“You’ve taken my blues and gone —
You sing ’em on Broadway
And you sing ’em in (the) Hollywood Bowl,
And you mixed ’em up with symphonies
And you fixed ’em
So they don’t sound like me.
Yep, you done taken my blues and gone . . . “
From Langston Hughes’ poem, Note on Commercial Theatre
When is an authentic blues man not an authentic blues man? When the Recording Academy says he isn’t, and rejects his submission for a blues Grammy Award as not “authentic” enough!
That’s what’s happened to Chris Thomas King, a Louisiana blues man who is the son of a Louisiana blues man. Those of you who saw the 2000 film, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” might remember him as the blues singer who joins George Clooney, who plays one of three escapees from a Mississippi prison, on a search for buried treasure. King was also a featured participant in Martin Scorsese’s 2003 seven-part PBS documentary on the history of the blues.
In short, King knows his stuff. He grew up in his father’s juke joint, where he was surrounded by blues music 24-7. His father played it and sang it. King was even “discovered” by a Smithsonian folklorist. Being “discovered” by white musicologists or folklorists was one of the ways that Black Southern blues men like Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly) and others were first “found,” and their music recorded and distributed in the early part of the 20th Century.
What made King’s newest release Hotel Voodoo “inauthentic”? Some of its songs included a musician playing a clarinet! Apparently, that simply isn’t done on an “authentic” blues album.
What constitutes an “authentic” blues musician in the eyes of the Recording Academy’s blues music Grammy nominating committee? First you have to understand that the blues music category is a subcategory under the overall heading of “American Roots Music.” “Roots music” is defined by the Academy as “Americana, bluegrass, blues, folk, or regional roots.”
Once you weed through all that, there are two blues categories, “Best Traditional Blues Album” and “Best Contemporary Blues Album.” In the traditional blues category, three of the five nominees are Black: blues guitarist Buddy Guy (whose playing influenced Jimi Hendrix), drummer, guitarist and singer Cedric Burnside, and singer guitarist Ben Harper, whose album “No Mercy In This Land” was recorded with longtime blues harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite, who’s white.
Of the Grammy nominees for best contemporary blues album, only one — ONE! — is Black: singer and guitarist Fantastic Negrito.
King has written an op-ed about what happened to him in the online Spectator USA . He was also interviewed recently on a podcast. From what King is saying, he’s not seeking white acceptance by winning a Grammy. The fame and recognition that comes with the award, he said, means getting better jobs at better venues.
Blues already has a wealth of white fans, but they tend to be fans of white “blues” groups or individuals playing and singing Black “blues” music, or an approximation of same. Meanwhile, Black blues musicians go unrecognized, unappreciated, unhired and unpaid. Even sadder is that Black people have left blues by the wayside, like jazz, another musical form created by Black people. Go to any blues or jazz club where the performer is Black. You can count Black people in the audience on one hand. Maybe one finger.
King has said he was told to sing and perform like The Rolling Stones or other white American and British groups who made their musical reputation by imitating Black blues singers and re-recording their blues classics. He shouldn’t have to do that, or prove his “authenticity” as a blues artist to anybody.
King is currently touring the U.S. I hope Black folks turn out in droves to see him, and show the brother some love.
This is one of the songs that got King disqualified due to the presence of a clarinet: