Rhythm and Race


I have before me one of those thumbnail accounts of the birth of rock–the most recent among many dozens, it doesn’t matter which. It says what they always say: that rock was born when white kids ripped off–and sanitized–the raw sexual energy of black blues, or rhythm and blues.

This used to be the standard account of how rock was born. We are now blessed with excellent rock historians like Greil Marcus, Peter Guralnik and a host of Europeans who write on the blues: they paint a far more complex picture. It provides background for what I will argue: that the ripoff version of rock history, in its very attempt to do justice to black artists, perpetuates the racial stereotypes it should be fighting.

The ripoff account rests on generalizations about black blues, and about other black music, that are offensively wrong. Some black music is indeed raw, but some is–has always been–exquisitely refined. Some is intensely sexual, made by tough-sounding black men and black women who boast of their erotic power. At least as often, relations between the sexes in black music have all the emotional range you would expect of relations between males and females anywhere. Charlie Spand (in Good Gal, 1929) doesn’t tell his babe he’s gonna put her down. He doesn’t have to get rollin’ down the road, doesn’t warn her she bettah change her ways or else. He speaks with the very same direct, cruel honestly that you hear in any culture when love grows cold:

You wonder why I treat you so,
You should have sense enough to know,
Good gal, good gal, I don’t love you no more,
Good gal, good gal, I don’t love you no more

–and the painful words are belied by his beautiful, almost fragmentary piano. The guitar fills by Josh White are complex, delicate figures, a thousand music miles from the tough-guy licks that today form the public face of blues music. And much more could be said in the same vein. Blues singers, often as not, do not have slap-your-bitch deep he-man voices. Often–and this goes for some of the genuine tough guys, like Huddie Leadbetter–they have high voices, not deep, ‘manly’ ones.

The prevailing atmosphere of many blues numbers is not raw defiance but–unsurprisingly–anxiety. Maceo Merriweather is quite shaken to wake up and find his girlfriend standing over him with a .45; he pleads for his life. The incomparable Jimmy Yancey doesn’t conjure up a violent or sex-charged world; he evokes an atmosphere of quiet contemplation. And when Peetie Wheatstraw sings sex, he doesn’t come over like a big black stallion; he has, as one critic noted, a ‘lazy, arrogant’ delivery, full of irony and wit.

No doubt there is much to learn from considering black blues as the product and possession of an ethnic group. But familiarity with that music quickly proves that stereotypes about the blues are as wrong as stereotypes about the race–and crude histories of rock build on both these stereotypes. When you begin to consider the music in all its diversity, you realize that there it doesn’t just involve a huge range of subject material, mood, and presentation. It also involves a huge range of quality. To tell the full story, you need to do a lot of something that even good rock historians do very sparingly. You need to make aesthetic judgements within the area of black music, just as people habitually make them within the area of white music.

To put it bluntly, you can’t trace the careers of black and white music without acknowledging that some blues ‘artists’–even the most ‘authentic’- are mediocre, and some stink. This is what you would expect of any music played by a large number of people who are themselves diverse. And it is only by recognizing this range of quality, by distinguishing the masters from the second- and third- and twelveth-raters, that the great achievements of black music can be honored as they deserve. No one can, with a straight face, put ‘the blues’ up against Mozart or Beethoven. No amount of wishful thinking will make, say, Sonny Terry or Furry Lewis, into great artists. It is only when you admit how three or four black artists–among them, I’d think, Robert Johnson and Little Walter–utterly dwarfed those around them, that you can speak of black Mozarts and Beethovens. And of course black audiences have always been ruthless in their evaluations of second-raters: you won’t find many black Sonny Terry worshippers. On the other hand, Robert Johnson’s contemporaries said that he–the black Faust–must have sold his soul to the devil to play like that.

Once aesthetic judgements are plugged into musical history, a number of things become apparent, including the absurdity of dating white attempts at blues from the mid-1950s. What matters here is not that a few minor white artists like Harmonica Frank mastered the black blues idiom to the extent that passed for black among the black record-buying public. The answers to “can a white man play the blues?” have little interest compared to the real interplay between rhythm and race.

