Racist White Blues Cats
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then, I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.) – Walt Whitman
So I was surprised to learn about a recent decision by the Blues Foundation to rescind Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s 2021 Blues Music Awards nomination for best blues/rock artist. But I was stunned to discover the reason: apparently Shepherd had portrayed the Confederate flag on his car and guitars. A Blues cat displaying something that any African American (and most Euro-Americans) would instantly recognize as a symbol of racial hatred and multi-generational suffering?
It gets stranger. Had the board of directors independently determined the inappropriateness of nominating this guy for an award (less than two weeks after a Confederate flag-carrying mob attacked the Capitol building)? Why, no. It took a long social media post by Mercy Morganfield, daughter of – yes – McKinley Morganfield, otherwise known as Muddy Waters, to get their attention. Her post – “The Way My Daddy Looks At a White Man Winning a Blues Foundation Music Award While Waving A F*****g Confederate Flag” – was a masterpiece of righteous polemic, part of which I quote:
My daddy did it (played Blues) because he had no choice. He was born in the early twentieth century when a blk man could become strange fruit in the blink of an eye…(his) greatest rebellion was refusing to return to Mississippi to perform…What is y’all’s excuse? Why haven’t y’all descended on the Blues Foundation in droves and demand they rescind that award to that motherfucking racist?…It was born in bondage. In the southernmost part of the Mississippi delta. Where a confederate flag represented the very bondage it was born into and the very men who would gladly have hanged McKinley Morganfield from a tree if he was in their town after sundown…Now, you give a blues award to a man who feels the need to decorate his fucking car with a Confederate Flag? That’s a brand new kind of stupid…If one of the whitest institutions in American history, NASCAR, can ban the Confederate Flag, Blues Foundation, why can’t you?
The Foundation initially responded, “We are not a political organization” before public pressure forced them to do the right thing. Shepherd issued an apology with the lame explanation that the car is a replica copy of the “General Lee,” (yes, that General Lee) featured in the favorite TV show of his childhood, “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Was the apology helpful? I doubt it. Not when the flag had been removed from toy versions of the car back in 2013.
Well, I hadn’t been paying attention to this kind of stuff. But an internet search reveals that simply because they play Blues, white musicians are not always politically sympathetic to Black people. Several (Willie J Campbell, Jimmie Vaughan, Anson Funderburgh) are apparently Trump supporters. Then we have the case of Eric Clapton, who went full racist in a live 1976 concert (Notice the URL):
Do we have any foreigners in the audience tonight? If so, please put up your hands. Wogs I mean, I’m looking at you. Where are you? I’m sorry but some fucking wog…Arab grabbed my wife’s bum, you know?…this is what all the fucking foreigners and wogs over here are like, just disgusting, that’s just the truth, yeah…I think you should all just leave. Not just leave the hall, leave our country…I don’t want you here, in the room or in my country. Listen to me, man! I think we should vote for Enoch Powell…Stop Britain from becoming a black colony. Get the foreigners out. Get the wogs out. Get the coons out. Keep Britain white. I used to be into dope, now I’m into racism. It’s much heavier, man. fucking wogs, man. Fucking Saudis taking over London. Bastard wogs. Britain is becoming overcrowded and Enoch will stop it and send them all back. The black wogs and coons and Arabs and fucking Jamaicans…this is a white country, we don’t want any black wogs and coons living here. We need to make clear to them they are not welcome. England is for white people, man. We are a white country. I don’t want fucking wogs living next to me with their standards. This is Great Britain, a white country, what is happening to us, for fuck’s sake?…Throw the wogs out! Keep Britain white!
Clapton has repeatedly apologized over the years, blaming his heavy drug and alcohol addictions for his racist diatribes. In the old movie cliché, the “liquor made him do it,” or in Homeric terms, some god made him say those things. Such refusal to take full responsibility is, according to one Black writer, a form of “whitesplaining.”
These men are second and third-generation white Blues cats. Back in the first generation, they didn’t even bother with apologies. Greil Marcus writes that Jerry Lee Lewis,
…far more than Elvis, came to represent all the mythical strangeness of the redneck South: lynch-mob blood lust, populist frenzies, even incest.
Lewis also flew the Confederate flag, back when few fans even noticed, and freely used the N-word.
Lewis’ cousin is the televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, who (like many other TV preachers) suffered a series of scandals involving prostitutes in the 1980s and 90s. This may offer us a clue to their world. In Chapter Eleven of my book I write of Southern religion:
Throughout the Jim Crow era this spirit survived in the black church. Even though many of its members absorbed the conservative social values of their former masters, there was never any mind-body split in the practice of their religion, which some white churches copied. Southerners, both white and black, have been in this bind for generations, writes Michael Ventura. “A doctrine that denied the body, preached by a practice that excited the body, would eventually drive the body into fulfilling itself elsewhere.” The call-and-response chanting and rhythmic bodily movement typical of southern preachers absolutely contradict their moralistic sermons. This contributes to “the terrible tension that drives their unchecked paranoias.”
Only such a “terrible tension” can produce people who love Black culture but are willing to insulate themselves from the social realities that convert that tension into white supremacy, or that allow them to appropriate and profit from that same culture. We’ll return to this question, but let’s contemplate a related theme.
Muddy Waters is one of my culture heroes. But what of some of my intellectual heroes? Carl Jung, according to some of his detractors (and current Neo-Nazis), was at least a borderline anti-Semite, although he opposed the Nazis in World War Two. (At the same time, Ezra Pound supported Italian Fascism and was a proud anti-Semite.) A similar controversy swirls around the legacy of Joseph Campbell, the father of modern mythological studies.
Never mind all those mass killers like Columbus, slaveholders like Washington and Jefferson and Indian killers like Lincoln whose names are being stripped off public schools. Never mind “they were men of their times.” This is America: many socialists like Jack London were outspoken racists; feminist Margaret Sanger was a eugenicist. We could go on and on. According to filmmaker Ken Burns, “That’s what’s so endlessly fascinating about (Ernest) Hemingway, is that in the Whitmanesque sense, he contained multitudes.”