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Whose Blues?Facing Up to Race and the Future of the Music$
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Adam Gussow

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9781469660363

Published to North Carolina Scholarship Online: September 2021

DOI: 10.5149/northcarolina/9781469660363.001.0001

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Blues Feelings and “Real Bluesmen”

Blues Feelings and “Real Bluesmen”

(p.60) Bar 4 Blues Feelings and “Real Bluesmen”
Whose Blues?

Adam Gussow

University of North Carolina Press

This chapter seeks to do two different things: deconstruct the concept of the “bluesman” as a trope of blues authenticity and, on the other hand, explore the surprisingly variegated group of emotions—blues feelings—that generate, and are represented lyrically by, blues songs. It must be remembered that pre-war southern blues players like Robert Johnson were essentially songsters, human jukeboxes, whose ability to evade a life of badly-recompensed cotton sharecropping depended on their ability to perform a far wider range of material, for both whites and blacks, than the cliches “deep,” “dark,” “tortured,” and “primitive” allow for. Black record buyers, according to scholar Elijah Wald, were attracted to blues not by the race-based grief it sounded, but by its “up to date power and promise.” While agreeing with elements of Wald’s revisionism, this chapter argues that race-based grief, powerfully evoked by B. B. King’s memories of how stricken he was at the witnessed aftermath of a lynching, is retained in the music as an evocative “cry” that moves audiences. A fuller appreciation of the music comes when we find a way of synthesizing these two perspectives, both of which emerge out of a sustained struggle against white racist domination.

Keywords:   Blues, Bluesman, Race records, Racial violence, B. B. King, Robert Johnson

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