Blacks, Whites, and Blues

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

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