An age-old question concerns authenticity in blues music. More specifically, can white people authentically sing and play the blues? Are we hearing “real blues” from white singers or simply a blues performance? Is it morally all right for singers or players to “borrow” an original song without getting permission or paying royalties? Some sources go even further, arguing that blues music and its performance by white players and singers is a subtle form of social stratification, or even an expression of guilt for “stealing” the music in the first place.
“Once music is not understood in its historical and emotional context, it is no longer a work of art, but a commodity. I would go one step further and argue that the historical commoditization of blues perpetuated racial stratification,” theorizes an article in FYImusic news.com in July 2017.
Extending that argument, could one accurately state that the reason the blues became so international so quickly (after WWII) is that it really did become a commodity being sold on the world market? Do young white performers today sing “Hound Dog” thinking they are paying tribute to Elvis Presley and know nothing about (black) Big Mama Thornton, the original blues performer of that song? What about blues singers in Australia, Germany or Japan, for example?
Former Rolling Stones bass player Bill Wyman was asked whether Whites could sing or play the blues and his reply was unequivocal – “If they [white performers] try really hard.”
Author Charles Keil is a bit more stoical, and diplomatic. He writes in his 1966 book Urban Blues: “The blues has probably always been about whites learning from blacks, blacks learning from whites — the mutual effort to laugh and sing and cry away the pains of American racism expressed in the metaphor of love gone sour.”
Eric Clapton was not the only English guitar player (or singer) to emulate the black bluesmen of the American South. That “copying” or “borrowing” became a major element of the British Invasion of the 1960s. If one did not know better, and closed his or her eyes when hearing Eric Burdon’s version of the “House of the Rising Sun,” one might think Burdon was black.
On the other hand, maybe Muddy Waters was right after all: white performers can play the blues but they can’t sing it. Perhaps Muddy had British guitar legend Eric Clapton (his friend) in mind when he said that. The British Blues boom that had its origins in the early 1960s with the Rolling Stones and John Mayall was one of the main factors that prompted this philosophical question.
“Clapton, who had been in the Yardbirds, another blues-influenced band, before he joined John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, later forming Cream and who had a solo career steeped in the blues has done more than most to demonstrate that White men really can play the blues,” states writer Richard Havers in udiscovermusic.com.
Simply asking this musical question reeks of an underlying sarcasm, almost begging for a musical parody. It wasn’t long before one appeared.
“Can Blue Men Sing The Whites (or are they hypocrites?)” was a parody song by The Bonzo Dog Band that was released in November of 1968, the same month as the Beatles’Album White Album, that poked fun at the recent Blues trend on the charts, points out the website Beatlesebooks.com.
The Bonzo’s parody on white men playing the blues came half a decade after the British Blues boom had begun. The Rolling Stones were at the forefront of what was a very London centric phenomenon – white boys interested in the music of the Mississippi Delta and the electric blues of Chicago. Some lyrics of the song go like this:
“Well, I think I’ll get a massage, maybe lose a little fat
So I’ll have to go downtown in my brand new Cadillac
My valet comes and dresses me, I light a big cigar
Because I like to look like Nimrod when I’m riding in my car
Can blue men sing the whites
Or are they hypocrites for singing, woo, woo, wooh?”
If you really want to get down to the nitty-gritty level, just ask a comedian. When (white) comedian George Carlin was asked the question, he said: “In the first place, white people have got no business playing the blues at all, under no circumstances, ever, ever, ever. White people give the blues, they don’t get the blues. What do they have to be blue about anyway – Banana Republic ran out of khakis? The expresso machine is jammed? Hootie and the Blowfish are breaking up? These fat, balding, overweight, over-aged, out-of-shape, middle-aged white men jump on stage and start blowing into a harmonica; it’s a @%*$! sacrilege.”
Carlin was trying to get laughs, but he knew that white people can suffer just as much as black blues singers can. Take the tragic case of Janis Joplin, for instance. This white blues singer fell victim to mocking attacks all her short life and that pain is clearly present in her music. I believe her song “Cry, Cry Baby” equals any black blues song in terms of pain in the music.
Maybe Muddy Waters was either being sanctimonious or expressing jealousy when he said white people can’t sing the blues. Whatever the case, this debate will no doubt rage on.
“Can Blue Men Sing the Whites” by the Bonzo Dog Band