Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Discussin' Fat Possum

I’ve always suspected an element of racism in the mania for Fat Possum blues artists over the last ten or so years. All these young white kids who had no interest in or knowledge of the form of the blues were suddenly cheering on these old black men missing teeth and meandering off and on the norms of pitch and intonation. I’d hear the occasional mildly interesting song, but it was hard to get past the fact that I knew so many better blues records.

There is a myth of authenticity that permeates our culture. Somehow, people expect a purity to exist, a Platonic version in reality. The ideal is often rooted in the past, at a time when things were simpler – and, it shouldn’t be forgotten, when African-Americans (or for that matter, women, gays, Native Americans, etc.) knew their place. So, the belief that blues performers who remained undiscovered, who were barely if at all tainted by contact with the mainstream of the genre, would inevitably be more pure than the slicker performers these people never heard in the first place.

I watched the documentary “You See Me Laughin’,” which is built around the Fat Possum empire, such as it is. I have to admit my admiration for these guys – R.L. Burnside, Cedell Davis, T Model Ford, Junior Kimbrough, et al – did grow as a result of the movie. Each of them does have a distinctive style, a personal version of the blues, which is all you can ask of a musician. Burnside, in fact, has a lot more chops than I thought he did, and a greater orientation towards creating a throbbing, propulsive groove. I suspect the live footage, whether intimate performances in living rooms, or loud, rockin’ performances in juke joints or at festivals, engaged me more than the records, which I recall being sloppy at times to no purpose. But, it’s also the genuine warmth of these individuals on screen, and the stories they had to tell which amplified their music. Maybe I was too quick to dismiss them, or maybe I just needed to see them as people first, before I could enjoy their music more. (On the other hand, Jon Spencer comes across as a nice guy onscreen, but the Blues Explosion stuff with Burnside remains unlistenable.)

This got me to thinking about the relationship between personality and music. I rarely get to know national recording artists. The ones I have met have been in mostly artificial circumstances, formal interviews or meet and greets. (That’s why I remember most fondly the Meat Puppets, because we actually hung out all day once, or the Long Ryders, because we went up in the Arch together.) But, I sure do know a lot of local artists. Some of them are enormously talented, some of them less so. I try to maintain a critical distance from my friends and acquaintances, but I do occasionally find myself giving the benefit of the doubt to musicians I’ve met. Somehow, knowing somebody has a sense of humor makes it easier to take it when a guitar is out of tune, or a vocal line only hints at an obviously intended melody.

But, then again, some things are just plain bad.

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