Rick Galusha's Pacific St. Blues and Americana

Since inception (1989), Pacific St. Blues & Americana strives to be a discerning voice helping roots fans sift through the mountains of music released every year. We are not for everyone; we want to engage active, critical listeners that hear beyond d'jour. Interviews include: Johnny Winter, Bill Wyman (Rolling Stones), Jerry Wexler, Tommy Shannon & Chris Layton, B.B. King, Dr. John, Robin Trower, Robben Ford, Mato Nanji, Joe Bonamassa, Harry Manx, Sue Foley, Marshall Chess, Billy Lee Riley, Charlie Louvin, Kim Richey, Radney Foster, Eric Johnson, David Clayton Thomas, Al Kooper, Phil Chen (Wired, Blow By Blow), Ian McLagan, Art Neville, Southside Johnny, Miami Steve Van Zant, Nils Lofgren, Bruce Iglauer, Charlie Musselwhite, Studebaker John, Chris Duarte, Smokin' Joe Kubeck, Hamilton Loomis, Peter Karp, Roomful of Blues, James Harman, Hadden Sayers, Malford Milligan, Melvin Taylor, Otis Taylor, Dave Alvin, Coco Montoya, Jimmy Thackery, Marsha Ball, Maria Muldaur, Shelby Lynne, Magic Dick & J. Geils, Lil' Milton, BuddyGuy, Aynsley Lister, Matt Schofield, Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks, Guy Clark, Joe Ely, James Cotton, Robin & Jesse Davey, Hugh Coltman (Hoax), Sean Kelly (Samples), John Entwistle (The Who), Mark Olson (Jayhawks), Walter Wolfman Washington, Anthony Gomes, Bob Malone, Chubby Carrier, Buckwheat Zydeco, Murali Coryell, David Jacob Strain, DeAnna Bogart, Michael Lee Firkins, Guy Davis, Jason Ricci, John Doe, Little Feat, Matt Woods, MikeZito, Peter Buffett, Ronnie Baker Brooks, Corky Siegel, Todd Park Mohr, Watermelon Slim, Magic Slim, Corey Harris,- - - - - - ------------------------Radio archives: http://www.kiwrblues.podomatic.com/. Playlists: http://www.omahablues.com/ Reviews featured in http://www.blueswax.com/. Email: KIWRblues@gmail.com Live online; Sundays 9 a.m. (-6 GMT) http://www.897theriver.com/

Saturday, January 5, 2008

A reply to Chick Willis open letter
By Rick Galusha

Recently Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. published the column, “The Rules? There’s only one rule: Whatever you say, avoid bullying.” In it Pitts makes the point, it’s valid for the less powerful to take a swipe at the more powerful. Specifically, in contemporary society blacks are allowed to say things about whites that are patently unfair but it is expected to be tolerated.

In his open letter entitled, “A Real Blues Artist and Inventor (part one)” the noted blues musician Chick Willis makes several points; blacks in America continue to be at a disadvantage, blues was born of hardship within the African American culture and more and more “the blues” is really nothing more than 70’s rock being repackaged to aging white suburban baby boomers.

However, I think several of Willis’ comments deserve to be addressed.

In his thesis Willis writes, “”There is no way that a person that has not had the experiences of the blues or has lived the blues can know anything about the blues. Those people are copying what they have heard, not what they have experienced.” Willis then goes on to acknowledge some legitimate white blues players including Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton. Within the blues tradition there is a passing-of-the-torch process where older musicians school younger musicians. Clapton very probably was schooled by listening to records and by playing with John Mayall. Stevie was schooled by emulating his older brother and others on the Dallas music scene. What Willis goes on to infer is that White musicians who pay homage to black performers or at least lend their economic might to help them “know that they will forever be imitators of the blues” but he likes’em anyway.

There are two things I’m learning as I get older; 1.) No one gets out of life alive, and 2.) The longer you live the more suffering you are going to experience. There are several fallacies in Willis argument. For example, if one were to weigh the suffering of Jews over their 4,000 years of recorded history is their cultural pain sufficient to allow them to play the blues? If one were to examine the system of serfdom in Medieval Europe, a time when a vast majority of whites were enslaved by landowners, wouldn’t this cultural sense of suffering equate to at least some white boys being able to play the blues? Or does the passage of time marginalize cultural suffering? Do Mr. Willis’ rules apply to indigenous Americans? As a group their suffering is significant. Can they play the blues? (I’m thinking of Mato Nanji of Indigneous.) Either way Willis had better accept that fact that based upon his argument there are going to be some super badass Muslim blues players in the next decade because I can’t imagine anyone in the world suffering more than the average Joe living in today’s Middle East.

To paraphrase a paragraph from Willis, “There are a few white people that are giving these White Blues lovers phony blues all because they want to take advantage of them by giving them watered down blues…a music that was invented by Black people…it seems like slavery all over again.” Another thing I’ve learned over the past three decades of involvement in the music industry is that some people just don’t care that much about music. Music is little more than audio wallpaper to most. At a recent concert Bonnie Raitt (someone omitted from Willis’ list of legitimate white players) mentioned Memphis Minnie. The crowd whooped its support for the late singer. But a month later when two other progenitors of Memphis Minnie came to town, Sue Foley & Maria Muldaur, those “whoopers” were at home on the couch. AS the old saying goes, “The masses are asses” and don’t really know much about what comes out of their mouths but they’re willing to act like they do. Don’t take someone else’s ignorance personally – they probably didn’t mean to offend you. There are a handful of fans that see music as a bona fide art form but not many as a percentage of the whole population.

