also felt hurt that black audiences, particularly younger black audiences, were moving away from the Chicago blues. B. B. King told Guy that he cried after he was booed by such an audience. “He said that his own people looked on him like he was a farmer wearing overalls and smoking a corncob pipe,” Guy recounted in his memoir. “They saw him as a grandfather playing their grandfather’s music.”

The “grandfather” role could be seen as far back as the 1930s. When he performed at the “From Spirituals to Swing” concerts at New York’s Carnegie Hall in December 1938 and ’39, Chicago blues performer Big Bill Broonzy, known as a slick dresser, was told to dress down for his stage performances. Broonzy, who had played electric guitar as a session man in Chicago for decades, gladly donned overalls and played an acoustic guitar for adoring white fans. And yes, he had that mandatory whiskey bottle in his back pocket. Other bluesmen, such as Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins, refused to play that role.

Buddy Guy worries that there is not a new generation of blues performers to carry on the great tradition. In 1983, Buddy shared that vision with his close friend Muddy Waters, who implored “Don’t let them goddam blues die on me, all right?” A couple of days later Muddy passed. Losing the blues altogether is a legitimate worry, but not entirely accurate. Remnick writes, “There are still some extraordinary musicians around who play and sing the blues with the sort of richness that Guy admires: Robert Cray, Gary Clark, Jr., Bonnie Raitt, Adia Victoria, Keb’ Mo’, Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, Shemekia Copeland. Guy has even coached a couple of teen-age guitar prodigies: Christone (Kingfish) Ingram, who comes from the Delta, and Quinn Sullivan, who first performed onstage with Guy when he was seven.”

Copeland, a singer and the daughter of the late and great Texas guitarist and singer Johnny Copeland (1937-97), says: “The blues as Buddy knows it, as he does it, really will be gone when he is gone.” She did not mean that traditional blues was going to die, only that its popularity was fading, which it was and is.

Blues music has always been an outlet for African Americans to express their grievances with white majority rule, particularly with Jim Crow laws in the South. These gripes had to be voiced subtly and in dog whistle fashion as lyrics being too clear or too precise were dangerous. As the blues began to lose popularity following the British Invasion of the 1960s, the music began to be replaced by hip hop among young blacks. Then came rap (or vice-versa), which started as an urban underground sound emanating from Bronx streets in New York City in the 1970s, spurred by the invention of the boom box.

“One of the first rappers at the beginning of the hip hop period, at the end of the 1970s, was also hip hop’s first disc jockey, DJ Kool Herc, a Jamaican immigrant. He started delivering simple raps at his parties [in the Bronx], which some claim were inspired by the Jamaican tradition of toasting,” explains Wikipedia. Toasting is a style of lyrical chanting which — in Dancehall music and reggae — involves a deejay talking over the rhythm of the song.

With the decline of disco in the early 1980s, rap became a new form of expression, with a beat. Rap arose from musical experimentation with rhyming and rhythmic speech and was a clear departure from disco. Sherley Anne Williams refers to the development of rap as “anti-Disco” in style and means of reproduction, states Wikipedia. But more than just a new style, rap seemed to be a new venue for angry black Americans to let off steam. Take the lyrics of gangsta rapper Tracy Lauren Marrow (a.k.a. Ice-T)’s 1992 song “Cop Killer,” for example.

“I got my black shirt on.
I got my black gloves on.
I got my ski mask on.
This shit’s been too long.

I got my twelve gauge sawed off.
I got my headlights turned off.
I’m ‘bout to bust some shots off.
I’m ‘bout to dust some cops off.”

Interestingly, Ice-T now plays a New York City policeman on the nationally televised weekly TV show called Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit. Ironic? Certainly, but not necessarily a sign of the times. A quick look at the evening news these days suggests that racial conflict in the United States is getting worse, not better.

Rap may be slowly displacing the blues, but it is unclear if that is an improvement or a step in the other direction. I guess that depends on who’s listening to it.

Robert Cray and Shemekia Copeland “I Pity the Fool” duo. Incredible!