Toward Freedom Magazine, Burlington, VT, May, 2000:
 
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         Travis Charbeneau  3421 Hanover Ave., Richmond, VA 23221
            travischarbeneau@gmail.com    Phone: 804 358 0417
                           www.travischarbeneau.com


                        Blues: the New World Anthem
                             Travis Charbeneau
                               slug "blues"
                                 974 words
     PULL QUOTE: "The definitive blues themes of oppression and loss struck
strangely sympathetic chords in industrial cultures of dominance and
acquisition."
     Beginning in the '20s in America with jazz and reaching full stride in
the '50s with rock and roll, young, white Americans -- with the rest of the
West quickly following -- adopted as their anthem a music based in
African-American gospel and blues. At each phase of this adoption "the
establishment" was understandably perplexed; even outraged.
     Why should the well-educated, affluent progeny of white, Western
European, Judeo-Christian culture find such resonance in a pagan music born
of black American slavery? We have lived with this jarring irony so long
now that we take it for granted, even to today's near-universal mimicking
of black American urban street culture. But the original question remains:
why should white kids sing the blues?
     In the Roaring 20s, jazz may have provided mere titillation for a young
intelligentsia out "slumming." But by the time the enormous US Baby Boom
cohort opted for out-and-out rock music, we had a deep and lasting mass
affection that quickly spread throughout the Industrialized world and
beyond. Somehow, the definitive blues themes of oppression and loss struck
strangely sympathetic chords in industrial cultures of dominance and
acquisition.
     Again, the appeal was embryonic in the '20s, but even then The Great
War had already cast suspicion on the promise of forward moral momentum and
material progress that had burned so brightly at the turn of the century.
After the Second World War and the Holocaust mere doubt evolved into the
existentialist dilemma. Man had The Bomb and God was missing in action:
oppression and loss.
     Against this cosmic backdrop, American boomers felt additionally
burdened by the conformist culture of the rising corporate state and its
"buy something, be happy" agenda -- again, soon to spread world-wide. If we
would just ignore recent history (a specter vividly evoked by the very
reticence of our veteran fathers) and overlook the "duck and cover" black
farce of the present, we would find peace and fulfillment in the new
consumer society. If we got the grades and the proper papers from the
proper institutions, the good life, complete with white picket fence, could
be ours. But, first, we would have to obey a lengthening list of
increasingly incomprehensible and stifling rules.
     Further, amidst affluence came genuine new forms of deprivation. We
felt loss of community as families moved from robust old neighborhoods into
sterile suburbs. And we felt loss _within_ families. First, they broke down
into their nuclear component, bereft of extended relatives. Then Dad
disappeared into the office, heralding what would become the family's
losing struggle to accommodate separate internal orbits compassing
discordant interests and agendas. Finally, they atomized into sub-particles
as divorce rates rocketed.
     There was loss of meaning in work as fewer of us could understand what
our fathers, and increasingly, our mothers, did for a living. We completed
our loss of connectedness with the land as the migration from farm to city,
begun early in the Industrial Revolution, received an infusion of
benzedrine from the post-war boom. The cost of modernity involves a litany
of oppression and loss too long to recount here, and, as industrialism has
reached into the Third World, so has the appeal of blues-based musics --
often recombined with indigenous forms into "World Music."
     Blues music spoke to this oppression and loss. And its rock and roll
form stoked the logical desire both to rebel against the system perceived
to be behind it all and to escape into the momentary ecstasy of orgiastic
dance -- or outright orgasm as the old sexual repressions and hypocrisies
became likewise intolerable.
     Pushing discontent along, we saw the world-wide appearance of the
best-educated generations in history. Many became the first college
graduates in their family's experience, in effect propelling the children
of a nouveau riche bourgeoisie into the same intelligentsia that had
originally found jazz. "Liberal education," based on scientific and
humanist principles, tended to undermine conservatism, and, safe in the
sheltering warmth of industrialism's miracles, we were encouraged to be
skeptical, to challenge and even offend the old regime. How better than
with our "jungle music," complete in white societies with the racial lever?
     Rock music, as one piercing '50s observer put it, was "an obvious
attempt to bring the children of the white man down to the level of the
nigra." (Among equally conservative Jews, Muslims, et al, this might
translate into bringing "the children of Jehovah/Allah, et al, down to the
level of the Great Satan.") In many happy respects, it succeeded.
Unfortunately, in the interim, the "nigra" seems increasingly brought down
to the level of the white man in the sense of authenticity coopted by
commercialism.
     African-American musical forms dominated global culture for most of the
20th Century, comforting the slave stubbornly residing within us all. But,
with each generation, the music has become angrier. The latest rap or
thrash hit (video/soundtrack/advertising campaign -- the forms are often
simultaneous and indistinguishable) typically features a nightmare of black
muscularity or white punkhood oozing wrath from every pore, menacing the
camera and the ever-larger and better-appointed living rooms of Post
Industrial nations.
     Perhaps he is selling tennis shoes or online investing. And perhaps
some of his rage derives from a rush to commercialization that expropriates
the artist's authority, certainly to the extent of making the hallowed
"rebel" pose frustratingly transparent. Unlike earlier stars, there is no
decent interval of 20 or 30 years before selling out. Hits appear in TV ads
while still on the charts or even before. The always-uncomfortable
engagement between rock and commerce has become a noisily unhappy, and,
some would argue, an increasingly-barren marriage.
     Even feverishly commercialized, however, blues forms remain the folk
music of America, and increasingly the world. But, midst the growing press
of money and celebrity, perhaps the "folks" who make it -- and many who
listen to it -- obtain increasingly less in the way of solace or delight.