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Blues: Commercialized

Page history last edited by geoff hanley 14 years, 4 months ago

Commercialized Blues

Another aspect of the blues is that of commercialization.  There is a fine line between questioning the origin of the music itself or just following the mass appeal and liking it because everyone else does.  There is also a softening characteristic as the concept of the blues loses its identity under the influence of a dominant culture.  For example, The House of Blues “offers up a lure of risk-free rebellion with the right accessories, it seems to say – the logo, the leather jacket, and Ray Bans – one can possess the whole mystical jalapeño” (Lieberfeld 220).  In one way or another, the dominant white culture has had control since the music first developed.  For instance, sheet music was one of the first methods of distribution to both blacks and whites when songs of the blues were taking notice in vaudeville and concert halls.

Race Records

When the phonograph was introduced, the concept of spreading white recorded music for profit hit the ground running.  While music was being performed in both black and white styles, the record producers had no intentions of sharing their music or combining one with the other.  However, because the business was so lucrative among the whites, it seemed that the record business should do just as well for the black population.  This was moreover relevant during the vast migration of African Americans looking for better living qualities up north.  Though many from the south were saddened by their homeland departures, the artists of “race records”, such as Ma Rainey and especially Bessie Smith through Columbia Records, were known for their early contributions and mass appeal.  Therefore, the birth of ‘race records’ came to life as “The Negro as consumer was a new and highly lucrative slant, an unexpected addition to the strange portrait of the Negro the white American carried around in his head” (Baraka 101). 

Because of the ‘race records’ format, access to the blues was limited to the white listener until the 1950’s.  In fact, they were “advertised in black newspapers and sold in stores that catered to a predominantly black clientele . . . [and] went virtually unnoticed for years by the rest of the country until the more democratic radio airwaves of the 1950’s made them available to everyone” (Santelli 42). 

1924 Emerson Race Records ad




This was probably for the better interest in that the white ear was easily able to misinterpret what it heard.  It’s usually just a matter of exposure before it takes notice and it also depends upon the artist or time period.  There are many examples of transitions in the use of black music for white profit, but there is also a time of true interest in what had been missed.  For instance, Elvis Presley took part in the “liberal borrowing from what the recording industry then called ‘race music’ – rhythm and blues, black gospel, and soul – that really set him apart and, importantly, set into motion his popularity” (Doss 170).  Not only did Elvis score with the ‘borrowing’, but so did the rest of the white music industry from this time forward.  There was also a blues revival of the 1960’s that served as a rebirth of many blues classics put to both acoustic/country and electric/city format by both American and British musicians such as Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, and Eric Clapton to name a few. 

Tell Me About the Blues

But what about us generation X’ers?  MTV wasn’t showing blues history in its coming of age.  It was hardly showing black music at all.How were children of this generation to be introduced to the foundation of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Jazz, Rhythm ‘n’ Blues, Soul, Hip-Hop, and so on if it wasn’t publicized like other music?  The parent’s record collection, if they had one, could have been the best example of a research library.  Aside from that, these are still just pictures on sleeves and the voices coming out of the speakers are from either white or dead people.  Who was going to tell the white kids of the 80’s about the blues if their parents would not or could not?  Would it have to be someone like The Blues Brothers?!

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The House of Blues Brothers

It has been almost 30 years since the production of The Blues Brothers.  That’s enough time for a film to build a large collection of negative criticisms and racial resentments.  There were actually comments years before such as “the idea of a white blues singer seems an even more violent contradiction of terms than the idea of a middle class blues singer” (Baraka), stating clearly that whites had no business with the blues.  It has also developed a cultish following and a well known profit from commercialism such as The House of Blues.  It was clear there was already an animosity toward the usage of African American heritage in the scheme of white profit.  The fact that overall it was a poorly executed movie doesn’t help either.  Upon release, one of the first reviews described it as “deadpan white men whose love of black culture forms the story’s main, perhaps only thread . . . . [with] senseless extra shots, distracting editing, [and] views of virtually everything from too many angles” (Maslin). 

Show Me the Money

When it comes to The House of Blues, co-founder Dan Aykroyd (Elwood) and the widow of John Belushi (Jake) “helped bankroll the House of Blues venture” while also granting use of the Blues Brother’s image of two guys with “porkpie hats, sunglasses, thin black ties, and tough-customer expressions” as the signature logo (Lieberfeld 217).  This makes it seem like they were in it for no other reason than to make money off of an art form they could not possess.  In fact, isn’t that what most white bands are doing when they use the House of Blues as a venue?    

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In “Million-Dollar Juke Joint”, House of Blues is described as a white fantasy, where people can experience tourism safe from yet open to the exposure of all ‘primitive’ characteristics of the blues.  Unfortunately, if any of these characteristics were to be used in current reality, the establishments would probably be in violation of health codes, swarming in poverty, or simply non-existent.  Then again, where else will we find a safe place to “groove along to a song about being Broke and Hongry and Ain’t Got a Lousy Dime, and then order another $4.50 beer from one of the club’s predominantly white wait-staff” (Lieberfeld 220)?  House of Blues has also been compared to Hard Rock Café and Disney amusement parks only this one uses African American heritage reminding us that “America’s dominant culture uses aspects of peripheralized cultures to manage its dilemmas of individuality of race and class relations, and to make money in the process” (Lieberfeld 221).     