Black blues and white music have intertwined since before the dawn of recording history. Of course there is no question but that the blues are black music, created by blacks for blacks. But by the time the first blues–if you can call it that–was recorded by the black nightclub singer Mamie Smith in 1920, the blues were already something of a half-breed.(*) Her orchestra, for instance, was probably the same one that backed the white (and sometimes blackface) singer Sophie Tucker. It was a jazz ensemble and quite far removed from blues roots. The first recorded blues were therefore already ‘sanitized’. This may be part of the reason why one writer on the history of the blues tactfully tells us that

“The first commercially successful self-accompanied artist in the “race field” was Papa Charlie Jackson…”

You could also say that Papa Charlie Jackson was the first artist to record a blues not tailored to the night-club environment of Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Bessie Smith. He did that in 1924. In the same year–before Blind Lemon Jefferson, before Charley Patton, twelve years before Robert Johnson–the white songster Uncle Dave Macon recorded Hill Billie Blues. It was this song–a blues!–which brought the word ‘hillbilly’ into music. Years before the earliest known masters of the blues recorded, blues and country music were already interbreeding.

The intermingling of musical traditions was not confined to the blues format. Papa Charley Jackson and Uncle Dave Macon both recorded their numbers on banjo. This was a kind of historical crossroads: not so long before that, guitar was a white instrument, and banjo a black instrument. So black people ‘stole’ Robert Johnson’s instrument from the whites, and bluegrass–not blues or rock–owes its soul to an instrument ‘stolen’ from black people.

The commerce between black and white music was not intermittent but constant. White musicians never produced really first-rate blues–though Jimmie Rogers, recording nine years before Robert Johnson, came fairly close. On the other hand, white artists had developed their own version of the music, nothing like a ripoff or a cover technique, long before the blues had even begun to evolve into a precursor of rock and roll. Even more important, the great black artists had long ago both appreciated and incorporated white idioms into their music.

This should not be surprising. Black artists–sometimes to the annoyance of their white fans and patrons–have always shown a fondness for all kinds of white musical idioms. The jug bands of the 1920’s are one example. Another is Blind Willie McTell, who covered such white tunes as “Pal of Mine” and “Wabash Cannonball”. In one remarkable number, “Don’t Say Goodbye”, Leroy Carr does about half the song as a perfectly nice but predictable blues and then–one almost imagines him saying, “Oh, screw it”–finishes the track as what can only be described as a country song. Some of Washboard Sam’s finest numbers, like “Good Old Cabbage Greens”, are as close to country as to blues. Black blues musicians were people, not stereotypes. They loved music, all kinds of music. They were not concerned with the racial purity of their own work.

Even Robert Johnson, who more than anyone else formed contemporary notions of the blues, was happy to play little decidedly unbluesy jingles like “Hot Tamales”. Yet Robert Johnson had a fateful and perhaps fatal influence on the development of the blues: he was so toweringly, utterly brilliant, and his influence so overwhelmingly powerful, that he did much to push the blues towards the stereotype under which it suffers today. For one thing, Mississippi Delta Blues, which itself showed great range in the works of earlier artists like Charley Patton and King Solomon Hill, was all but reduced to the work of the master who overshadowed his predecessors, themselves artists of the highest calibre. For another, Robert Johnson became virtually the single source of modern Chicago blues. Elmore James, a superb artist, all but built his entire career on one Johnson lick. Muddy Waters shaped the music by electrifying some small portion of Robert Johnson’s guitar work. The whole rest of the blues–not only the blues of Texas, Atlanta, and the Carolinas, but also the fine piano blues that fluorished in Northern cities like Detroit and Chicago itself, became at best a sideshow, more often, an obscurity. Paradoxically, Johnson’s very brilliance, his very inventiveness, ultimately impoverished the music of which he was the greatest exponent. Virtually the whole range of black blues was theoretically available well into the 1950s, but it had a minimal public presence, even among blacks. People wanted to hear it Robert Johnson style, even if they’d never heard of the man.

More ominously, and increasingly, they didn’t want to hear it at all. By the time white musicians were imitating the blues–not as they had done for decades, but in that special way that produced rock and roll–the blues was on its deathbed. The rock and rollers might have covered black material, but they also gave it new life. Black people, apparently unwilling to confirm expectations about their raw, sexual, violent nature, had to a great extent gone on to other things. From just around the time of Robert Johnson’s last recordings in 1938, new trends were taking over. That was the year Louis Jordan started recording. His work was quick, slick, witty, and almost joyfully lighthearted even when it tackled serious subjects. But it was also, at its best, music of the highest quality, something that commanded attention. If its approach was not so different from some of the urban blues of the time, it was miles away from the aggressive, ultraserious idiom that was on its way to becoming modern Chicago blues. And black people as well as white loved it, just as they loved that man who collaborated, not only with Jordan, but with Jimmie Rogers–Louis Armstrong. From the jive of Louis Jordan and the urban blues of the 1930s came rhythm and blues, usually considered the precursor of rock and roll.

