Some kinds of music travel well – they propagate out of their native cultures very readily. American rock music and European classical music are obvious examples; they have huge followings and expert practitioners pretty much everywhere on earth that’s in contact with civilization.
Some…don’t travel well at all. Attempts to imitate them by people who aren’t native to their home culture seldom succeed – they fall afoul of subtleties that a home-country connoisseur can hear but not explain well, or at all. The attempts may be earnestly polished and well meant, but in some ineffable way they lack soul. American blues music and to a lesser but significant extent jazz are like this, which is all the more interesting because they’re close historical and genetic kin to rock.
Why am I thinking about this? Because one of the things that YouTube’s recommender algorithms make easy (and almost inevitable) is listening to strings of musical pieces that fit within what the algorithms recognize as a genre. I’ve noticed that the places where its genre recognition is most likely to break down are correlated with whether the genre travels well. So whatever I’m noticing about that distinction is not just difficult for humans but for machine learning as well, at least at current state of the art.
Most attempts at blues by non-Americans are laughable – unintentional parodies by people trying for the real thing. Not all; there was an older generation of British and Irish musicians who immersed in the form in the early Sixties and grokked it well enough to bring it back to the U.S., completely transforming American rock in the process. There are, for some reason, a small handful of decent blues players in Holland. But elsewhere, generative understanding of the heart of the blues is so rare that I was utterly gobsmacked when I found it in Greece.
I don’t know for sure, not being a home-country connoisseur, but I strongly suspect that Portuguese fado is like this. I have a pretty good ear and readily synchronize myself to different musical styles; I can even handle exotica like Indian microtones decently. But I wouldn’t go near fado, I sense a grave risk that if I tried any actual Portuguese fado fan would be politely suppressing a head-shaking he-really-don’t-get-it reaction the same way I usually have to when I listen to Eurojazz.
And Eurojazz players have a better frequency of not ludicrously failing than Euro blues players! Why? I don’t know. I can only guess that the recognition features of “real” jazz are less subtle than for “real” blues, and imitators are thus less likely to slide into unintentional parody. But since I can’t enumerate those recognition features this remains a guess. I do know timing is part of it, and there are uses of silence that are important. Eurojazz tends to be too busy, too slick.
If it’s any consolation to my non-American readers, Americans don’t automatically get it either. My own beloved wife, despite being musically talented, doesn’t have the ear – blues doesn’t speak to her, and if she were unwise enough to try to imitate it she would doubtless fail badly.
One reason I’m posting this is that I hope my commenters might be able to identify other musical genres that travel very poorly – I want to look for patterns. Are there foreign genres that Americans try to imitate and don’t know they’re botching?
And now a different kind of blues about the blues…
There’s an unacknowledged and rather painful truth about the blues, which is that that the primitive Delta versions blues fans are expected to revere are in many ways not as interesting as what came later, out of Chicago in particular. Monotonous, repetitive lyrics, primitive arrangements…but there’s a taboo against noticing this so strong that it took me over forty years to even notice it was there, and I might still not have if I hadn’t spent two days immersed in the rootsiest examples I could find on YouTube.
I found that roots blues is surrounded by a haze of retrospective glorification that (to my own shock!) it too often fails to deserve. And of course the obvious question is “Why?”. I think I’ve figured it out, and the answer is deeply sad.
It’s because, if you notice that later, more evolved and syncretized versions of the blues tend to be more interesting, and you say so, you risk making comparisons that will be interpreted as “white people do it better than its black originators”. And nobody wants that risk.
This came to me as I was listening to a collection of blues solos by Gary Moore, a now-deceased Irishman who played blues with both real heart and a pyrotechnic brilliance you won’t find in Robert Johnson or (one of my own roots favorites) John Lee Hooker. And found myself flinching from the comparison; took me an act of will to name those names just now, even after I’d been steeling myself to it.
Of course this is not a white > black thing; it’s an early vs. late thing. Recent blues players (more likely to be white) have the history of the genre itself to draw on. They have better instruments – Gary Moore’s playing wouldn’t be possible without Gary Moore’s instrument, you can get more tone colors and dynamic range out of a modern electric guitar than you could out of a wooden flattop with no pickups. Gary Moore grew up listening to a range of musical styles not accessible to an illiterate black sharecropper in 1930 and that enriched his playing.
But white blues players may be at an unfair disadvantage in the reputational sweepstakes forever simply because nobody wants to takes the blues away from black people. That would be a particularly cruel and wrong thing to do given that the blues originated as a black response to poverty and oppression largely (though not entirely) perpetrated by white people.
Yes, the blues belongs to all of us now – it’s become not just black roots music but American roots music; I’ve jammed onstage with black bluesmen and nobody thought that was odd. Still, the shadow of race distorts our perceptions of it, and perhaps always will.