Digging for the Blues – Fred de Vries on the genesis of his book Blues for the White Man
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There is a much deeper context that begs for digging up if we’re to fully understand the impact of music, writes Blues for the White Man author Fred de Vries.
‘Born in the late fifties, I grew up listening to Cream, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones; essentially white guys playing black music. I needed context.’
It’s like therapy, having music discussions with old friends. It’s a comfort zone, a safe space, centring around the same basic questions. Who was the best Beatle, Paul or John? Inevitably someone drags in George. Which was a most punk city, New York or London? Manchester, a clever contrarian suggests. Was Prince a genius? Einstein was a genius, not some pop musician, my partner sneers. It’s mainly boys stuff, and the debates get more intense as the booze flows freely. Then someone (usually me) shouts, ‘The Wall was Pink Floyd’s worst album. Highly overrated!’ And off we go again.
Occasionally you do get a surprise. Take my friend M., who is twenty years younger than I am and female. We sometimes send each other Spotify links, me as the older connoisseur, she as the younger upstart.
‘I don’t like Spoon at all,’ she WhatsApps me, after I called it ‘sexy music’.
‘Really??’ I reply, looking for the emoji for astonishment and disbelief.
It turns out that we listen very differently.
She sits back and lets the sounds, the melodies, the words engulf her. She immerses herself in the instrumentation, the various layers and nuances. It’s all she needs. She’s what you call a ‘listener’.
I, on the other hand, am a sucker for extra-musical stuff. Things I need to know include year of release, producer, composer(s), influences, hairstyles, origins. If it’s London or New York, I want to find out which part of the city they are from. Brixton? Queens? All essential to understand a song or an album.
In other words, I need contextualisation. I can’t stand it if people think that Led Zeppelin and Nirvana happened around the same time. Or if they don’t know that John Coltrane’s Impressions from 1963 influenced The Byrds’ hit single ‘Eight Miles High’ from 1966, which heralded the advent of the psychedelic era. That kind of thing.
Context was what I was looking for when I visited America’s Deep South a few years ago, to do research for my book Blues for the White Man. Born in the late fifties, I grew up listening to Cream, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones; essentially white guys playing black music. I knew a bit. But that wasn’t enough. There was no texture, no smell, only worn-out record sleeves with snippets of information. I had to visit the juke joints of Mississippi, stand at the grave of Sonny Boy Williamson, sniff the water of the Mississippi River. I had to see Memphis, home of Sun Studio and Stax Records, the city where Elvis Presley overdosed on pills and junk food, where Jeff Buckley drowned and Martin Luther King was assassinated. Nashville, New Orleans, Mississippi Delta …
So I flew to Atlanta, hired a car and immersed myself in the culture, from slavery to Robert Johnson to Black Lives Matter. The power of the blues, wrote Jamey Hatley in the Oxford American is ‘about making a connection to people through heartache and pain.’ Damn right. Because there’s more. So much more …
Blues for the White Man is out now.
This article was originally published in The Penguin Post, a magazine from Penguin Random House South Africa.