Edd Merritt, Correspondent
Well, have you heard the latest news?
Are you in the know?
It’s in the morning papers,
and it’s on the radio.
It’s even going to make the TV news.
The white boy stole the blues.
~ Mose Allison, Ever Since I Stole the Blues
This story begins with my liking a group of musical programs played on Vermont Public Radio every weekend. A couple of weeks ago I had run through Joel Najman’s “My Place” as well as “American Roots” from New Orleans and was tuned to Robert Reznick’s “All the Traditions” when it happened.
There they were—three white boys from Minneapolis, Minnesota (90 miles from where I grew up) singing “Blues, Rags and Hollers.” Not only that, but they had taken the nicknames of Spider John, Dave Snaker and Tony Little Sun—Koerner, Ray and Glover.
It’s a little hard not to think racist when you hear a fair-skinned Snaker sing about “Oh Black Betty, bam de lam” who had a baby and the kid went crazy.
Well, the memory took me back to my days as a resident of “Dinky Town” where I lived briefly after spending a summer as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. I stayed at a friend’s house—Pancho we called him—where Dave Ray played part-time resident too. He used to pass through, crash for a night or two and then move on to another “freebie.”
It was also at this time that the Triangle Bar and Grill, located on what was called the “West Bank” area of the Mississippi River, opened up to John Koerner who, of course, corralled his friends Ray and Glover to bring music to that funky section of the Twin Cities. I would mosey in every Friday when at 9 p.m. the owners would cover its bumper-pool table, and Spider, Snaker and Little Sun would climb on it to finish the night with a few blues, several rags and every now and then a holler.
And the blues were not confined to a single spot in that area. A bar called the Saturday Scholar, located just outside Dinky Town, became one of the famous (or infamous) play stations for a fellow who had preceded me as a “Dinky Towner,” Robert Zimmerman. Having dropped south from Hibbing to attend the University, he changed his name to Dylan and hung out at the Scholar to practice his new blend of music. He was kicked out regularly because the owners said, while his songs were noteworthy in their ideas and lyrics, his voice left a great deal to be desired. Monotone did not make it for them, and eventually he moved to another village—Greenwich—in lower Manhattan.
So, why do so many white boys steal the blues? Does it have to do with the rhythm itself? Or does it have to do with a lifestyle that promotes a need to bring out through music, feelings that are commonly shared among racial groups of all stripes? Personally, I’m a fan of Ry Cooder’s suggestion to “Get Rhythm When You Get the Blues.” Apparently, he believes music can help cure what ails you.
I could bring more white musicians into the blues fold—Eric Clapton, Greg Allman, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, Jimi Page, Charlie Musselwhite, Johnny Winter, Peter Green, to name a few.
Perhaps the verb “stole” gives Allison’s song more than a tinge of racism. Stealing what had traditionally been Black implies that up until then, music had been that group’s way of rendering its feelings through words and melodies, and it could now be adopted by the White community as well.
And then there’s this collection of music called “Dixieland Jazz.” The Dixie of our land stood below the Mason/Dixon Line where it provided anthems for southern segregationists. Probably by chance, it was also my father’s favorite genre. I’m not sure of the reason for the connection, but he kept his hunting guns, which he shot regularly, and his collection of Dixieland records, which he played regularly, next to each other in closet just off the living room of our house. Since to him, doctors represented the cream of the human crop, his favorite band was, of course, Doc Evans’ Dixie All-stars.
Growing up next to the Great Plains, I was tuned to music of other varieties—most often with a European bent. “Whoopee John and the Six Fat Dutchmen,” a Scandinavian cast-off, Fuzzy Gretton, center of a show called “Swingin’ and Sweatin’ with Fuzzy Gretton,” regularly played to a house packed with Midwest farmers—corn on their boots, not on the cob.
And bands like Cream, being “Born Under a Bad Sign,” joined Mose Allison in stealin’ the “Blues.” Members of Cream moved on to become Blind Faith where they found themselves “In the Presence of the Lord,” while Robert Plant and Allison Krause, through the words of
Rowland Salley, picked heaven as a place for:
Swinging the world by the tail
Bouncing over a white cloud
Killing the blues . . .