Blacks, Whites, and Blues

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Who
has been the greatest blues singer/guitarist? If you ran a poll
on this among music aficionados, you would probably get a list that
would include one of these names:

B.
B. King, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Lightning Hopkins, Mississippi
John Hurt, and Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter). Runners-up might be
T-Bone Walker, Son House, or Blind Willie McTell. All of them are
on the list of the Blues
Foundation Hall of Fame
.

I'm
here to cast my vote for someone who is not only not on this list,
but who you have probably never heard of:

Dave
Ray. From 1963 to 1967, Ray's Mississippi Delta voice and explosive
12-string guitar could be heard on five albums released by Elektra,
back when Elektra was a folk music label. Then, overnight, he disappeared.

Dave
Ray suffered from three overwhelming career roadblocks: he was in
his early twenties, he was white, and he was from Minnesota.

Ray
was astute enough to understand that from a marketing perspective
within the blues tradition, "Minnesota Dave Ray" didn't
have the proper ring to it. "Minneapolis Dave Ray" was
even worse. So, he called himself Snaker.

I
used to have a little fun with my friends. I would put on "It’s
All Right," from Blues, Rags & Hollers, the original
1963 Koerner, Ray, and Glover album. I would ask them to form a
mental image of the singer. The song began with an ominous slide
guitar, then the sinister voice of a middle-aged black man who was
confident about his way with women. I would lure them on for about
60 seconds, and then show them the album jacket of Fine Soft
Land (1967): a photo of a baby-faced white kid who probably
would have been asked to show I.D. in order to buy a beer. By then
he was four years older than when "It’s All Right" was
recorded.

I
think the technical name for the reaction is "cognitive dissonance."
The only thing even remotely like it in the 1960s was when Jim Nabors,
of Gomer Pyle fame, would get in front of a TV camera and
start to sing. You did not expect him to sound anything like Howard
Keel, but he did. (Although he rarely demonstrates it on-screen,
the country-boy image TV preacher, Kenneth Copeland, has the same
disconcerting ability.)

A
few years ago, I read a scathing retrospective review of Dave Ray's
mid-1960s performances. The author was contemptuous about Ray's
"parody" of a southern black man's accent. Let me assure
you that no comparable review of Charlie Pride in a country music
magazine would find the light of day. We will not soon read about
"Pride's parody of the authentic cracker intonation."

There
are white blues singers who occasionally get some belated recognition,
just so long as they are clearly white. But Ray sounded black. He
got his start in the same Minneapolis coffee house that had launched
Bob Dylan (aka "Blind Boy Grunt") a few years earlier
and Leo Kottke a decade later. But Blind Boy Grunt was a gag. Ray
was serious.

He
took Leadbelly's 12-string guitar style and produced spectacular
solo material. "Old Country Rock" on the 1965 Snaker's
Here album is a rouser. "Baby Please Don't Go" on
Fine Soft Land is haunting. His singing and playing on "House
of the Rising Sun" were like nothing I had ever heard before
(or since). Pre-Kottke, 12-string addicts (of whom I am chief) had
nothing comparable to listen to. The well-intentioned Fred Gerlach
was hardly Leadbelly redivivus, and Pete Seeger played way too much
banjo and sang way too much CIO.

Ray
could sing without accompaniment, field-holler style, as in "Black
Betty" and "Red Cross Store," on Lots More Blues,
Rags and Hollers (1964). He sounded authentic. But in the black
power lunacy of the late 1960's, this ability became politically
unacceptable.

I'm
not saying that nobody ever gave Ray credit. The guy who wrote his
albums' liner notes – a reviewer for the Little Sandy Review
– surely did. But when the mid-sixties' integrationism was replaced
by the late-sixties' black separatism, Ray's novelty wore off. A
white performer who was flawlessly reproducing the black blues guitar
tradition, and doing it better than any young black performer, went
from an anomaly to an affront.

Dave
Ray is still around. He still sings the blues up in Minnesota. But,
as he has grown older, his voice has grown higher and raspier. Now
that he has the age and the career scars to sing the blues from
the heart, he sounds more like an aging white man trying to imitate
an aging black man. But you can still buy CDs of his Koerner,
Ray, and Glover
years, though unfortunately not the incomparable
Snaker's Here album.

Note:
I have given up listening to the blues for the same reason that
I have given up listening to country music. (The rumor that I used
to be a disk jockey for a country music radio show back in the Porter
Wagner-Dolly Parton era is true.) The refrain in one of Ray's songs
tells why: "Please don’t let my husband catch you here."
The blues are musically incomparable, and the slide guitar is addictive
to many, but the message conveyed – the thrill of adultery,
personal rootlessness, lifelong failure, and the oppression of history
– is ultimately ruinous to the soul. The fact that country
music in the last two decades has picked up the same themes is a
bad sign. So, I listen to Ry Cooder's instrumentals and wish that
the blues could be more cheery.

June 8,
2000

Most
of Gary North’s 40+ books can be downloaded for free: www.freebooks.com.

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