Fall 2020 SouthTalks – “Whose Blues?" with Adam Gussow and Ken Kawashima

i’m dr brian foster assistant professor of sociology and southern studies at the university of mississippi here today to do kind of a funny thing to talk about a talk in particular to talk about the south talk that y’all are about to hear in about two and a half minutes if i don’t get too long-winded here south talks is a lecture series it’s a conversation series put on by the center for the study of southern culture housed at the university of mississippi and today’s talk features on one hand dr king kawashima an associate professor at the university of toronto who tells some of his story which i find fascinating and on the other hand dr adam gusso who is a professor of english at the university of mississippi part of that story part of adam’s story is the book his most recent who’s blues facing up to race and the future of music and a part of my job been about a month maybe a little bit longer october 29th at 3 o’clock will be to talk with adam and ken about the book and especially about two ideas that form the foundation the bedrock of the book on one hand there’s this idea of black bluesism right which you see in the title of today’s south talk black bluesism is essentially the idea or is embodied in the idea that blues music is black people’s music that blues music is the property the sole property of black folks black communities the other idea is blues universalism which is embodied in the slogan that you’ll hear in any number of places no black no white just blues these two ideas are the bedrock of adam’s most recent book and these two ideas i have some questions about uh i have some questions about if and how they are reconcilable um questions about this tension that i think kind of exists between the two if you want to hear more about the terms the ideas listen a little bit longer if you want to hear about the questions that i have about the ideas about the book about adams and ken’s story tune in to our live q a which will take place on october 29th at 3 hope to see and hear from y’all then take care [Applause] i’m erupting from the ground i’m breaking my chains hey everybody my name is adam gusso i’m a professor of english and southern studies at the university of mississippi and i’m here today with dr ken kawashima aka sugar brown who’s going to tell you about himself in just a moment we’re going to talk for a while and when you by the time you see this talk it’s going to have been introduced and or framed by my colleague in the southern studies program b brian foster who has himself written a book on the blues i have written a book on the blues it’s called who’s blues facing up to race and the future of the music but the title of this talk is whose blues black bluesism blues universalism and the postmodern paradoxes of america’s global music there’s a whole lot there um first of all let me just say ken welcome welcome welcome to what we call south talks these used to be the brown bag presentations you and i share something that might not be obvi probably isn’t obvious on the surface but it’s something that’s actually important something that seems material to the way in which we think about what the blues is or are the way in which we think about the social function of the blues so the whole

uh cohort of ideas that we bring to the blues what we share is that both of us obviously were mentored by older black blues musicians by men i had a pair of mentors that i’ll mention in a moment and we had significant performing experience significant experience playing our instruments in your case harmonica and guitar in my case harmonica on the street in in front of black audiences this is something that not everybody has not everybody uh of whatever race has this experience but it’s something that you and i had and back in the 80s and 90s i’m hoping that you’ll uh tell people a little bit about how the name sugar brown came about and uh kind of give people a sense of where you’re coming from on on the music well thank you yes um it’s it’s a pleasure to be here and thank you for the invitation it’s uh it’s an honor and um hello to all of you in mississippi from uh toronto canada and uh yeah i i’m i i’m very interested in in um carrying out this conversation and just to introduce myself briefly uh um i was born as ken kawashima in bowling green ohio in 1971 and my my father was an immigrant from japan and my mom was an immigrant from korea and they met in korea and got married in boston moved to ohio i was born and for 18 long years i lived in bowling green ohio and finally i escaped as it were to the big city to chicago in 1989 and i was taken by the blues i call it i was stolen by the blues i kind of stole me away and and the harmonica was my my instrument that really kind of it’s hard to describe but i was a pianist before i i moved to chicago and once i discovered the harmonica and the harmonica music of little walter who was in my opinion the greatest blues harp player uh in the 19 late 40s and 1950s played with muddy waters once i learned that harmonica something happened then i i just threw myself into blues music and um i would just mention a couple things i was totally naive and had no i idea about the big city in chicago i didn’t understand how and why i was so segregated i didn’t understand why it was there was so much tension on the streets for example my first year of college i was uh i was jumped by six black guys and had the kicked out of me basically and my me and my my roommate my white roommate from the upper east side of new york and i was kind of shocked by that i wasn’t that badly injured but it really was a wake-up call to me that i had to somehow understand it was like a personal quest to try to understand why um there was this kind of irrational violence all over the at the university of city right is that where you were you were an undergrad there i was an undergrad at the university of chicago and and so after i was jumped i i realized for after a couple months i was really you know traumatized and scared um but i realized somehow that i couldn’t be scared you know i couldn’t live in chicago and for example be afraid of black people it’s just impossible how can you no so fortunately i had the blues you see and so i i really made a point to go to the black clubs of blues often even by myself and um would bring my harmonica and i was practicing harmonica every day after school to the records and then i would go out to the clubs and listen to live blues bands and then at some point i got the courage to ask someone if i could sit in with the band what was the response it was always overwhelmingly positive i mean only there was only one negative time and where some guy said no but then i stuck around and eventually he said yes and you know and for example i was audacious i i i had no sense you know of shame i guess and i remember going to the public library even on a sunday afternoon where sunny uh sorry where sunnyland slim was performing with lewis myers piano player and myers was playing guitar or harp meyer was playing guitar

