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.

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!

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax