This week on the Green Room, I’m talking the blues with Grammy-winning blues artist Chris Thomas King. Earlier this week, King wrote for Spectator USA a scathing criticism of the policies of the Grammys’ Blues category. King is an African American from Louisiana. He is the son of a blues musician, and grew up in his father’s juke joint. He was one of the last blues musicians to be ‘discovered’ by anthropologists from the North. He has won two Grammy awards, in 2001 for the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, in which he starred as a blues singer who has sold his soul to the devil, and in 2002 in the category of Best Historical Album, for his tribute to Charley Patton, Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues. Yet he now finds his latest album, Hotel Voodoo, ineligible for Grammy nomination as a blues artist.
The problem, according to the head of the Blues committee in Los Angeles, is that King’s latest work isn’t ‘authentic’ enough. For example, King uses a clarinet on the album. You might not associate the clarinet with the birth of the blues; the chances are that you associate that birth with an acoustic guitarist in the Mississippi Delta. But that, as King explains in this week’s podcast, is a misperception. The clarinet, along with the trumpet, was a lead instrument in early jazz and blues; the saxophone didn’t catch on until the 1920s, and the electric guitar much later. Still, the perception of the blues in the music industry remains a prisoner of false history, racist assumptions, and romantic primitivism. As King says in our conversation, anthropologists, some of them well-meaning and some of them instrumental in the Harlem Renaissance, applied an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ model, based on prior researches into white Appalachian folk music, to the different tradition and more sophisticated styles of Louisiana music. A similar ‘Anglo-Saxon’ model now means that if a contemporary blues artist like King wants to be recognized as a blues performer by the music industry, he must conform to the prior researches of Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton.
King, an inheritor of the blues tradition, struggles to defend it against what he calls ‘gentrification’ by the rock ’n’ roll business. This struggle has turned him into a historian. Anyone who thinks they know about the origins and development of American music needs to listen to this week’s podcast. King has gone into the archives, and built a new history of the birth of the blues. In the words one of his new tracks, ‘Les blues was born in Louisiana’, in the complex exchanges of peoples and music in New Orleans. The primitivist legend of Mississippi acoustic blues singers puts the cart before the horse. Early jazz and blues, he points out, were formed before the Mississippi’s Delta was settled. The Delta bluesman is impersonating the more sophisticated sounds of New Orleans. The key figure isn’t so much Robert Johnson, to whom the legend of romantic doom attaches, but Lonnie Johnson, whose name is obscure to all but the most fanatical blues fans, but who, by transposing Jelly Roll Morton’s piano jazz onto the guitar, provided a template for the acoustic impersonations of the Delta musicians.
King is writing a book on the true story of the blues. Anyone in doubt about his credentials should listen to this.