and sunnyland was playing piano and for you know audaciously i walked right up to them and i said hey guys uh can i sit in with you guys you hold the harmonica players thing right you hold it up on it and uh they’re like what do you want to do the first question was what do you want to do you mean like what song like you want to call off the song wow okay what’s up they kind of looked at each other like listen to this kid and they’re like what do you want to do and i said well obviously juke by little walt they said you can play juke and i said i can i i’ve been practicing you know and they let me sit in with them yeah can you believe that no and i have no you know it’s just like i would never suggest to anyone to do that to just walk up to like these great legendary blues musicians and but it was such like that and then i started playing with the singer named tale dragger as his harmonica player on the west side of chicago deep in the west side ghetto and it was it was probably the the best thing i ever did in my life was to to basically what i’m proud of having done is i broke out of a a certain pattern you know that was kind of fixed for me you know for example by my parents or or by by school any you know and um did your parents by the way when did they did they know that you were doing this and did they say boy get back you know you’re at the university of chicago i don’t yeah i couldn’t even tell them okay i didn’t even tell them because i knew it would it would it wouldn’t make any sense to them or or they wouldn’t understand or they would think that i was not studying and so on but i studied very hard but i also you know studied very hard in order to basically go to the west side and play music in a blues band in the clubs and um it was you know such a beautiful thing in terms of getting a new perspective on my world on on the perspective of the black community’s perspective on the world and i got you know ways to i was able to kind of critique my own prejudices and so on and really realize that for example a lot of fears that i might have had towards black people growing up in ohio northwest ohio which is predominantly white i mean basically the ideology there is pretty reactionary you know under ronald reagan nancy reagan you know at the time for me and basically all the media had basically created so many representations of black people as criminals and so on that you know i realized once i moved to chicago that basically i’d been brainwashed so the blues and the and your entry into this world of the blues in urban chicago in black urban chicago was a way of transcending the the ideologies that have been imposed on you the sort of stuff you grew up within might not have been something you embraced but at least you knew it was out there and it sounds like it was a way of connecting do you think the people what was their response to you once you were sort of working part of tail draggers band do you think did you have interesting conversations because that’s one of the things that i found i ended up having by making by having my own version of this blues immersion experience was that you become a kind of a pole for people to project onto but also like genuinely ask questions you’re the representative non-african-american person in my case i’m the representative white guy in harlem and we’ll talk about that in a sec you’re the but you’re i wonder how they took you how did they how did they take you once you started playing well i think they thought it was cute basically they thought it was interesting and very probable and you know a little bit unusual and um and yet i think once i started playing they realized that you know that i could play uh for example louis myers that day called me a i mean and um i realized can we say that on zoom i mean we’re going to though yeah i mean that’s just the truth that was like the hardest phrase i could have ever received you know you know coming from lewis meyer so that gave me confidence you know i got basically i got a lot of confidence playing the black community it it it gave me a kind of um confidence to to really be someone that i wanted to become but was never able to become basically ins so long as i was sheltered and locked in my own world at the university you know um and so on so it really was liberating for my mind and it gave me a whole um agenda to study and research and think about pretty much for the rest of my life i want to ask about a particular event that i know

occurred i actually i just so people know ken is in uh the final chapter of my book i talk about asia too and i i talk about uh several uh japanese blues musicians and and i meant and then i sort of talked about ken and you had an experience in the delta fish market that was transformative in its own way and it sent you want to a kind of a whole other element of your blues pilgrimage i wonder if you could tell people it’s fascinating for me well the i i i assume you’re referring to maybe uh the incident with tail dragger well two there’s two things one of them was that tail dragger trying to give me giving you a name and then the way you were sort of called out of your ethnicity in a sense but also the the the bad thing that happened that sort of threw you out of chicago right i guess yes the i mean it’s it’s it’s so first of all i was playing harmonica with the blues band called the lazy boys and it was led by tail dragger and he said that we need to give you a name a stage name because no one can remember your real name or or maybe can pronounce it kawashima so he called me sugar brown and um and i accepted that incidentally he first wanted to call me japanese boy but then i vetoed that and then i said i said besides my mother’s korean and he’s like so then the next week he says how about the korea kid and i said i mean it’s it’s just stay away from the national question on this one you know and uh so he said okay and then he came up with sugar brown and we were playing regularly on the west side about three nights a week and uh the third night was at an outdoor place called the delta fish market on the corner of kedzie in jackson and it was a gas station that had been renovated into a live uh fish market where they transported live catfish and bullfish from the mississippi delta every week by a truck that was driven by tail dragger my the singer i played with and this was one of the most delightful places i’ve ever played in in my whole life it it was probably the closest to what i would call heaven on earth for me at the time it was performing blues outside everyone’s partying drinking having a good time dancing and there was a big stage on in the parking lot where we played and very famous blues musicians like sunnyland slim and eddie taylor and uh lightning hopkins and so