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Blacks and the Blues

One of the more disappointing components of urban culture as it relates to music today is that quite often, black audiences only care about what´s hot right now. Before anyone gets upset, and I´m sure there will be a few of you, let me explain that I´m talking both from personal experience and about what I´ve seen with my own eyes. In a majority of black households, music from yesteryear, aside from old soul standards, gets tossed by the wayside. Forget about Cab Calloway or John Coltrane. Or Nina Simone and Jimi Hendrix. Even the créme de la créme of black musicians gets passed over by what´s hot, right now.

I´ve pondered this problem a thousand times. Surely some of the responsibility falls on parents who aren´t exposing their children to certain musicians; by no fault of younger generations, this music is overlooked. But there´s still a serious problem when a genre like the blues is on the verge of being wiped out for want of fresh legs.

When I arrived in South Florida, one of the first shows I checked out was that of James ¨Superharp¨ Cotton, an old blues legend with a musical upbringing as wild and crazy as his harmonica style. Cotton learned to play the harp from Sonny Boy Williamson himself in the backwoods of Mississippi at the age of nine. He joined Williamson´s band while still a child and played alongside the self-proclaimed ¨king of the harmonica¨ for years, then eventually enjoyed a long stint playing with Muddy Waters.

With that type of colorful background, it would seem that the audience would have been brimming with black blues lovers eager to soak up a harmonica style that came straight from Sonny Boy and the fields of Mississippi. Cotton, now 78, plays in a style that few people can teach. But there were no black faces at the show beside mine and those of the four family members I brought with me. I couldn´t help but think what a shame that was but that´s the current state of the blues.

The venue where Cotton performed was filled to capacity that night; it just so happened that the only people who cared enough to come and witness a piece of living history were white.

I spoke with Cotton about the lack of color during the show´s intermission. ¨Man, I can´t remember the last time we sold out a show and it was full of black people,¨ he said as he shuffled toward the bathroom. ¨I don´t know what happened,¨ he said as he leaned on my shoulder for support, ¨it just seems like black folks aren´t interested anymore.¨

That´s a fairly brisk answer to a large problem. When I asked his bass player if Cotton was at least mentoring or teaching anyone, the answer was no.

I´m reminded of all of this because I recently attended Otis Taylor´s performance at the Bamboo Room two weeks ago, and again, there were only five black faces in the room. Now, I understand that Lake Worth isn´t necessarily a bastion for blues support, and sometimes location has a lot do with it. But across the board, city to city, blacks no longer seem interested in the blues.

It´s been suggested that blues music, like the cotton fields and juke joints it comes from, is an experience that most upwardly-bound blacks are trying to forget. On the surface, the blues certainly isn´t uplifting. And if you break down most blues songs, it´s fairly simple music that doesn´t require a lot of skill or vocal ability, just a heap of trouble and a broken heart. But there are a lot of non-upwardly-bound black folks that aren´t listening to the blues either, while a portion of middle-aged, white America has embraced it wholeheartedly. Maybe we have the grit of Jimmie Rodgers and Stevie Ray Vaughn to thank, or the twang of newer acts like Mississippi All-Stars and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, but if the blues survives its current lurch toward obscurity, it won´t be black musicians leading the charge.

¨I don´t know why blacks don´t support the blues music anymore,¨ said Taylor during his set break. ¨The whites have taken it over. They´re the ones that are coming out and supporting us when we go on tour, and it´s like that for a lot of blues musicians.¨ Then he laughed and chided me for not being at his show the night before. ¨Man, you missed the colored show´ last night,¨ he said. ¨We had 10 blacks at that one.¨ As we both laughed, it became obvious that getting 10 black people to check out a blues show actually is a lot at this point.

Forget that we´re talking about an American art form that blacks invented. Forget that the tales woven into blues songs helped blacks cope with the difficulties they faced everyday in the rural South and in northern cities like Detroit, Chicago, and St. Louis. Forget that until the 1950s, there was no one else to sing the blues except blacks, and that folks like Patsy Cline and Janis Joplin were only imitating what they heard from black musicians. Forget all of that, and that´s where we are today: in a society where blacks have either forgotten or don´t care about their own culture.

¨A lot of it boils down to how parents are raising their kids,¨ said Les McDermott, former director of the NAACP, who was at the Taylor show with two African-American friends. ¨I don´t know how else to explain why black people aren´t picking up this type of music, and it´s dying out, but it´s on its last legs. I don´t know what´s going to happen to it when the few blues singers that are still around finally die.¨

I´m not sure the majority of black music lovers will even notice.

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Jonathan Cunningham