Jewish World Review Oct. 15, 2003 / 19 Tishrei, 5764

Stanley Crouch

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Whites saved the blues | The complaints made about PBS showing of Martin Scorsese's "The Blues" raise some ongoing questions about how our culture is handled and just who is most serious about the handling. Whenever there is mass media documentation of anything we consider "black," those who do the documenting are almost sure to be white. Those outraged are almost sure to be black.

Last spring, when I attended a blues conference in Oxford, Miss., one of those expected moments arrived. On one panel, white researchers started hemming and hawing about whether they had overstepped their bounds by going out and finding blues singers and interviewing them.

We should all be glad that enough white people became interested enough all those decades ago to begin a blues craze. Whether scholars or merely curious blues enthusiasts, they got up off their rusty dusties and found the musicians, interviewed them, got some of them recording contracts and brought these people into a world where, often late in life, they could be appreciated as performers and artists.

Those who provided the material should be celebrated and appreciated. They could have stayed home and listened to Pat Boone.

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After that panel, I talked to a rather haughty and cynical Negro who taught political science. He was full of the bitter pus that had come of a special wound, of being considered second-rate and never having been able to prove otherwise. This man took the position that when the initial blues research was done in the 1930s, black people could not get the grants that the white people got. Therefore, black people were left out the cultural finds brought forward by men like Alan Lomax, who found and recorded, for instance, Leadbelly and Jelly Roll Morton. He produced invaluable material about how black country music and early jazz came into being. I wasn't interested in hearing it because one of the wonders of the Negro community is that it has produced so many remarkable artists while sustaining a basic disinterest in pure artistic expression as opposed to entertainment. It was that way then, and it is that way now.

In fact, in 35 years, black studies, which began with all kinds of screams about studying and preserving black culture, has done next to nothing regarding the arts.

"Not much, brother, not much," Cornel West said to me. "The emphasis has been history and political science, very little involvement in the arts."

Consequently, had Scorsese wanted to get some more black involvement in "The Blues," he would have largely wasted his time searching for blues scholars in black studies departments.

There are plenty of problems with "The Blues," but it becomes quite clear that the middle-class white kids who filled up the blues festivals and coffeehouses depicted in the series were looking for something humanly authentic. They found it in black blues singers. And they usually treated them like the cultural treasures that they were.

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JWR contributor and cultural icon Stanley Crouch is a columnist for The New York Daily News. He is the author of, among others, The All-American Skin Game, Or, the Decoy of Race: The Long and the Short of It, 1990-1994,       Always in Pursuit: Fresh American Perspectives, and Don't the Moon Look Lonesome: A Novel in Blues and Swing. Send your comments by clicking here.


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