What the Blues is seems to have been co opted by white fetishists of Black expression, and its many forms.


by Donnie Moreland 

This essay mentions domestic violence. 

August Wilson once noted, “The blues are important primarily because they contain the cultural expression and the cultural response to blacks in America and to the situation that they find themselves in.” I believe this to be true, in so far as the Blues may no longer be misappropriated and mythologized by folks who’d rather use it as ahistorical American pageantry than a record of their crimes. And in contemporary discourse of what we are, we need it back—and other fixtures of our ethos—to understand our becoming.

What the Blues is seems to have been co opted by white fetishists of Black expression, and its many forms. There seems to have been a mythologizing of the Blues, and its actors, as a distant world comprised of the heroics of anti-heroes, whose conditions were merely symptoms of bad luck.

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In the article, Blues Expressiveness and the Blues Ethos, written by Adam Gussow, the Blues is referred to almost theologically. The goal of research being not to investigate the conditions by which the Blues came to be, but to further preserve the right to reverence by pronouncing the Blues as such a grand spectacle that it exists solely for consumption. How Gussow speaks of his notion of the Blues ethos would have one believe the actors apart of the Blues creation were emotionally immovable objects of implicit stoicism. 

According to Gussow, “The blues ethos, as a concept, is multipronged, not unitary. It is a handful of attitudes and strategies for coping gracefully with the worst that life can throw at you.” My concern with Gussow’s position is that it ignores a pivotal truth about the blues ethos: Slavery and Post-Slavery legacies. As Amiri Baraka (formerly Leroi Jones) author of Blues People: The Negro Experience in White America and The Music that Developed from it, suggests, “But if the Blues was a music that developed because of the negroes adaptation to, and adoption of, America, it was also a music that developed because of the Negroes peculiar position in this country.”  

If we consider the position of Black folk in America, it is a position of concession. A position of finding calm in a state of constant calamity. But this is not some ideal by which to celebrate with a type of spectatorial admiration. It is a mechanism by which we must entertain in order to live with some manner of dignity. Thus, the “grace” which Gussow speaks of, is not some magic trait of our interior, but a dire measure of surviving white violence, or as Gussow minimizes as, “the worst life can throw at you.” 

If anything, this type of stoicism-as-survival serves as record. Record of cultural oppression, which we can observe the Blues as, if the stories by which the Blues are founded exist as part of a narrative of response to ethnic genocide. Looking to the Blues as record, destigmatizes it as something all-together religious in the white imagination and allows us to explore, in a kind of culturally anthropological way, as a means of inquiring what was done to us and how we were shaped as a consequence.

If we can look to the Blues as record, what we come to understand is how a people under persistent duress come to understand life and its meanings. How do a people whose priority should be navigating the conditions of self-making, but instead are caught up in parrying the implicit strategies of state sponsored genocide, determine a moral value system by which to negotiate the lived experience. For Black folk, it was through a type of warped moral rigor, wherein because we’ve lost so much, losing more was a greater terror to life than the terror of what could be sustained. 

It is this kind of unconditional affirmation of acceptance which sets up the ethically inconsequential messaging of Blues artists like Robert Johnson, Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters, or the undercurrent of unconditional absolution in certain records from artists, such as Billie Holiday. Whatever the abuse, what exists on the other side of losing someone is always worse. Thus, goodness and badness become oppressive in how they influence the act of separation, so in many cases it was best to just throw them away and deal with the abuse, more as a consequence of circumstance and not a means of intervention, dissociation or repair. 

It is what exists beneath the ethos of Gayl Jones’ Corregidora . According to Jones, In a 1978 interview with the Massachusetts Review, in which she speaks about the influence of the Blues and the Blues poem, Deep Song, on the interpersonal dimensions of the character relationships in the novel: 

“Blues talks about the simultaneity of good and bad, as feeling, as something felt. In the poem, ‘Deep Song,’ how do people react to the words ‘good’ and ‘bad?’ I think people have the same attraction to the line ‘Sometimes he is a bad dark man’ as they do the line ‘Sometimes he is a good dark man.’ It has to do with meanings and  things having a lot of different meanings at once. The last line is ‘I love him.’ It isn’t ‘But I love him.’ I think that’s important because it has to do with being, and it doesn’t set up any territories. It doesn’t set feelings off into a corner… It acknowledges both things… That’s what interests me. Ambiguity.” 

It is this ambiguity which links records such as Robert Johnson’s, Me and The Devil Blues and Billie Holiday’s, My Man, by a thread of moral inconsequentialism related to the subject of domestic violence. Though Johnson’s character in the song seems to receive his comeuppance for “beating his woman” in some portrait of death as retribution, there is no tangible consequence for his abuse as a result of his existential ire. 

The same applies with Holiday’s My Man. In Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, scholar Angela Davis argues that Holiday’s transformative performance of the song, “warns against a facile, literal interpretation” of lyrics such as, “He isn’t true. He beats me too.” Davis asserts that, “the ambivalent posture” by which Holiday may be navigating her relationship (and abuse) in performing the song, “highlights the contradictions and ambiguities of women’s love relationships and creates a space within which female subjectivity can move toward self-consciousness.” 

And while there is great significance in the transmutative properties of expression and how expression influences interpretation, the question becomes what do we do with the abuse, and the abuser, for which Holiday was subject even after her metaphysically reconstructive arc? If the answer to violence has primarily been how the survivor manages in the aftermath, then where are we to navigate preemptive intervention in the contemporary. 

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If we examine the Blues as record, then we are left with a legacy of the Blues and the morality from which informs it. A legacy of, again, rigged inconsequentialism. A moral inconsequentialism which partially informs how we’ve arrived at a place of moral dismay related to matters of gendered oriented violence, gender equity and accountability. A moral inconsequentialism which conflates how things are (and were) to how they should be.

In reclaiming ownership of an ethnic fixture, such as Blues, and the bodies which made/make it up, we can discover something about our arrival into being. We can discover something about holding accountability, in retrospect. We discover how to illustrate the memories of our elders, our ancestors, and our ethos, and figure how to more properly navigate what it is we are becoming.

Donnie Denkins Moreland Jr is a Minnesota based youth violence prevention educator and writer. Donnie holds a Master’s Degree, in Film Studies, from National University and a Bachelor’s Degree, in Sociology, from Prairie View A&M University. Donnie has contributed to Black Youth Project, A Gathering of the Tribes and Sage Group Publishing.