Singing the blues

2 May 2009

blues

I had quite a sheltered musical upbringing and came quite late to the second British blues boom. Somewhere I still have a compilation I bought second-hand at school. on unutterably cool white vinyl, with Hendrix, Cream and The Taste, along with some authentic Chicago bluesmen.

All of this came flooding back as I watched a BBC 4 documentary, ineptly titled “Can Blue Men Sing The Whites?” (no Bonzos in sight) about the two waves of the British blues boom in the 60s, and the strange affair between betwen a generation of young British musicians – desperately looking for something new – and the black American bluesmen maintaining a tradition which was increasingly regarded as old-fashioned in their own country. The great photographer and journalist Val Wilmer deflected the usual question by inverting it: “How exotic did we seem to them?”

If there was a theme it was one of reverberations. There’s a familiar story here of British musicians taking black American music back to white Americans – and them hearing it for the first time.  And a less familiar one, that the British musicians understood that the US civil rights story was inseparable from the music, and I wonder if that cultural story, of that politics embedded in British popular music, might have been one of the reasons why the racial tensions of the late 60s didn’t flare into a repeat of the 50s race riots.

Certainly the musicians seemed to be ahead of the industry. Bill Wyman said that the Rolling Stones were told if they if they released Little Red Rooster as a single “it could ruin you”; it went to number 1 almost immediately.  Keith Richards did admit it had been a risk: “We must have been wearing brass balls that day, when we decided to put that out as a single.”

One of the secrets of Cream’s success (like Pentangle) was that they added jazz rhythm players (Bruce and Baker)  to the line up, The second was that Clapton – at a time when there was some ennui with the blues repertoire – knew about such obscurities (as they were then) as Robert Johnson’s Crossroads and Skip James’ I’m So Glad.

Finally, although I thought I knew this history pretty well, I discovered I’d missed completely the role of the trad jazz bandleader Chris Barber in building awareness of blues and gospel in the UK in the 50s. He put the profits from the jazz band into bringing black performers over to play in Britain. Without him the musical history of the 60s could have been completely different.

The picture is from the Heard Mentality blog.

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