The Real Deal

Authenticity. Certain musicians have it and others don't, and for others it just doesn't matter.

It's imperative that rap, country and blues musicians be seen as "real." To be seen as such, rap guys have to have dodged daily drive-bys on the way to holding up the liquor store to get the cash that bought them the crack they sold to fund the release of their first record. (See Cent, Fiddy.) If they're a male country singer, they have to have depraved parents who got drunk and beat them and forced them to sing in the streets as children, and if they hit it big, they've got to go so crazy on Jack Daniel's and coke that they could only quack like Donald Duck when they weren't riding a lawn mower to the liquor store, drunkenly totaling another gaudy Cadillac, or firing a pistol wildly at their wives and friends. (See Jones, George.) If they're female, they have to be the daughter of a coal miner who moonlights as a sharecropper. They have to grow up in a hovel made out of tarpaper, asbestos and old patchwork quilts, have about eight kids before they're 20 and stand by a whiskey-sodden man who cheats on them with all their friends, sisters and mamas -- that is, when he's not drunkenly beating them. (See Lynn, Loretta; and Wynette, Tammy.)

But the blues has got to take the cake. A real-deal bluesman has to have grown up picking cotton on a plantation, and that plantation has to be in Mississippi, ideally in the Delta. His first musical instrument has to be a guitar rigged up out of a discarded cigar box strung with some strands of baling wire. He has to drink about a quart of moonshine or a gallon of cheap wine a day, be missing a few teeth, and have dubious hygiene, but somehow transcend all of that enough to have a woman in every town he rambles through. It helps to have killed somebody, and a few prison terms are absolutely essential, preferably in some brutal prison with plantation overtones like Mississippi's Parchman Farm (tops) or Louisiana's Angola (equally if not more brutal, but not in Mississippi, so a distant second). He should also be a devotee of hoodoo, conversant with the dark workings of goofer dust, John the Conqueror root and the mojo hand.

Bobby Blue Bland -- who is performing at the Continental Club August 6 and 7 -- is from Tennessee, not Mississippi, and much of his success came on a label based in Houston. He doesn't play guitar. Back in his younger days, he did put away a bottle of hard liquor a day, but he hasn't touched the stuff in decades. He's never killed anybody or been to prison, and he never appears in public in anything other than an expensive tailored suit -- a far cry from the rags or hayseed getup much of the white audience expects a "real-deal" bluesman to wear. If Bland ever sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads some dark Mississippi night, nobody knows anything about it.

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While many self-appointed white experts brand Bland's sophisticated, urban blend of down-home blues, gospel and pop balladry something other than blues, virtually all Southern blacks call it blues. What's the deal with that? What gives white folks, of all people, the right to say what is and isn't "authentic" blues? Why is Bobby Bland always considered a less real bluesman than, say, Robert Johnson? In Houston, why is it that so many people persist in believing that the disheveled, guitar-humping Little Joe Washington is more authentic than the immaculate, dignified Texas Johnny Brown?

Since it is not in Mississippi, and since it is not Chicago (the "authentic" blues' other "true home"), Houston has always been seen as something less than authentic. In his book Down in Houston: Bayou City Blues, Houston Press contributor Roger Wood relates one such episode. A visiting Northern scholar from a prestigious university came to Houston, took a tour of the Third Ward blues clubs, and concluded that what he heard there was "not blues." Oh, the musicians who played the stuff might've said it was the blues, and the people in the audience might have agreed, but this expert knew better.

"That attitude really bothers me," says Wood. "It's the religious impulse to exclude, and I say 'religious' in a very ugly human sense. You sit in judgment on all music and say 'This is blues' and 'This isn't blues,' and you say half of it is saved and the other half can go to hell. 'I'm the expert and you're not.' That kind of thinking frankly reminds me of Osama bin Laden."

There is a racist element to this line of thinking, too. There always has been. When my great-grandfather and great-uncle brought Leadbelly to New York in 1935, the die of the "primitive," "authentic" bluesman was cast. Media coverage of his first high-society concerts focused almost exclusively on the less savory aspects of his personality, which included a violent temper (he was a convicted murderer), perhaps excessive enjoyment of gambling and strong drink, and a practiced eye for the ladies. The New York media went hog-wild for this authentic creature -- and I choose that word carefully, for they regarded him as little removed from an animal. In their eyes, here was a real-deal noble savage, a primitive in our midst, one step removed from the African jungle!  