many uh uh great musicians smoky smothers so many great musicians played there and it was a great honor to play there but the one uh downside was there was some tension and this gets to issues of your book also i think adam good but for example tail dragger had a friend or at least a colleague named boston blackie and they were about the same age they came up from the south uh in the late 60s around the same time and they were both blues musicians boston blacky was a guitar player like a bb king style guitar player and let me just pause for one sec so that we could because this is a southern studies kind of context so the great black migration was imaged in these two guys they had brought the blues with them from south that’s important absolutely tail dragon came from arkansas boston black came from uh alabama and they both converged on the west in the west side of chicago where they then in the late 80s and into the 90s when blues music and blues clubs and so on were i think progressively becoming lesser and lesser and the number of gigs that were available became more restricted and lesser and lesser what eventually happened was a kind of rivalry between tail dragon boston black and um and one day you know i remember boston blackie came up to tail dragger and i was standing next to him and boston black he said right to tail dragger and right in front of me he says how come you’re hiring a china man and a white boy in your band when we got 17 black brothers who need a job and so he said this right in front of my face and i just kind of looked at him like you know uh i i do exist you know here um but there was this palpable tension and you know tail dragger defended his decision to hire me and rocking johnny bergen who was also in the band and uh argued that the reason why he wanted us in his band was

one he liked us two he trusted us and his example of trusting us was that we would get paid after the gigs and pay tail dragger so we were given the respect i suppose and trust of collecting the money to then distribute to the rest of the ban and he said thirdly that we want to learn from him so he did want to be a mentor you see so he said they want a line from me you know i remember he would say it like that and it was all true so i couldn’t deny it and i said and you know but i did feel that latent tension which is really what i would say is attention of of a labor market you know for music yeah and unfortunately that later that night there was a fatal shooting between the two you know it was that same it was okay wow yeah pretty much so tail dragger shot boston blacky they had a disagreement yeah about something else and and shot him and you you later that hero dragon solomon thought he was he was being threatened and so it was anyway after that happened uh you know tail dragon was in prison for a while and uh it was just such a mournful situation you can imagine i felt so saddened by the whole thing and yet we still somehow try to keep a gig going on the west side but the last straw for me was one day four young kids came in four black kids into the club and normally this club would have like 40 year old 50 year old people but these guys were young like 18 and they came right up to the stage and you know pretended to shoot us with a gun and it turned out they were the nephews of boston blocky and after that i just thought you know i’m out of here i’m just i’m i’m gonna i was already thinking maybe i would go to graduate school and um but it was very difficult but i i was i just was it created a tactic toxic situation and after that i i left you know chicago but it’s still despite all of that negativity i still come back to the fact that had it not been for the west side of chicago and it’s welcoming me into the community there i wouldn’t i certainly wouldn’t be here talking to you i wouldn’t be playing the blues today i wouldn’t you know i wouldn’t uh be having these conversations so it was a life-changing experience for me there’s a particular thing that happens to you when you go overseas and i hope you’ll you’ve talked about this it’s in the book too which is you found yourself in japan so and in a blue scene in japan and that positionality as somebody who’d come from chicago you felt as though you they actually looked at you like you had chicago street cred and i think that’s this is i just the stories you have to tell and and the the subject position that you’ve occupied in the course of your long life you’re now i forgot to tell people you’re you’re in the department of east asian studies at the university of toronto so you’re a you know you’re a card-carrying um scholar and and a card-carrying legit chicago-trained blues guy what happened in japan if you could give us a quick take on that how did that work out and contribute to what sugar brown became yes japan i went to japan originally to do research uh as a historian and to do research into the japanese colonial history of korea and a lot of it was because of my own upbringing but i kind of wanted to look at the history of the colonization of korea and the history of korean people in japan and it was kind of a metaphor you know for the black population in chicago for me i moved to tokyo for a couple years and then played blues there in my spare time and and as you said there’s a vibrant blues scene there there has been one there since the 1970s and um yeah it was what’s interesting is that in japan um having had the experience on the west side of chicago it definitely did give me a credibility mostly because of the music i think you know the just musically everyone told me oh my gosh your harmonica plane is so chicago it’s so you know a little walter like or and you know it was very uh gratifying to hear that because in my mind you know i still hadn’t attained the level of harmonica greatness that i always wanted to yeah yeah you know especially compared

to little walter but what was beautiful in japan is you know there it was a real community of blues the kind of market driven competition you know the blue scene that we have because certainly is dramatically less in japan you know so therefore blues bands and friendships through bands and through blues music really happens really genuinely through friendships and it’s not like instrumentalizing other people to get a big hit or to like get a super gig at a festival you know a lot of that politicking you know which is really what it is is you know that’s greatly in my experience it was it’s it’s it’s not this the prevalent mode of blues camaraderie as it were in japan it’s it’s just like almost like a kind of you know niche culture of dedicated hobbyists you know but the knowledge you know i mean japan of course they translate everything into japanese and they study everything and they internalize you know you know cultures from abroad so deeply i mean they really know it and yet you know it’s funny because then when they play i would i would think you