Reparations for the Blues

“Sittin’ here watching matchbox hole in my clothes,” Ringo sang as the lead vocalist on “Matchbox,” one of the Beatles’ early Top 20 hits on Billboard.

The British Invasion

In 1964, the Beatles took American pop music by storm with mop haircuts, some catchy original bubblegum songs and a scattering of ‘50’s rock retreads like “Matchbox.”  In quick succession they were followed by the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Animals, Them, The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin. What would become known as the “British Invasion” changed the face of American—and world—pop music forever.

What was lost between the lines was that the British Invasion was fueled by Black American blues.

“Matchbox” is a good case in point because the Fab Four said they learned it off the 1957 Dance Album by rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins. Carl didn’t say where he picked it up, but he readily admitted that “I just speeded up some of the slow blues licks” for his seminal rock guitar style. He is also given writer’s credit for “Matchbox.”

“Matchbox Blues” was written and recorded by blues legend Blind Lemon Jefferson in 1927.

The Beatles were not alone in their usurpation of African American blues. The blues-drenched Rolling Stones even took their name from a song by blues icon Muddy Waters, and their first album is loaded with blues cuts. “Not Fade Away,” the Stones’ first Top Ten American hit came from white Buddy Holly who actually copped the song’s distinctive  shave-and-a-haircut-two-bits rhythm from Bo Diddley. “We did it with a Bo Diddley beat,” Charlie Watts quipped.

Many British rock bands did wholesale appropriations of blues compositions, arrangements, lyrics, bass lines, and guitar solos, like the Kinks’ 1969 hit “Last of the Steam Powered Trains” which is rooted in Hubert Sumlin’s quintessential guitar lick on Howlin’ Wolf’s 1956 “Smokestack Lightnin’.”

It’s Vocal Blackface, Man

White rock singers also mimicked Black vocal styles and intonations much like their counterparts did in the 19th century minstrel shows.  All of a sudden the rock world was awash with English, Scottish and Irish singers who sounded like Ray Charles, Muddy Waters and Elmore James.

“It’s vocal Blackface, man, pure and simple,” a Black piano player told me at the time. “Those guys don’t sound like that when they’re doing interviews.”

Blues Had A Baby And They Called It Rock ‘n Roll

The Brit rockers were only following a long acceptable American musical tradition of white musicians and white recording and publishing companies ripping off African American blues for popular and lucrative use in the white entertainment world.

The blues can rightfully be called the fountainhead of 20th Century American music. Jazz, swing, bop, pop, rock and—yes—country/western tunes cascaded from that fountainhead like a winter torrent. The blues was born in Africa, nourished in the wretchedness of slavery and raised in the cauldron of segregation. It is a unique music of an oppressed but unbeaten people, unique because of its honesty, dignity and defiance and its ultimate 12 bar truth.

The blues is also unique because none of its creators reaped any of its incredible financial payoffs. From the beginning, wads of money flowed not to the community from which the blues emerged, but to the looters who ran away with it.

Muddy Waters famously remarked that the “blues had a baby and they called it rock n roll,” but blues also had two older children named jazz and country music.

The extraordinary relationship of blues and jazz has been the subject of many worthy dissertations. Let’s drop just one archetypal anecdote on that subject here: in the 1920’s, the media dubbed the white Paul Whiteman,“The Kind of Jazz” when he and his orchestra held forth at the Ambassador Hotel in Atlantic City. Louis Armstrong, the real “King of Jazz” could not even book a room there because of the hotel’s whites-only policy.

I Was His Tape Recorder

The fact that American country music has been one of the most financially-rewarding arenas for blues-based music is not as well known.

Jimmie Rodgers is regarded as “The Father of Country Music, not only for his incredible impact on generations of performers but also for his sales of millions of blues-based records like “T for Texas” in the late 1920’s. How did the white Rodgers, whose musical tradition was comprised of Scots/Irish jigs and reels, morph into a blues lyricist and singer?  Well, as a young man Rodgers worked the minstrel shows with Frank Stokes, a Black singer. Rodgers is thought to have acquired much of his repertoire from Stokes whose name does not appear on the multitude of copyrights claimed by Rodgers.

The hit records of the Carter Family—the First Family of Country Music—were anchored in the solid guitar work of “Mother Maybelle” Carter. She credited her thumb and index finger guitar style to Leslie Riddle, a Black guitarist who accompanied her cousin A.P. Carter on his numerous song collecting expeditions in rural areas during the 1930’s. Portable recording equipment was not practical, so A.P wrote down the lyrics and Riddle memorized the melodies. “I was his tape recorder,” Riddle explained in an interview years later.  True to form, Riddle’s name is not on any songs “written” or “adapted” by A.P. Carter. It wasn’t all blues, but a Black guitarist with an incredible memory for melody empowered the Carter Family fortune.

The steel guitar is the signature instrument of western swing, and Leon McAuliffe was its most prominent proponent as a member of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. He recorded his seminal hit, “Steel Guitar Rag,” in 1936 and of course claimed authorship and collected royalties the many times it was recorded by other musicians. It sounds an awful lot like “Guitar Rag” recorded in 1923 by a Black guitarist, Sylvester Weaver.  Hmm.

If I Could Find A White Boy Who Can Sing With The Feel of A Negro . . .

In the early 1950’s Sam Phillips, the genius behind genre-bending Sun Records, reportedly said, “if I could find a white boy who can sing with the feel of a Negro, I could make a million dollars.” Ultimately he found that white boy and who kicked out a slew of blues hits written by the likes of Arthur Crudup, Roy Brown, Little Junior Parker, and Kokomo Arnold. That white boy’s name was Elvis Presley.

I Could Make A Million Dollars . . .

Neither Phillips nor anyone else could foresee that “a million dollars” was an understatement. Billions of dollars have flowed from the headwaters of African-American blues. Yes, Muddy, blues had a baby . . . a very fat baby. Consider the copyright royalties alone of 100 years of recorded music. Then add throw in the money generated by the publishing rights, radio and  television airplay, live performances, documentaries, T-shirts, posters, and even instructional video like “How to Play Like Blind Blake.”

Blind Lemon Jefferson died penniless on a snow-covered street in segregated Chicago. Immigrant-basher Eric Clapton is worth $500 million dollars. Itinerant blues genius Robert Johnson played for tips and died from an untreated ulcer complicated by a tainted drink. Frank Stokes spent his later years as a school crosswalk crossing guard. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are worth $900 million dollars.

What Is To Be Done?

This is not to say that some white musicians weren’t also exploited by the corporate music world, but it wasn’t because of the color of their skin and the power of the State was not arrayed against them as a race, thereby stifling any claims for justice before they could arise.

The Blues was stolen from the Black community simply because the white power structure had the power to steal it. It was not given away and billions of dollars were made on the Blues.

How to rectify this horrendous theft? Let’s start by including this crime within the parameters of Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee’s HR 40 which will establish a commission to study proposals for  reparations and push its passage in Congress. A parallel group composed of Black scholars, activists and artists like Randall Robinson, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Rev William Barber, Joy Reid, and Danny Glover can be established to pursue civil actions. The music industry keeps extensive data on sales and royalties. The financial records are there.

The Black community deserves financial justice. It’s time to pay the 12 bar debt.


“Standin’ here wonderin’ will a matchbox hold my clothes,” Blind Lemon Jefferson sang in his song about hard times, “Matchbox Blues.”

Don Santina’s latest novel, “A Bullet for the Angel,” is a noir tale of murder and gentrification in 1959 San Francisco. He can be reached at