Vancouver Zeitgeist
Reflections on Vancouver, British Columbia and other topics, related or not


Whither the blues?

The music lives on, but not necessarily at blues festivals

Posted September 3, 2016

Burnaby blues festival

A scene from the Burnaby blues festival:
Preserving tradition or perpetuating stereotypes?

If you attend a blues festival, live near a blues festival or find yourself trudging against a foul headwind emanating from a blues festival, you might mistake the event for a long, tedious exercise in racial stereotyping. The mostly white acts unintentionally raise the question why can’t white people get this right?

Maybe there’s something intrinsic to the music after all. But most blues bands now constitute white guitar bands. Even those who play reasonably well sound imitative. Those who play exceptionally well—and find their own voice—tend to change the music into something else, such as English blues or southern rock. That’s been best exemplified by people like Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers and, on some magnificent occasions, ZZ Top.

The white bands’ inspirations mostly come from people loosely associated with Chicago style like B.B. King, Albert King, Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters, along with some rare non-guitar players such as James Cotton and Junior Wells. Influenced by earlier generations of folk and electric blues musicians, they’re largely out of action or dead. They leave a legacy that white guitar bands would like to emulate but can only, at best, imitate.

White blues practitioners aren’t likely to inspire younger musicians either, except for the especially dumb guitar scratchers who think anyone can play this stuff. All that would seem to suggest that, as an evolving art form, blues is dead.

Happily, jazz proves that fear to be nonsense. You’d be hard-pressed to find jazz musicians who play one blues after another after another, let alone find enough such musicians to fill a three- or four-day festival. But there’ll always be beautiful blues renditions by jazz musicians.

Funny thing, I’ve never known white blues fans to show any interest in performances such as Oscar Peterson’s Night Train, Charlie Parker’s KC Blues or Duke Ellington’s Jeep’s Blues, to offer just a few examples.

That’s partly due to the importance of persona to those fans. But it’s also because run-of-the-mill whites can’t listen to instrumental music unless it features guitar. They also like their guitar players to show off. So here’s a compromise: Jazz guitarist Russell Malone showing off with some show-stealing blues.


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