know oh well this this ain’t chicago that’s for sure and they could tell the same thing when they hear me they’re like i don’t know somehow sugar brown can sound like chicago and you know they would ask me crazy questions sometimes like no sometimes i notice on the offbeat you lean on your left foot you know like you know like really bizarre technical only to i say this only because there was clearly a desire you know to understand what i was doing which for them as far as they were concerned it came from chicago so very pleasant not to be you know bothered you know racially that was extremely um it felt luxurious it felt very uh nice not to be stared at or to be looked upon as some aberration or some freak of my own race you know it was just very uh a beautiful way for me to connect to culture in japan through the blues and specifically through chicago blues and more specifically through the harmonica which is how i know you too yeah yeah yeah wow wow well so you’ve perfectly exemplified the the third item of the title of our presentation the post-modern paradoxes of america’s global music i i should give a very brief kind of condensed self-disclosure so people understand sort of where i’m coming from experientially on the music i i was born in new york city and i grew up in downstate new york uh in a tough working white working class town and started playing the harmonical when i was 16. um but i didn’t and with the exception of seeing one concert when i was 17 with james cotton opening for the j guys band with magic dick which was incredible harmonica in 1975 i didn’t have any experience with actual blues musicians until somewhat later until 1985 when a black new yorker named nat riddles the late nat riddles who ended up becoming my teacher sort of heard me playing as i was walking down the block i was a grad student a former grad student at columbia and he pulled his cab around and came up was that you playing and we ended up he basically got out of his cab and it was at night time on amsterdam avenue and began to play through the history of blues harmonica every you know john lee and i was like john john sunny boy he said well the first sunny boy sonny and then sugar blue and he did kim wilson he did one fantastic player after another and i just stood there with the world opened up i ended up dogging that all summer long he gave me some lessons i i then was a busker in new york in the fall of 85 straight through the winter and spring i went off to paris and i was a busker there but i also had an experience an immersion experience sort of like yours of go of risking something and going to a jam session at a place called showman’s cafe which is 124th and frederick douglas boulevard just off 125th street it was a clientele that was 99 black there was a white sax player there who was very good named jim halabaugh who was part of the band but it was a jazz club with deep south performers there was tippy larkin was there actually a trumpet player who was milton larkin’s son i didn’t know that milton larkin was a big deal band leader back in the 40s from texas jimmy preacher robbins who

was an old school kind of hammond b3 organ player and i became kind of a curiosity i was welcomed adam’s here i mean literally i got that kind of name that you got as a sort of late 20-something white kid with a harmonica and i learned a very important lesson when i got up there after jazz sax players had played their piece on a rollicking blues how can i fight with i’ve got phil woods and and sonny rollins and i’m trying to follow them basically i’m i’m exaggerating a little bit and i said to myself i’ve got to just be a harmonica i mean it was a lesson in differentiation you you as a marxist you might say market differentiation what can you do well i can play harmonica and they can’t i can’t be a sax player but i can play harmonica and it was a fascinating experience in in in the connections the conversations that it created i there were older men often from down south who would say i haven’t heard anything like that since jimmy reed they they they had not seen a harmonica player white or black in this club to that extent again market differentiation i was a new commodity eventually i became kind of a performing bear and i sensed that they people were enjoying it but also laughing a little bit sometimes and eventually i i ended up sort of over in europe where i was i got introduced to the global the sense of blues harmonica and blues as a global uh thing and so i was playing with people from all over mostly europe not americans at all and that led me back in new york again i’ll try to compress in the in the fall of 1986 went back a couple of times to the jazz clubs but i realized it wasn’t really my scene i liked guitar playing and i wasn’t hearing guitar players there and i ended up hooking up with a guitar player named sterling mcgee i found out was his name although everybody called him mr satan nobody ever called him sterling mcgee and i should share a a a word with people this is somebody who i ended up not only working with for five years on the streets of harlem and then issuing a record and working for seven years on the the the american blue scene sort of as a touring just touring the two of us and his wife in a car just kind of touring east of the mississippi playing all of the big blues festivals um he’s one of the he’s now in hospice care he and i became we we played from 1986 on and off through 2013 um and got together one last time in 2018 at the premiere of a documentary called satan and adam which was sort of about the life that we lived as a performing thing but he’s now in hospice he he got coveted so he’s yet one more victim of this plague that we’re all trying to suffer through um that leads me so i played on the street and i think of myself where were you guys playing on the street played on the street from 1986 to 1991 so your experience was a little bit later i think well maybe it wasn’t actually you said 89 so what typified our experience was that during that period of time um was politics was that black men were being killed in new york during the period of time in which he and i were holding down the beloved community chair if you will 125th street in harlem yeah and what what’s striking is i i i kept the journal in those years and i remember michael griffith was killed in in howard beach there was a thing that mayor koch called a racial lynching and i ended up i was out of town for a couple of weeks that happened in early december of 86 sterling and i had been playing for two months at that point and when i next went down there you know you might have thought that the black community would see me and just heap on me uh all the anger they felt at the white that the italian guys out in howard beach was where john gotti the mob lived in howard beach that racial lynching as koch called it i wrote in my journal that night you know i was in harlem today i’m playing with mr satan i must have shaken hands 200 times so one of the curious things my own experience as i think about the blues and i think about i’m going to talk about black bluesism and blues universalism my experience has taught me a long experience including with nat by the way who learned from jewish guys so my black teacher learned from jewish guys he’d grown up in the beloved community as he described it of of co-op city in brooklyn in the 70s he was at pratt he was a he was a he said i’m an all those guys kind of guy which is to say he stole from white players black players he played with larry johnson played with odetta he has black mentors of his own but he always said basically steal from everybody tell people where you got what you got so he conveyed to me an ethos that was transracial and ethos of the blues that was blues is a place where we can all

