Whites Saved The Blues- S. Crouch on PBS (Daily News)
Mon Oct 6 21:12:51 EDT 2003
Whites Saved the Blues by Stanley Crouch, (New York) Daily News
The complaints made about last week's PBS showing of Martin Scorsese's "The
Blues" raise some ongoing questions about how our culture is handled and
just who is most serious about the handling. Whenever there is mass media
documentation of anything we consider "black," those who do the documenting
are almost sure to be white. Those outraged are almost sure to be black.
Last spring, when I attended a blues conference in Oxford, Miss., one of
those expected moments arrived. On one panel, white researchers started
hemming and hawing about whether they had overstepped their bounds by going
out and finding blues singers and interviewing them.
We should all be glad that enough white people became interested enough all
those decades ago to begin a blues craze. Whether scholars or merely
curious blues enthusiasts, they got up off their rusty dusties and found
the musicians, interviewed them, got some of them recording contracts and
brought these people into a world where, often late in life, they could be
appreciated as performers and artists.
Those who provided the material should be celebrated and appreciated. They
could have stayed home and listened to Pat Boone.
After that panel, I talked to a rather haughty and cynical Negro who taught
political science. He was full of the bitter pus that had come of a special
wound, of being considered second-rate and never having been able to prove
otherwise. This man took the position that when the initial blues research
was done in the 1930s, black people could not get the grants that the white
people got. Therefore, black people were left out the cultural finds
brought forward by men like Alan Lomax, who found and recorded, for
instance, Leadbelly and Jelly Roll Morton. He produced invaluable material
about how black country music and early jazz came into being.
I wasn't interested in hearing it because one of the wonders of the Negro
community is that it has produced so many remarkable artists while
sustaining a basic disinterest in pure artistic expression as opposed to
entertainment. It was that way then, and it is that way now.
In fact, in 35 years, black studies, which began with all kinds of screams
about studying and preserving black culture, has done next to nothing
regarding the arts.
"Not much, brother, not much," Cornel West said to me. "The emphasis has
been history and political science, very little involvement in the arts."
Consequently, had Scorsese wanted to get some more black involvement
in "The Blues," he would have largely wasted his time searching for blues
scholars in black studies departments.
There are plenty of problems with "The Blues," but it becomes quite clear
that the middle-class white kids who filled up the blues festivals and
coffeehouses depicted in the series were looking for something humanly
authentic. They found it in black blues singers. And they usually treated
them like the cultural treasures that they were.
(Stanley Crouch is a columnist, novelist, essayist, critic and television
commentator. He has served since 1987 as an artistic consultant at Lincoln
Center and is a co-founder of the department known as Jazz at Lincoln
Center. In 1993, he received both the Jean Stein Award from the American
Academy of Arts and Letters and a MacArthur Foundation grant. He is now
working on a biography of Charlie Parker.)
Originally published on October 6, 2003, Daily News (New York)
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