At about the same time another trend in black music surfaced with the Ink Spots, who started recording in 1935 and were best sellers from 1939 to 1943. They were the first really famous black vocal group. Like Louis Jordan, they may have been popular because they provided relief from the stark, dark, rough blues which had begun to wear out its welcome. But they also became popular because, like Louis Jordan, they were damn good. They didn’t produce a mere sell-out; they produced something new and even beautiful.

The short of it is that whites did not rip blues off in the 1950s. Blacks and whites played each other’s music as far back as we can hear, and each contributed to the development of the others’ music. And the blues did not develop forever. It also narrowed, at least in public perceptions, and declined. Meanwhile, blacks explored and forged other musical paths, typically further and further away from the ‘raw sexual’ stereotypes.

And here, as we approach the birth of rock and roll, qualitative judgements become all the more important. On the one hand, blacks increasingly turned away from hard-core blues. This was partly obscured by the appearance of another musical giant, Little Walter, who topped the R&B charts in the early 1950s and made it seem as if Chicago blues was a true art form, robust and musically nuanced. Not so. Chicago blues involved many excellent artists like Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Magic Sam, Otis Span, and Elmore James. But it never again produced anyone like Little Walter. Its best work was laced, not only with clichés, but obvious and desperate efforts to avoid them. There was no greatness, no beauty, and black audiences turned their attention elsewhere. The music, after Little Walter’s masterpieces, failed to command a national black following, let alone a white one. Little Walter–whose “My Babe” in 1955 was the last Chicago blues to make number one on the R&B charts–had a total of two number 1 R&B hits. So did the Everly Brothers. Muddy Waters never made it past number 4. Unlike Elvis and Nat King Cole, not one Chicago blues player appears in the top 60 R&B artists’ listings. There are still many fine black blues musicians, but their music is going nowhere. The blues has left a beautiful corpse, but it is dead.

What then of rhythm and blues–not the catchall category of today, but the classic numbers that preceded rock and roll? If the white kids didn’t steal the blues, did they steal R&B?

There are four problems with any such claim.

The first is that some of the very greatest R&B hits of the early 1950s–Little Willie Littlefield’s “Kansas City”, Big Mamma Thornton’s “Hound Dog”, Charles Brown’s “Hard Times”, The Robins’ “Riot in Cell Block 9”–were written by two whites, Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. They were not alone–Nat King Cole’s wonderful Route 66 also had white authorship.(**) Johnny Otis, a white band leader who lived as if he was black, was central to the careers of several important R&B artists. Moreover, an astounding number of the greatest R&B hits came from white producers like Sam Phillips and Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records–this at a time when the studio owners didn’t just sign papers and rake in cash, but would help out with the writing chores, clap out a beat, or even join in on a chorus. It was precisely the bluesier, rougher sort of R&B–the kind that had the most influence on rock and roll–that also had the most influential white involvement.

The second problem is that Elvis’ original Sun sessions, the sessions that make rock and roll, were not mere covers. To varying degrees, they radically changed the quality of the music: his performances were neither R&B nor sanitized pseudo-R&B, but something with a more nervously frantic, less precisely rhythmic, with a pronounced country sensibility. The third is that, whether or not whites can play the blues, they certainly mastered R&B before rock and roll. Moon Mullican’s compositions–recorded with King Record’s black studio band–are ample evidence of that. Finally, when the ripoff account is offered, you have to pay close attention to chronology. Elvis first recorded in 1954. The black ‘kings’ of rock and roll–Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley–recorded later. Even Big Joe Turner’s unambiguously rock numbers came after Elvis’, and were a wonderful but also a patent attempt to cash in on the new sensibility.

Beyond arguments about who took what from whom, something more fundamental shows how the ripoff account is an injustice to black music. As black artists and black audiences moved away from the blues, they did not simply move towards R&B in the narrow sense of blues-oriented electric combos. They did not gravitate towards the tough stuff, nor was it here that they truly excelled in some way they could call entirely their own. On the contrary, the greatest achievements in black R&B were not the over-the-top rough-hewn numbers of someone like Howlin’ Wolf, who never made the R&B charts. Black music prospered in two forms.