get to get basically show the world that there’s another way to live now if i i feel like i’m preaching now but that was the way that he lived the way that he lived in relation to me the way that he lived in relation to me and sterling the same the same thing we live in a different moment now and i think i should turn a little bit to the the subject of my book um and two terms that show up in in my book because what i think of when i think of who’s blues by the way i did not call the book who’s blues my publisher thought that it that the title that i had which was blues talk making sense of the music in a new millennium they thought it’s too tame little did we know that we were going to end up in a moment when everything the pandemic is laughing is leading everything to be re revisited right so i’ve got a provocative title but there’s enough in the book to to to put it there so let me very briefly tell you what i mean by and interrupt me if you need to and just say wait a minute i didn’t get that what’s black bluesism what is blue’s universalism so i i i’m interested in the way that we ideologize the blues in in this present moment but in the past it’s been ideologized when when black folk in the south said blues is the devil’s music they were ideologizing it and when young i wrote a book on this called beyond the crossroads when the young people who played it including sunnyland slim when the young people who played it defend they said it ain’t no devil’s music i it was the god who put this song in me again and again so that’s an ideal ideologization and a kind of fundamentalism blues is the devil’s music black bluesism is when you say blues is black music now is it well i would say one of the rhetorical moments in my book and say well of course it is how could it not be and so one of the things i’m trying to do with my book is is show how it is exemplified sort of get down into the dna of the cultural dna of the music so to speak i would say of course it is but it’s also american music it’s also a global music but black blues-ism is a way of understanding the music that says this is a racial legacy the music carries a feeling that is a specifically racial feeling that goes deep into american history so if if there if you want to say that that the phrase blues is black music which is the title of a blog by a very important uh african-american blues performer from colorado with black southern roots named corey harris he has a blog in 2015 and sort of he puts that phrase out there but it’s not the first time the phrase has been out there blues universalism has another meme and it says no black no white just the blues there’s three periods in there it’s no black no white just the blues and i and i look at that and i try to understand where does that come from it seems to be it seems to gesture to kind of beloved community one nation under the blues or one world under the blues and it does in fact open up into a sense that blues is a global music but 92 percent of the people in the memphis music hall of fame the blues hall of fame 92 percent of the people there are are black 90 african-american last time i checked um so to say no black no no white just the blues especially by erasing blackness and the sort of embodied presence of the people who’ve made the music the great the the greatest players right are overwhelmingly african-american it’s kind of it’s kind of tone dead and so what i try to do is say what happens if we put these two things in conversation and i’m right up front i say you know as you’ll see in my book more of more of the truths on the side of the first meme than it is on the second but not all of the truth and it’s partly because of that globalization but also because of some of the complexities you’ve named some of the complexities in another book i wrote about as a blues harmonica teacher the six african-american men i’ve given lessons to over the years um that seems like a paradox that’s a post-modern paradox what could i teach them about the blues well maybe not about the blues but about blues harmonica maybe that you know is relevant anyway that’s that’s the conversation tell me where you want to go with with the conversation there’s obviously many elements i mean i think the reason why i i appreciated your book uh so much was exactly how you tried to clarify or at least give us a way to clarify um a way to talk about which is why i actually prefer your old title uh because it’s really about talking you know yeah we’re talking about the blues and not talking about necessarily who’s blues but talking about the blues and what i liked about your book is that you know when it comes to questions of race and blues today there’s a lot of uh

tension obviously and a lot of it is not spoken about you know it’s just made or i mean it it might be in closed doors but oftentimes we don’t see it you know always coming out uh directly and so i thought what was admirable about your book is you’re trying to create a discourse out of a whole series of silences that you know i think is very pervasive in the blues world it’s the you know the the question of racism for example in the blues is like the elephant in the room right and so many people uh don’t know how to talk about racism uh they don’t know they don’t want to talk about racism they think uh it doesn’t have to doesn’t pertain to me so why should i talk about it you know and they end up not talking about it what you’ve done is give us a way to talk about it i think by giving us some objective categories you know uh theoretical categories for sure but they’re based on the history of the blues and the history of the united states especially and um blue black blues-isms and blues universalisms i think is a very uh persuasive way to talk about kind of two general camps that seem to split the blues world and what i would say you know about especially the blues universalism um one one of the limits as you pointed out is that you know it claims to be as it were colorblind you know this is a phrase i’ve noticed a lot of you know uh white folks use who