In Defense of Jake and Elwood 

Then there are those of us who wish to disregard all of the profit motives of House of Blues or the budget and bad-acting in The Blues Brothers.  Some viewers were infatuated with the story that “the only thing that can rouse them from their lock-jawed sangfroid is gospel and blues music.  They are transformed on hearing it.  They gyrate and get wild, possessed by the big blues spirit” (Lieberfeld 219).  That was really all that mattered.  For many it was the first time to see so many artists off of the record cover such as Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and Ray Charles.  Another argument may be that because these artists were of soul or rhythm and blues that they do not properly represent true aspects of the blues.  However, if looked at closely, one can find that the songs from each artist are from a foundation or that there is some display of the musical development from the blues.

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Take for instance each character, the music they represent during the scene, and how they all tie together.  The first musician is Reverend Cleophus James (James Brown) whose sermon serves for inspiration in Jake and Elwood putting the band back together which also establishes that they are on a ‘mission from God’.  What is important here is the notion of a unity among the blues and spirituals and not an argument toward which one is more important such as Cone states, “if the blues are viewed in the proper perspective, it is clear that their mood is very similar to the ethos of the spirituals . . . . They express and formalize a mood already present in the spirituals” (100).

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It can also be viewed as an equal foundation of the blues before it takes on its next stage which is represented by Street Slim (John Lee Hooker) and his band on Chicago’s historical Maxwell St. He sings one of his signature songs “Boom, Boom” as the typical street market crowd passes by. 

Though it is much more contemporary than the Reconstruction period or when 60,000 African

Americans moved to Chicago in between 1910-1920, it is symbolic of the blues movement up north

and all that was happening in such a setting.  Maxwell St. was known as “a microcosm of a better

world where people cooperated and the only color that mattered was

green” (Maxwell Street Documentary).   

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The scene following is a joint introduction of both equality in gender roles in the blues as well as the introduction of soul music or rhythm and blues.  In gender equality, Mrs. Murphy (Aretha Franklin) sings to her husband leaving to join the band that he better “Think” before such actions showing that the woman reserved just as much right to speak out when she disagreed.  This is representative also of the established equality between African American men and woman since the time of slavery with “the breakdown or disappearance of African mores and traditions in the New World proposed,

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paradoxically, a more egalitarian society among the slaves” (Baraka 56).  The next appearance is with Ray (Ray Charles) which is another aspect of soul/rhythm and blues but also with his song use.  When told that his keyboard may not be worth the price asked for, he shows that it is indeed by playing it himself and also suggests with the lyrics that it just has to be done right in “Shake a Tail Feather”.  This could be viewed as either that one has to be black to play the blues or that the white band was trying to con a blind man.

The last of the black representation of music is that of Curtis Salgado (Cab Calloway) who is said to have taught Jake and Elwood about the blues while they were growing up.  His place in this film is representative of both a teacher as well as another product of the blues which is jazz.  His use of the band in their concert setting uses “Minnie the Moocher” in the form of big-band otherwise known as swing.  There is also the blues aspect of interaction with the audience also known and ‘call and response’ in which Cab Calloway was already popular for:

Hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-hi (Hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-hi)           Ho-de-ho-de-ho-de-ho (Ho-de-ho-de-ho-de-ho) He-de-he-de-he-de-he (He-de-he-de-he-de-he)          Hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-ho (Hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-ho)

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As the viewer has now experienced a somewhat contemporary though sloppy interpretation of the 1980’s history of the blues, it is essential to show how and where the white musician fits in.  Though Jake and Elwood had their concert, what fits even better as a closure to The Blues Brothers is “Jailhouse Rock” by Elvis Presley. 

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In a 2005 Fresh Air interview, Dan Aykroyd (Elwood) was asked about his influences, his motives, and his expectations in retrospect of the production of The Blues Brothers.  He explained in detail what it was like, as it is for so many young white Americans, to want to be someone else, especially when it comes to music.  Though he said was raised in Canada, he was surrounded by his father’s record collection and the blues were just as much a part of the radio airwaves as they were in the U. S.  Aykroyd just wanted to be a part of something that he held in such great respect.  When it came to the actual musicians, (Aretha, Charles, Hooker) he was asked if he ever felt like he was on a side (white) that he didn’t want to be on when it came to negotiations with those he idolized.  He explained that they (the musicians) were “never paid enough”, as though their music was priceless, and that he never intended to be ahead or even equal to such “reverence”.  The best part of this interview and the overall accomplishment of The Blues Brothers was their desire “re-introduce them to our audience”.  Aykroyd also hosts a radio station known as The Blues Mobile in which he takes on the alternate identity of Elwood.  It is also affiliated with House of Blues

Back to A Starting Point

Works Cited

Aykroyd, Dan. "Still Full of the 'Blues'." Fresh Air. Terry Gross. 12 August 2005.

Baraka, Amiri. Blues People. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1963.

Cone, James H. The Spirituals and the Blues. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1991.

Doss, Erika. Elvis Culture: Fans, Faith, and Image. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1999.

Lieberfeld, Daniel. "Million-Dollar Juke Joint: Commodifying Blues Culture." African American Review 29.2 (1995): 217-221.

Maslin, Janet. "'Blues Brothers' - Belushi and Aykroyd." The New York Times 20 June 1980: C.16.

Santelli, Robert, Holly George-Warren and Jim Brown, American Roots Music. New York: Ginger Group Productions, 2001.

The Blues Brothers. Dir. John Landis. Perf. Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. 1980.





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