An infamous March of Times newsreel re-enacted the scene in which a kowtowing Leadbelly, clad in an old-school striped prison uniform, was paroled into the custody of my folklorist great-grandfather, who, in retrospect, with his white fedora and perpetual cigar, looks like the caricature of every Southern sheriff Hollywood has taught us all to hate. That was probably the most shameful event in my family's history in music, but the newsreel could be partially excused on the grounds that it was a long time ago and it was covering an event that actually happened. Far worse were media accounts my family didn't have a hand in making. The New York Herald-Tribune ran one story under the headline "Lomax Arrives with Leadbelly, Negro Minstrel / Sweet singer of the swamplands here to do a few tunes between homicides." Life magazine went the Herald-Tribune one better, headlining their Leadbelly profile thusly: "Bad Nigger Makes Good Minstrel."

And if you think times have changed all that much since then, reflect on how well that last headline would work as a slogan for Fat Possum Records. The Oxford, Mississippi, label always makes it well known how many children their artists have sired out of wedlock, how many people T-Model Ford stabbed, how much moonshine R.L. Burnside puts away on a daily basis, and how the same Burnside once did a mere three months in prison for shooting and killing a man in the 1940s. ("I didn't mean to kill nobody," Burnside has said. "I meant to shoot him in the head. Him dying was between him and the Lord.") In a bio that details Ford's "impeccable credentials," Fat Possum makes much of his violent nature and that of the world he lives in (his drummer Spam had his fingertips cut off by his box cutter-wielding girlfriend) and contrasts that somewhat bizarrely with the wimpy image of what they see as today's run-of-the-mill bluesman: "an old black man devoid of anger and rage happily strumming an acoustic guitar on the back porch of his shack 'in that evening sun.' "

Who -- outside of maybe the Pax channel and the Hallmark gift card company -- has that image of a bluesman? Methinks I see a straw man, a straw bluesman sitting in that evening sun. At any rate, even though the stories about T-Model Ford's psychotic behavior are likely true, Fat Possum is selling the fact that he and Burnside and others in its stable are bad dudes, and that's the way bluesmen oughta be.

Author, musician and folklorist Elijah Wald calls their advertising "horrifically racist." "I have no idea what it's like to hang out with R.L. Burnside, but I would not take for granted the horseshit I have read," he says. "Look, I'm glad those guys are getting a payday. I'm sure they paid their dues for it, and some of them are very talented, but for me, you have to separate that out from the fact that Fat Possum's marketing is just horrendous. For all I know, T-Model Ford could be a college professor who's putting us on."

Wald suspects that isn't the case, and I've seen the guy live and read stories by writers who have hung out with him, and it does seem like Ford lives up to his last album title, Bad Man. But stripped of that aura, what do you have? Wald says not much. "He's a very ordinary example of a quite deep and important style. But there's nothing exceptional about his work."

Nope, what sells is his mystique, and it's white people who are buying. "There used to be a group on the Southern fraternity circuit called the 13 Screaming Niggers," says Wald. "They're mentioned in Guralnick's book Sweet Soul Music as being a group like Doug Clark and His Hot Nuts, who were a black band that did the white frat circuit, like Otis Day & the Knights in Animal House. And frankly that's what Fat Possum is after."

Wald's recent book Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues is a fascinating exploration of how an obscure bluesman like Johnson came to be regarded posthumously as one of the most important and influential bluesmen ever. Wald makes the case that though the records he made were magnificent, Johnson's influence on African-American music was minimal. It was white music, specifically rock and roll after the British Invasion, that Johnson influenced, and part of his appeal was that Johnson was such a romantic figure -- a young man who made a voodoo-tinged deal with the devil and was cut down in his prime. It seems ridiculous that people would still believe this myth today, but the fact that Wald felt compelled to write this book speaks volumes about how this authenticity-bestowing tall tale lives on.  

And nowhere is the quest for authenticity more obvious than at shows by Fat Possum artists. Speaking about some -- but certainly not all -- of the people who come to these shows, Wald says, "There's an audience that wants to see what they consider to be dumb field workers singing the most primitive music ever. And that's sad."

I'd agree, but I'd say it was more pathetic than sad. A lot of those people are frat kids, and despite their image, frat kids have feelings, too. They know that college will be their last hurrah, that boring, monogamous, sober lives as financial analysts, insurance adjusters and dentists are all they have to look forward to. And so for one night, they identify with these guys. They see Burnside or Ford and think, "Wow, I could be a badass black dude, drink whiskey and gamble every day, fuck whoever I want, even shoot somebody. I, Whittmore Beauregard Forrest IV, could stay a frat boy the rest of my life, if only I had been born R.L. Burnside."

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