came out of the civil rights movement they think that they’re colorblind you know but then now today it doesn’t really work in my opinion because to say that you’re colorblind about the blues is actually to ignore exactly the problem of the history of blues as black music so that becomes then i would add you know we get into these other situations in the contemporary scene where for example there’s totally valid critiques by black musicians on certain organizations that are underrepresenting black people right and then so this is then the so the critique from the black community the radical or the progressive black community says you know you guys are under representing black folks and then we get into this horrible situation in my opinion where the white folks who are blues musicians end up defending their great accomplishments as blues you know uh blues custodians basically custodians and guardians of a genre of music now that they’ve put their 10 000 hours into it and they’ve created their they’ve carried the legacy of the blues and so on and great achievements and and i hear this time and time again in the past six months toronto i mean this is well i don’t want to get you in trouble but yeah yeah it’s not simply a toronto phenomenon and the argument is is that i can sympathize to some extent you know with that kind of defensive nature of of white musicians who who don’t want to be accused of for example stealing the blues from black people so then they get defensive then they then they end up talking about what they’ve done and i call this the kind of history of white achievement or something you know it’s kind of like you know okay you’re great you know uh it’s it’s kind of a similar argument as as colonialism you know like the colonizers will take something from the colonized and then the colonize will say like hey you took our culture but then but then the colonizers can say well haven’t we given you uh public schools and uh you know good uh health benefits okay last point is okay you know this discourse um ends up basically it comes out of a certain feeling of guilt and and privilege frankly and the problem is is that it turns the whole critique of anti-black racism into an opportunity to speak about basically the achievements of of white musicians and therefore it kind of becomes a kind of vehicle it runs the risk of becoming a vehicle of disseminating a kind of white supremacist ideology i think so i’m going to play devil’s advocate that’s where we have to be i think really critical okay okay and also very you know uh sensitive but i think that’s that’s where things have gotten today you know you know i like to i like to argue both sides i think that you have to know how to

argue both sides in some sense to really understand both sides so let me argue one particular side something really important happens between 1960 and 1970 in the american blues world it’s a period of time and it’s hard you know generalizations about the blues are tricky but between 1960 and 1970 in 1960 blues was at the tail end of being arguably the black pop music it was still a really a real force in the r b uh charts you know jimmy reed and those people were still having hits lightning hopkins still had hits into the 60s on the r b charts but but but at some point between 60 and 65 that fell off rapidly and bb king talks about this in his in his uh autobiography uh blues all around me young young black people wanted soul music blues felt like this like an old sound like a southern sound especially to people up north like a backward sound a sound of a cry that had connected with slavery and that’s not where people were they were moving on up they were thinking about what could change and soul was the sound of that lots of evidence for this at the same time white people were saying starting with the folk revival in 59 60 and and the first like samuel charters the country blues the first sort of monumental books about the blues samurai charlotte said it was frankly it was romanticism you know their incoming in a major way when the brits come in 6465 but that british blues revival and the butterfield blues band between 65 and 70 blue suddenly becomes a huge thing it’s a it’s white music at that point or it’s black and white music and it was being talked about that way by albert goldman in a weird way that i talk about that the black arts movement but there’s something else going on even as a black youth audience for blues is dissolving never completely went away in the south by the way and that’s one of the places where this generalization falls apart the soul blues scene with johnny taylor never that never went away in the deep south but as sort of an american thing writ large the black audience for the blues dissipated in a huge way even as the white audience was swelling and as there became a white cohort of musicians and all this history we’re living right now in the aftermath of this one specific thing and i’ve got an essay on it called the blue survival and the black arts movement which was which was within black intellectual circles you had on the one hand ron karenga who later went on to do uh uh kwanzaa yes yeah ron karenga who goes on to do kwanzaa saying the blues are invalid you the blues they blues once meant once represented who we were um and they’re no longer there they’re invalid they’re not our music now they’re not in music we want to have anything to do with and on the other hand and you had other several other people who went the same way don’t cry scream don lee hockey monobootie don’t cry scream don’t cry was crying was blues scream was that liberating voice of the jazz sax the coltrane poem and then you have larry neal and i write about larry neil who’s extremely important and and under red the he’s the great he’s one of the one of the great blues critics up there with albert murray and and ralph ellison but he doesn’t get it’s hard to find his stuff certainly in book form but larry neil says no no the blues were what got us through and he makes this incredibly powerful argument for the the continuing importance of the blues but there was that stutter step that hesitation within the black uh uh intelligentsia where it wasn’t clear whether blues is something that should be embraced or rejected and so to me that’s actually an important moment the other thing that happened so you then get through the 60s get through 1970 and by the way you have b.b king we have to talk about this bb king is a perfect perfect example of on the one hand somebody let me pause i want to say something one of the reasons i wrote this book was because i noticed especially when i was doing my dissertation research on the connection between lynching and the blues i was very familiar with the white blues audience i knew a lot of people like that they were my audience out there on the hustings when i began to say i think there’s a connection between lynching between this racial violence this blanketing racial violence and the blues i got immediate pushback from those white aficionados saying i don’t think so you know blues isn’t protest and it’s like well but i was reading blues memoirs and in memoir after memoir in the 90s were a big time for blues memoirs i saw southern born black male blues musicians writing about lynching and what it did to them and how they felt about it and b.b king was a notable example and he talks in 68 he gave an interview which for me was like the rosetta stone it was like he talks about you don’t know you have to understand down where i come from down in mississippi so many people have been killed in so many different ways so when you get to talking about the blues you start to he says you start to think about that way back in your mind that’s right and and it weighs on you see and then he goes he goes so that’s where my blues come from the next most important thing is your woman that blew my mind i said wait a minute bb king he always sings