First, there were the exquisitely urbane and sophisticated piano numbers of people like Cecil Gant, Willie Mabon, Camille Howard, Amos Milburn, and others. This music was very popular with black audiences, but white never gave it the attention accorded to Big Joe Turner, Howlin’ Wolf, Big Mama Thornton, and similar artists. It seems that white audiences would rather lavish praise on black artists who fit the stereotypes–the big mama, the animal, the 300-pound night club bouncer. It is telling that when Joe Turner recorded with one of the greatest exponents of subtle, intricate, refined piano blues–Pete Johnson–he got nothing like the response he received in the persona of a big lusty black guy.

Then there was the sweet, sometimes naïve, unbluesy world of doo-wop. It is not in violent, sexual music that postwar black artists achieved fame and excellence. Perhaps whites can sing the blues, but they never quite equalled the either the elegance of the postwar black pianists, or the utter sweetness of the vocal groups.

Doo-wop and its precursors drew on gospel and a variety of white music, including barbership quartets. They almost always avoided blues, but ‘stole’ all sorts of white pop material, and there are even musical versions of Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees”. The earlier groups were often composed of highly professional, very disciplined adults: there were not only practices, but fines imposed for those who missed them. Yet doo-wop has been trivialized as the more or less inconsequential music of cute but amateurish high-school kids. The magnificent recordings of the Orioles, Dominoes, Flamingos, Five Keys, Five Royales and other groups will not receive the broad recognition they deserve as long as white audiences care only for black popular music that fits the tough, sexual stereotype.

It was doo-wop–sweet, beautiful, innocent, gentle music–that set black youth on fire. The black counterpart of the rockabilly bands that kids across the South assembled had nothing to do with the blues, nothing to do even with the hard-edged R&B that influenced white rock and roll. While white kids were forming hard-driving combos playing in a blues idiom, black kids in their tens of thousands were forming vocal groups whose music had left the blues far, far behind. Black rock and roll artists had far more impact on white youth than on black youth, whose gospel-drenched harmonies fed into Motown and soul. While white musicians mined a blues tradition that no longer lived in black sensibilities, it was doo wop that really ruled the streets of the ghettos. Black musicians by and large wouldn’t have been caught dead covering Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson like the Rolling Stones, and the leading black rockers of the fifties–Bo Diddley, Little Richard and Chuck Berry–never did nearly as well on the black music charts as Elvis. Far exceeding all of these on the black charts were Ray Charles and Fats Domino, whose relaxed style fits awkwardly with the ‘they stole black raw sexuality’ historians. When the great harpist Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) at last attained some popular success, it was with those whitest of black music afficionados, the Yardbirds. The idea that he would have played with any popular black group recording at the same time is simply inconceivable.

None of this is in any way to deny what clichéd histories of rock and roll affirm: that in music as in everything else, blacks were shamefully robbed and exploited. Black artists encountered racism almost everywhere they went, and, though black record producers also exploited black musicians, most of the ripoffs were at the hands of white recording entrepreneurs. But the injustices of the ripoff account, which all but dismiss the true geniuses of black music as mere instances of the black stereotype, are as outrageous as the very robberies so justly condemned.


(*) You could say the same for country music. The very first song on the Grand Old Opry in 1926 was “Pan American Blues”, performed by the black harmonica player DeFord Bailey.

(**) As for black songwriters, perhaps the greatest of them was Otis Blackwell. Here is his account of his musical formation:

“TBE–Who were some of your early influences?”

“OB–Tex Ritter was my idol. In my neighborhood there was a movie theatre called the Tompkins. I used to sit from morning to night watching cowboy pictures. I grew up with cowboys–Tex was my man. I would have preferred to sing country but when I went out I used to sing ‘Ill Get Along Somehow,’ by Larry Darnell, that was one of the songs I enjoyed doing. Larry Darnell and Chuck Willis were two other idols.” see http://www.kyleesplin.com/


MICHAEL NEUMANN is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Professor Neumann’s views are not to be taken as those of his university. His book What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche has just been republished by Broadview Press. He can be reached at: mneumann@trentu.ca.


Michael Neumann is a professor of philosophy at a Canadian university.  He is the author of What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche and The Case Against Israel.  He also contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism.  He can be reached at mneumann@live.com