Can Blue Men Sing The Whites? Review: It Don’t Matter If You’re Black Or White

May 1, 2009 by  
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BLUES BRITANNIA: CAN BLUE MEN SING THE WHITES? Friday 1st May, BBC4, 9.00pm Alert Me

If only the creative genius of song could be summarised by one simple equation. For example, Green Day’s vein of pop punk might be written as follows: (guy-liner) x (three power chords)/pseudo-anarchism = $$$$!

For blues, it’s more of an anti-equation, summarised here by Howlin’ Wolf: “If you can’t pay your rent, you got no food and you’ve lost your woman, you sure as hell know you got the blues.” Damn straight, fool. But just how did a generation of middle-class British upstarts transform the blues genre from heartfelt tales of struggle into the re-packaged commercial venture of the late 1960′s? BBC4 has the answer (and Keith Richards).

The stagnant, greying post-war era watched rock and roll’s funeral, and young people were looking for the next big thing. Under the surface of buttoned-up Britain, there was a silent, yet simultaneously musical revolution. A niche group of pre-scene teens were hounding a small, vinyl shop in Streatham for the latest LP by Lightening Slim, Jelly Roll Morton or Lambchop McGee (to add a light-hearted quiz element to this review – spot the deliberate mistake!).

The current anarcho-punk “collective” ethos can easily be traced back to the days of blues. One fan recalls how he got a bus to a random address just to ask the owner; “I’ve heard you’ve got a Muddy Waters LP, can I see it? Can I hold it?”. The covetous nature of collecting limited edition vinyl became a playground for the green eyed monster. Mr Richards himself comments that you would “stick a guy up” if he had a good enough record collection. These days people will cock a pistol in your face for a Mars bar; sigh, the 60′s were simpler times.

The main focus of the documentary, aside from charting the progression of “Blues Britannia” (or “How the Brits nicked the Blues and sold it back to America” as Mike Vernon puts it) is the racial awkwardness inherent in the white man’s love of black struggle-song. The Black and White Mistrel Show of 1964 transformed Muddy Waters into a travelling hobo to appease the fascist blues “puritans”, whereas other fanatics felt empathy for the oppressed. Despite the patronising tone of comments such as, “Wow, look how terribly they were treated” (well duh), this empathy was deemed to be heartfelt; we Brits do love an underdog after all.

However, the documentary still felt putrified by the stench of taboo, I couldn’t help but cringe when John Mayall said that he emulated John Lee Hooker in order to “make [himself JLH] in white form”. At the end of the day, skin colour is irrelevant. What matters is soul. As pianist Jack DuPree states, “Anybody can play the blues: white or black; but he can’t feel what I feel because he’s never lived a slave life. He’s never had somebody spit in his face and not be able to do a thing about it…”

I was initially inspired by this documentary, but the tone soured for me towards the end. Madonna was right about one thing – music makes the people come together. Therefore, it’s high time those rich white boys counted their dirty money and buttoned it.


Sally McIlhone