about he sings blues about baby you you you upset me baby and all these songs about the woman who left he does not sing except in one song um why i sing the blues he meant which is a straight up narration of sort of black life in america since jamestown yeah and and you talked about a white canadian musician who covered that no actually an american guy who covered that mistake i would not do that that’s that’s not a song for white guys to sing frankly but king says so king says violence racial violence blanketing racial violence in the mississippi in which i grew up was the main thing that led me to sing the blues but he doesn’t actually sing blues about that yeah it’s like how do you and i so in my book people i try to put that together but there’s something else that’s really important you know what you were in his autobiography what he says the the best night i might have played had the best night of my life was when he went for the first time he was having a crossover audience he goes into the fillmore west bill graham introduces him he walks in it’s a room full of hippie flower children it’s all white folks with long hair smoking pot sitting on the floor and he says i got it he introduced me as chairman of the boards and i got a a standing ovation before i went on he goes and i burst into tears and i thought about that and i thought he describes an earlier scene of of witnessing the aftermath of a lynching in lexington mississippi and it’s a an all-white audience sneering and leering and silencing him when i’ve tried to connect i try to connect those two moments from that moment which he describes as being unutterably he’s unutterably full of all the negative destructive emotions just fear and shame and anger and rage and he says i can’t make a sound and he ends up in front of this white audience in 68 saying i i that the connection between us was so tight and so right so if you want to know where my book’s coming from it’s trying to make sense of those that paradox of white racial violence as a foundational element of the blues tradition on the one hand and that white audience as a kind of and the embrace of that audience is actually for him an important thing at the very moment when the black audience is disappearing now we can and you have to be willing to allow all that stuff then we can begin and that that’s my feeling and i’ll stop now that’s my rave then i can begin to have an honest conversation about where the blues are now but we can’t unless unless you’re willing whoever you are watching this to meet me halfway and acknowledge that all of those things are a part of sort of the context of not the context of no context but the context of our postmodern moment um i’ll i’ll pause now um i may ask you to play a song at some point well i i would just yeah it’s such a fascinating thing you’re talking about you know in that moment 60 to 65 and bb king and trying to you know mark mark the place that bb king specifically says was the mark the the the place that causes him to play the blues which he clearly says is basically this white racist violence we could call it state-sanctioned racist violence and so on and um and yet it doesn’t really become captured lyrically so much in his songs yeah um whereas for just as a counterpoint you know if we look at you know uh for example billie holiday she has a song strange fruit you know which is about lynching and one thing i would mention is you know she was fearless billie holiday and i think revolutionary and in fact i would go so far as to say that what we need to reconsider now um i think is looking back at the history blues at the early blues recordings of blues women like ma rainey jesse smith even billie holiday who’s considered a jazz musician but she was singing the blues all along too and a great book is by angela davis who wrote the blue about the blues women and her argument is the blues women of the 20s and 30s they were the radical pioneers of the blues they were completely subversive completely uh politically dangerous socially culturally uh dangerous their sexuality was uninhibited no one could control them and angela davis’s argument is that’s the real radical tradition of the blues that i think you know that has been uh repressed in many ways has been repressed by the subsequent decades which is probably one reason why in the 60s the radicality of the blues had really by then become dissolved in mainstream pop music where the connections to that violence

that originally inspired these radical blues performers to articulate their songs in the first place was you know had been kind of watered down basically strictly you know kind of entertainment yeah yeah so uh adam i was you know when you talk about the ideologies of the blues which i think is a great um approach to the questions of race and blues in history and in the contemporary scene you also talk about blues conditions and one thing i wanted to ask you to kind of clarify or re-clarify for me is how you see blues uh the two ideologies of the blues black blues-ism and blues universalism my question is how are they related to blues conditions um are they the blues condition are these ideologies the conditions of blues or are these blues ideologies based on conditions you know i mean for example this the standard marxist argument of course is that an ideology never just comes out of nowhere it’s a belief it’s an abstract belief of course in your mind but it’s based on your material conditions of living you know so let me let me see if i can work out an answer for that in the first chapter of my book in the introduction i talk about a specific event that was uh a kind of panel on this the state of the blues today at an event called the blues and the spirit symposium put on by janice monty if you happen to do it in may of 2012 which was a couple of months february of 2012 was when trayvon martin was shot and killed by george zimmerman and so there was a moment when