Endangered Blues III: The Unhandy Truth about Blues Foundation

Look around the country at the lineups at so-called “blues festivals.” You’ll often find they’re headlined by a rock star or by one of a handful of famous aging African American blues men or women.  The rest of the lineups tend to be white bands. Where are the baby boom generation of Chicago’s African American musicians—the ones who learned directly from Howlin Wolf and Muddy Waters? Do they exist?

 Yes. They’re here! But they’re not getting hired or promoted, thanks in large part to a national organization whose stated purpose is “preserving our blues music history, celebrating recording and performance excellence, supporting blues education and ensuring the future of this uniquely American art form.” The Blues Foundation in Memphis is a much more influential nonprofit organization than its membership roll of less than 4000 would indicate. It affiliates with over 200 local blues societies around the world, and its two annual awards contests set the tone for blues festivals everywhere. Its annual budget is around $650,000.

 The Blues Foundation could potentially be a force for spreading blues music into new markets and educating school kids. But its board is dominated by record companies who closely guard their small market share instead of trying to win new fans. So far the Foundation’s main activities are two annual contests: the International Blues Challenge, and the Blues Music Awards, formerly named after the African American composer W.C. Handy.

The BF took Handy’s name off the Blues Music Award around 2006--not a good sign. To enter this annual Grammy-style award judging, an artist must issue a record within the current year. It’s hard for locally known, non-wealthy African American artists to get records out every year.  The record business has suffered from pirated downloads and store closings. Older record companies, including Chicago’s Alligator Records, have been signing only a tiny few emerging African American blues artists, and Alligator owner Bruce Iglauer has drawn fire for admitting it.  www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/alligator-records-40th-anniversary/Content?oid=3834565

A newer label, Calfornia’s Delta Groove, likewise promotes white artists and a sprinkling of older black musicians. These labels buy lots of ads in American “blues” magazines, which are increasingly lacking in articles about black artists.  

 In 2010, a majority of Blues Music Award winners were white; an  Elvis Presley style act from California took three major awards. Of Black winners, only one was younger than 65, and there were NO Black nominees for Best New Artist. www.blues.org   This year Black winners slightly outnumbered whites, 14 to 11, but are still mostly old.

 Blues Foundation’s International Challenge includes even a lower percentage of black artists. Each blues society chooses its top solo-duo act and band in a local contest. Each act has to raise money to travel to Memphis for the annual competition. Professional African American acts have a hard time in these local contests, because the judges tend to be white and the Foundation offers no definitions of “blues” to guide their decisions.

 Examples:  In 2002, I watched Chicago soul singer Nellie Tiger Travis and guitarist Tyree Neal, grandson of Louisiana bluesman Raful Neal, bring down the house in their semifinal and final rounds, only to lose to a little known rock band sponsored by a Canada restaurant owner

In 2006 I saw my friend Larry Hill Taylor’s band of 30 year professional Chicago West Side bluesmen lose a local contest in Marietta, Ohio after playing their own arrangements of traditional tunes by Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Magic Sam. The winner was a local rock band that had added a few blues tunes to its repertoire of head-banging noise featured on Myspace.

 I was told later that Larry’s band lost because they played no original tunes. But as Larry points out, clever lyrics may add to the fun, but feelings are the main point of the blues.  “Blues is a tradition, all down from the time of slavery, then coming up here from Mississippi. It’s just like an old religion. Artists always start out by playing favorite traditional tunes people like, then they create their own.” Go to any hole in the wall club on the West and South Side and watch how blues performers build community spirit through familiar tunes, feeling and groove. The contest judges may not understand how blues works in the community.

 None of this would matter so much if the IBC was just a fun contest. But the winners get slots at national festivals. Also, promoters often fill their festival rosters with amateurs they see on stage at the IBC, who come cheaper than professional heritage musicians. One hand washes another, and the Blues Foundation has created one big happy family. An increasingly color-less family.

 Does racism motivate these promoters and contest-makers?  One cannot judge their hearts but the results are obvious.  The current generation of professional blues men and women in Chicago, sons and daughters by blood or by spirit of the Howlin’ Wolves and Muddy Waters—are being passed over in favor of imitators, even in so-called blues festivals. And unlike the 1960s and 70s, rock festivals are not offering blues acts.  (Are the rock boys scared of being shown up by our blues men and women on stage?)Unless this generation show success in their careers, younger African American artists will not take up the music.

So why do I care?

 Let me put it this way. If I ever go to Scotland, the home country of my father’s parents, I would be dismayed if I found nobody playing bagpipes. The pipes are the soul of Scotland and Ireland.

 Just like that, blues is the root of American popular music—an expression of true human feelings. It goes back to Africa, the birthplace of all humanity.

 Blues will never die. People will still sing and play the blues in some cottonfield or back alley. But what America offers on stage might end up only a pale, watered-down version of this nation’s greatest contribution to world culture. We can’t be satisfied. Not with so many talented blues men and women ready to shine. Their time is now. 

 It’s time to wrestle with Alligators.  Or maybe to start some new record companies and radio stations, and blues magazines that tell the truth. Not easy in this economy. But the blues is truth, and truth finds a way.

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