B. B. King figured out how to make a good living playing the blues and I doubt that Willis has the chutzpah to say that B. B. King did not live the blues life. The fact that Willis struggled all his life playing the blues is not a cultural form of racism as much as it is the fact that his music lacks mass appeal. People vote with their dollars. That Willis hasn’t achieved stature outside of the hardcore blues genre is hardly a sign of racism – it’s simply economics. (And why isn’t Willis inferring King’s a racist for not offering him one of those precious opening slots on his tour?)

Let’s look at it another way, a white man invented basketball; however, today it’s a sport that on the professional level is dominated by black men. Using Willis’ argument should a rule be passed that regardless of skill, regardless of the ability to sell tickets, at least one white man should be on the floor at all times for both teams in a professional basketball game? To even propose such a nutty idea borders on “bullyism” not to mention the fact that the game would suffer under such an idiotic rule. African Americans clearly invented the blues; however, this was a music that was heavily influenced by the Christian church. History shows that Jews founded the theology of African American churches. The guitar is a Spanish instrument and the piano was invented in Europe. Therefore, using Willis’ arguments, a Spanish Messianic Jew is by definition a legitimate blues player. I do of course have my tongue firmly planted in my cheek but I think you get my point.

When the Beatles hit American shores the blues were inadvertently changed forever. Purist may not like it but more of them drive cars to work than ride a horse to the office. So change and adaptation is just a part of the life; is hypocritical to embrace the changes you like but condemn other changes because you don’t happen to like it? One thing is for certain, to make such a statement sure is human but that doesn’t make it accurate.

Willis may also be well served to realize that most blues fans today came to the genre via The Rolling Stones or the Allman Brothers. An aspect of many rock fans bring with them is that “cover bands” do not get the same respect that the original songwriter/performer gets. How many times can someone roll out Crossroads Blues and expect to taken seriously? If I can put on the master playing Hell Hound on My Trail why would I want to hear some heretofore unknown Jack cover it? For me, if an artist wants to record a cover I think they need to add something special to it; otherwise its just a nice party favor. Chris Duarte once said to me, “You can always tell how bad a festival is by the number of times you hear “Sweet Home Chicago.” Admittedly a well chosen cover during a live performance can energize an audience.

Willis equates the judges of the IBC to the murders of Medgar Evans, Emmit Teal, The Birmingham Bombings and the Jim Crow courts of the South. I sympathize with Willis in that his contribution to the art form is virtually unrecognized today. I acknowledge his pain that many blues fans are ignorant of Willis’ music. That is truly sad and unfortunate but please Willis must recant such an offensive remark designed to be hurtful and divisive. Society didn’t accept this kind of crap from radio talk show Don Imus so why would anyone accept this kind of buffoonery from anyone else?

As with any art form, there will always be experts that have an opinion and there will always be an audience to disagree with them. As a friend once said to me, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Willis may have lived a life of the blues but he is hardly the sole determinant of its definition. In the end two things and only two things will rule on this issue; “There are only two kinds of music; good music and bad music,” and you simply cannot pass a rule about what someone else must enjoy listening to. What Willis likes is probably not what most Americans are willing to spend their money on.

As Leonard Pitts Jr. said, “don’t be a bully.” Racism espoused by a Euro-Centric or Afro-Centric person is ugly. American’s blacks do not have the market on pain and suffering. Admittedly blacks faced hurdles that many whites do not comprehend but anyone can play the blues and whether Willis recognizes that or not is longer determinant to the discussion. Club owners are going to book bands that make them money. Record labels are going to release albums by acts that make them money. Clubs that book acts that people don’t want to see go broke. Its not racism: its economics. Contrary to what Willis thinks, there are plenty of recitals every day that do not include a black performer but are, by contemporary definition, blues. There will always be a contingency of the audience that agrees with Willis’ politically correct arguments. I say enjoy whatever you like but be open to new musical experiences. Chris Thomas King is musically all over the board; some I like, some I don’t, but I am always game to hear what he’s come up.

If Willis wants to see more black performers on blues stages I suggest Willis heed the fundamental rules of economics by adapting and changing in order to provide a “product” that the audience will spend their money on. Yes, money corrupts art but it really is the only unbiased measurement of the value people place on something. I don’t base my listening habits on best seller charts but I do know you can’t educate the public by implying they’re stupid “wet behind the ears” racists.

If Willis doesn’t want to take a look at what audiences are responding to and adjust his act to meet the demands of a wider audience then he needs to accept his choice. There is no societal obligation for people to seek him out: especially if he chooses to downplay their apparent tastes. If Willis doesn’t want to adapt and change (and who isn’t having change shoved down their throat at work these days) then he needs to accept the consequences of his choice rather than bemoaning the amount of melanin in someone’s epidermis.

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