there was a lot of anger in the blues community and specifically in chicago’s black blues community there was also anger that was stoked by uh a interview with bruce iglower the leading um the head of alligator records which was sort of the leading independent blues label had been based and and for a long time and he was talking about why he was doing more white artists than black artists and he made some comments about that had to do with sort of well if i could find a a black artist who you know had original material um you know didn’t have an alcohol or drug problem and who showed up on time it was they were problematic comments he’s a he’s a plain speaking guy and i’ve been at the end of his plains spoken this point is those are so there’s a kind of blues that the contemporary blues scene has which are black blues players and black blues cultural custodians tired as hell with various elements of the contemporary blue scene because in our scene there’s competition for gigs and one of the the many uh complaints that came out on this panel and i foreground i talk about the the range of complaints in fact it’s probably when you talk about is the conditions well it was partly about those conditions exactly it was about a specific the so i talk about the plenary session more than 90 minutes long was an aggrieved indictment of the contemporary blues scene on racial grounds the ten panelists six black and four white described a wide range of offenses many of them centered on the idea that so-called heritage blues musicians which is to say black blues performers had been displaced by white blues performers from blues festivals from club gigs from the grammys and the blues music awards even the blues music awards themselves formerly the wc handy awards had been renamed in a way that erased their black namesake wc handy the charges rained down i think it’s important i want to put this so you understand that that and i when i investigate some of these things in the course of my book singer sharon lewis texas native and long time chicago and complained about quote talent buyers festival promoters club owners who continue to overlook us as females because we don’t play amplified guitars veiled reference to samantha fish sue foley anna popovich and other white female singer guitarists and tight-fitting dresses who were and are popular festival attractions there were complaints about white blues fans who patronized and disrespected older black blues players about white blue singers who used black dialect about blue societies run by whites that actively tried to limit african-american participation about black performers being given less stage time than white artists at the blues music awards show and about and then i and then bruce zigler so here’s this litany yes and and i came to it as somebody who was trying to be what i call a responsible white blues promoter i put on an event for three years running in which i made a point in my in my you know like statement of purpose one of my points was you know you want to prioritize african-american it’s a harmonica event hill country harmonica and

and so i talk about seeing this panel and realizing that two of the people on the panel were people i’d hired from my event and realizing that neither of them wanted to mention my event with at a at a black run horse farm with a all black uh jam band and all the other things that was politically not something that made sense to talk about and i talk about my hurt feelings and my sulk my the point of my book was to say you know what let’s take a look let’s and let’s go back so i have to say this those whites i i my book was intended less as pushback against those black blues complaints although there is some and some critical thinking about blues festivals is it enough to have 40 black artists and 60 white artists or at a blues festival i you know and i sort of went and looked at the statistics that they dug up um my books more intended honestly to say that the kind of training you and i had the kind of working with older black musicians black elders and working for black audiences and having those conversations can we know i’m 62. we’re an old generation and and the the young kids coming up i’m talking about the white kids they don’t have that they’re they’re playing so they so for them the idea of blues is black music is like they don’t even know where it’s coming from at least i i have some training in african-american intellectual history and sort of have a sense that and i try to give people that so i wrote my book as much or more to take that blues fan or that blues musician the anthony gomez’s of the world i’ll name names and say let’s let’s just take a deep breath and let’s investigate those blues conditions back in the day and understand how a guy like honeyboy edwards dealt with them so i think that and and understand that this was really important and i foreground this don’t for a moment think that the blues or blues music is simply just the sort of oral distillate of 400 years of being black in america that’s it it’s it’s because it’s not and this and this i was corrected about this by trudeau harris a a senior black scholar in a book that i wrote called seems like murder here southern violence and the blue streaks and she was one of my readers and she said look i can’t accept that blues was sort of just the sound of what white people did to black people she goes it was a creative response and and so i very carefully try to index the way in which it’s you know it’s it’s it’s humor so in some cases a humor that releases kellami assalam talks about that and i’m sorry i’m raving once again but i i thought that my white brethren needed a talking to and needed a firm grounding in where the blues came from before we can even begin to think about where it’s going to go and how we should all be together in this blues world could i get you would you play a little bit of the song you were playing before we just take us out of here and we may we may even do a kind of fade out or we’ll just end with you you ending do a short version give us a little bit and tell us what you’re going to play because i just love i love the sound of this well um i thought uh since we were talking about um blues and women i have a song about um a special kind of woman is it an original tune it’s an original tune it’s called a volcano woman all right and uh it’s about uh i was living in seoul korea for a year and uh they were doing a demolition of a whole neighborhood and an old grandmother was protesting and uh it’s about that grandmother i’m a volcano woman [Applause] i’m erupting from the ground i’m a volcano i’m breaking my chains you ain’t gonna push me around they got a new subway line with a wrecking ball crew they’re demolishing my my home too yeah

volcano yeah breaking those chains man thank you ken or should i say sugar brown i feel like it’s not it’s not ken right there that’s thank you brother you