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Who's Debasing?

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To the editors:

From the headline "Blues in debasement" to the final paragraph which states that ". . . Lucky Peterson has yet to show that he feels anything but once removed from the people who sired the music he plays," David Whiteis has written a review full of unrelenting arrogance that is an essential summation of the purist, or "bluenatic" attitude toward most contemporary blues musicians [December 15].

The only debasement here, is Whiteis' inability to experience blues music as a form of entertainment. His preconceived notion of what the blues should be reflects an attitude toward the people who actually created the music. It is one thing for Skip James or Lightnin' Hopkins to create "melancholy" songs full of "haunted introspection" sixty or so years ago in a setting that is far removed from contemporary experience (Whiteis does point out that while we venerate these legendary musicians as wise old men, they indeed wrote and performed these tunes as young men, "abrim with youthful exuberance"). It is quite another to be faced with the reality of a brash, young man with an extensive musical background who puts in a night's work, entertaining his audience, which is exactly what he was hired to do.

Whiteis complains that Peterson, (who has played with Little Milton and Bobby Bland) does not pay homage to the blues. When has a black man who plays the blues with tremendous depth of feeling, like Otis Rush or Buddy Guy, ever been duly rewarded for adhering to his musical roots? Eric Clapton can play Otis Rush, and Stevie Ray Vaughan can play Albert King and Buddy Guy licks and make millions of dollars, but most black bluesmen and women, although they may be making better money today, are still relegated to driving up and down the highway, playing three shows a night in smokey bars, just to perpetuate the stereotype of "authentic" blues.

It is common knowledge that in life, as in art, nothing stays the same. Critics who demand that musicians conform to traditional modes of expression in music seem to be fixated in their own development, burdened with a Freudian case of repetition compulsion. Throughout his review, Whiteis mentions the lack of "maturity" evident in Peterson's live performance as compared with his obvious ability to interpret the blues on his Alligator album, Lucky Strikes. Whiteis may want to consider, in light of the positive audience response, that indeed Peterson actually knew what he was doing, considering that he was playing for a weekend party crowd, that no doubt could care less whether he is "once removed from the people who sired the music he plays."

Beverly Zeldin

W. Melrose

Member

Chicago Blues Festival Committee

David Whiteis replies:

I'm afraid that both readers' commendable dedication to defending contemporary musicians against traditionalist purist onslaughts has blinded them to my main point.

If Ms. Connor has come to expect only "worshipful, biased, gung-ho affection for elders and traditionalists" from me, she's missed a lot of my stuff. I've consistently made it a point (and offended various "purists" in the process) to stress that the blues is, as Connor states, a living and changing art form, and that musicians can and should incorporate diverse influences into their playing, expanding and elaborating upon the music.

I quote from my positive review of Peterson's own LP: "To expect a musician who came of age in the 60s or 70s to ignore Motown, Jimi Hendrix, funk, or . . . Clapton and Beck is to deny him the right to play music that reflects the mood and artistic temperament of his times. Neither music nor musicians can grow in such a restricted atmosphere." (See my review of Billy Branch in the September 30, 1988, Reader for a fuller discussion on the subject.)

My colleague Beverly Zeldin likewise misses the mark. If I were a "purist bluenatic," blind to the fact that blues music is a form of entertainment, I wouldn't have stated that Peterson's interpretations of his own funk-blues creations were among the most enjoyable moments of his performance. I wouldn't have extolled versatile artists like Billy Branch and Carl Weathersby as fine young bluesmen; I wouldn't have suggested, a few weeks ago, that Matt "Guitar" Murphy is at his best when he goes beyond his straightforward Memphis roots and delves into free-form jazz-funk improvisations, nor praised the technique and emotional fire of guitarist Donald Kinsey in a recent record review.

Not once in the article did I criticize Peterson for the style (funk, rock, fusion, whatever) that he was playing. I did, however, suggest that a musician must convey somehow that he takes his art seriously if he expects himself to be taken seriously. There's a point at which clowning and gimmickry cross the line from entertainment (a la Lil' Ed, Little Charlie, Rufus Thomas) to--well, debasement (although that headline was the Reader's, not mine). I felt that Peterson crossed that line many times in his performance.

Ms. Zeldin, as a fellow writer, does herself a disservice by descending to cheap invectives like "Freudian case of repetition compulsion," but she does bring up an interesting concept. Peterson is a young musician of unlimited potential who has a maddening habit of kicking off his songs with buoyant enthusiasm and joyful dedication, then watering down almost everything with antics. Seems to me like a classic case of Inspiration Interruptus. I eagerly await the day he finds a cure, because he has it in him to be a major blues innovator and pathfinder.

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