Are Whites Taking or Are Blacks Giving Away the Blues?

Article excerpt

You've taken my blues and gone -- You sing 'em on Broadway And you sing 'em in 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.(*)

If Langston Hughes wrote this poem today, he would probably say we've given our blues away, and that they are almost gone. For today, 54 years after the poet laureate of Black America wrote that poem, blues music is kept alive by a mostly young, mostly White audience. Whites buy the blues recordings. They throng the blues clubs. They buy the blues concert tickets. And some blues legends are sounding the death knell, warning Black Americans to reclaim their musical heritage or see it die in the next millennium.

Blues legend Buddy Guy has owned a popular Chicago nightclub, Legends, for eight years. "If there are five Black people in my place during a performance, three of them work for me," he says.

Blues great Koko Taylor has also noticed a change in her audiences. "My audience today is 95 percent White all over the world," she says.

B.B. King, the "King of the Blues," says that even in Africa, the trend continues. "About the late '50s and early '60s this started to happen," he says, "so now around the world we find many young Whites playing and supporting the blues." At a recent nearly sold-out concert in an Atlanta park, he says there were only about 100 Blacks out of more than 8,000 people.

One of the biggest ironies of this new phenomenon is that a White Southerner, Isaac Tigrett, founder of the House Of Blues chain, is leading a worldwide movement to preserve the blues.

Tigrett says with an air of disbelief, "It's like the Black community suddenly turned its back on the blues. It's the weirdest bloody thing," he continues, traces of his 25 years in London evident in his speech. "It's a travesty. This is one of the most important pieces of American culture and heritage and it belongs to the Black community, and they must reclaim it. They must."

The roots of the blues begin deep in the Mississippi Delta, the poorest area of the country. For 20 years, the Mississippi Action for Community Education (MACE) organization has produced the Mississippi Delta Blues and Heritage Festival in Greenville, Miss. According to its sponsors, it is the only major blues festival produced by an African-American non-profit community group in the United States.

The blues culture changed dramatically in the 1960s, the artists agree, from a largely Black audience to a majority White audience. King, like many other blues artists, began his career in a segregated society. In the Black clubs they played, Whites came to service the vending machines or deliver supplies. "You'd see them standing in the background, but hardly ever seated," King says.

One White man who came in and sat down was Corky Siegel, a Chicago bluesman who describes himself as a "mad lover of the blues." When he was 20, he sat in with the house band of a South Side Chicago lounge and jammed with greats like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon and Little Walter.

"We were kind of thrown into this thing because we were just learning to play this music," he says. "For somebody who was in love with this form of music to have the opportunity like that when you're just learning how to play -- it was outrageous."

Asked why a White would be so interested in the blues, his answer comes quickly. "Because I was in love with it," he says. "And when you're in love, you don't ask why."

Siegel says he felt compelled to pursue the blues. "It wasn't a choice. It was something I was driven to do."

Siegel and other artists say they have earned the right to sing the blues. If, as one writer put it, the essence of the blues is wanting something you can't ever have, they bring to their music that hunger, whether it's for a woman, a man, a job or respect. …