The record companies were paying attention. So as to capitalize on the success of early (black) rock and roll, and to quietly influence white parents to lift their unofficial restrictions on the lucrative teen record-buying market, white artists were enlisted to cover songs first recorded by black artists.
The T.A.M.I. (Teenage Awards Music Intenational) Show was a concert documentary that combined footage from two concerts held in Santa Monica, California in October 1964. The concerts were attended mostly by local high school students, who had been given free tickets to the show, and were headlined by a mix of white pop and rock-and-roll artists and black R&B and soul musicians.
One of the most celebrated performances in the concerts was that of James Brown and his band, the Famous Flames. There had been a backstage conflict just moments earlier between Brown and the Rolling Stones over who would go last. The Stones prevailed, and Brown, before going onstage, supposedly said, “Watch this, y’all.”
In the 1991 Irish film “The Commitments,” set in the working-class neighborhood of North Dublin in the 1960s, an Irish soul fan tries to put together an American-style soul band. He shows his skeptical bandmembers a clip of James Brown’s T.A.M.I. performance, and tells them that, as the “Blacks of Europe,” they should be able to relate:
As John Lomax was the first to record Lead Belly, so Alan Lomax was the first to record Muddy Waters.
Muddy Waters (1915-1983) was born McKinley Morganfield, the son of sharecroppers, near Clarksdale, Mississippi, also the homeplace of blues greats Son House and Robert Johnson. He moved to Chicago as part of the Great Migration in 1943, where he became a highly-influential, internationally famous blues musician, one of the first to use electric guitar.
The first song Waters recorded with Lomax was “Country Blues.” Note the extreme rhythmic freedom of Waters’s style, which Alan Lomax called “patently African.”
Waters’s 1950 song “Rollin’ Stone” provided the name of the British band, who admired him greatly.
In fact, when the Stones were on tour in the 1981 they visited the legendary Checkerboard Lounge in Chicago, where Waters was playing a club date. Waters was gracious enough to invite them up onstage with him.
More from the same evening: Waters invites bluesmen Buddy Guy and Lefty Dizz up onstage. (Mick Jagger seems to silently acknowledge that he’s out of his depth.)
A few years later, Kurt Cobain paid a similar tribute to Lead Belly by performing “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”
Do you think that the sound of the music changes when performed by a white artist?
What about the meaning of the music? Alan Lomax called the blues:
the only song form in English that allows the singer . . . to pose problems, raise issues, make complaints, and then provide a cynical or satirical response. Musically speaking, the first phase of the blues raises a question-it often ends on a high note, leaving the problem unresolved, the question unanswered. The clinching phrase usually descends to a low note roundly concluding the matter. There are [other] such improvisatory forms [in the folk music of other cultures] . . . but there was none in English till the muleskinners and blues singers of the Delta filled the poetic gap, which none of the great poets of the English tradition had done. The blues has the magical property of allowing you to improvise a comment on life.
Is this “magical property” retained when sung by white artists?