Continuing thoughts on cultural appropriation- the 1960s

Here’s where the discussion of rock and roll gets interesting.  Most of the early rock and rollers had been from the South and could plausibly claim to have been personally exposed to the type of music they were borrowing from.  But by the early 60s they had all mostly disappeared, died or were no longer very popular. Then along came the British Invasion.

There’s not much earnestness left in American culture so I listen to things like this and I hear a kind of desire to prove that they’re real bluesmen

But obviously they’re just some kids from the UK.  So were these guys:

I pick out these two bands because they were trying a lot harder to ground their music in authentic American sounds.  I’ve said before I find the whole concept of authenticity in music fairly foolish, but you can understand the position they’re in.  They want to sound as real as possible.  The Animals pulled it off fairly well.  The Stones… well, they’d get much better at American music in few years.

And this is where I don’t know how to feel about the whole idea of cultural appropriation.

I’ve recorded a few of my songs and I’ve put them on the internet, which means possibly somewhere, someone is copying some idea from one of my songs.  Not likely, but stay with me.  I actually don’t care.  I can make more.  If someone gets rich and they direct some interest my way, that would be even better.  But I don’t have an actual career to think about.

Let’s imagine you’re Howlin’ Wolf.  You release this song:

It wasn’t a huge hit, but it’s a great song.  Then some art school kids from England come along and release their clunky* version and it shoots to #1 on the British charts.  Even the audience in this video looks bemused.

Now if you’re Howlin’ Wolf you might be kicking yourself.  Some little punk kids have come along and outdone you.  From what I read Howlin’ Wolf was a smart man and was wise with his money, having a long career free of the hard times that would strike some of his blues contemporaries.  But he would never be in the same tax bracket as the Stones.

Is that fair?  Howlin’ Wolf was gifted with a powerful voice and an imposing figure, but not a face that would ever make him a pop star, even if we totally ignore racism he would have faced in that time period.  So he was probably always at a disadvantage when it came to young, cute guys from England.

I don’t really know the answer.  We all start out young punks and I can imagine being the Rolling Stones and hearing all this amazing, exotic music and thinking I want to do that.  I kind of want to now.

On the other hand, the world didn’t really need the Rolling Stones version of Little Red Rooster.  I like the Animals version of The House of the Rising Sun, so I’ll give that one a pass.

Did the world need the Yardbirds or any of the other British Invasion bands to deliver inferior versions of this?

Or a Yardbirds version of this?

Or the Beatles’ cute, but corny version of this?

Or the Beatles’ fairly uninspired cover of this**?

No, not really.  These songs are much better than those early British Invasion versions.  The best thing the British bands did was start writing their own songs.  .

But I’m not saying the original is always better or that no one should ever do cover versions.  Just that I can understand if some American musicians were upset about having fairly weak versions of their songs becoming better known than the originals.

 

*It’s not that bad, but Mick Jagger really wasn’t ready to be a blues singer at that point.

**Actually, I read Smokey Robinson’s autobiography and he said that at the time Motown was just starting out and that having the Beatles record the song brought them a lot of attention, so insofar as it helped introduce Motown to the world, the answer is yes.

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2 comments

  1. Several months ago, I read a out the history of House of the Rising Sun. Turns out, it’s an Appalachian song. I thought that was interesting.

    1. From what I understand, the song went through a lot of changes and was interpreted differently depending on the context. Funny that the version that everyone knows came from some English kids.

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