A white haven for the blues

So I was upstate again last weekend, speeding home from a sales job, when a road sign on the highway caught my eye: WHITE HAVEN 4 MILES.

“Perfect,” I said to Swamp Rabbit, my sales partner. “White Haven would be a good name for the whole county.”

We’d just worked a blues festival at which I spotted fewer than a dozen blacks in the audience of more than a thousand people. Hardly any blacks on stage, either. There’s nothing new about this, of course, but I couldn’t help but wonder aloud how a style of music so firmly rooted in black culture evolved into a genre whose fan base is overwhelmingly white.

“What exactly you askin’?” Swamp Rabbit said. “Of course the crowd is white. We’re in Pennsyltucky, not Philadelphia.”

“It doesn’t matter,” I replied. “The crowd would have been just as white if the show was in Philly.”

Swamp Rabbit groaned. “Culture is always changing, Odd Man. Most black people who liked the blues are dead now. Each new generation tries to make new sounds. Blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, soul, funk, hip-hop. It was all black music at first but then it was white music, too. You got your BB King, you got your Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan.”

I asked what he thought of the tendency of many white people to romanticize the black experience in the Jim Crow South. To appropriate black music, to commodify it. To turn black pain into product, as one blogger put it.

“Bullshit,” he said. “All music these days is product, in case you ain’t noticed. The money men ain’t looking for the next new thing. They’re looking to dig up the old thing and dress it up a little different.”

He mentioned a show we’d worked last week in some white suburb of Philly. The bands played a ghastly hybrid of Irish folk and punk rock at train-wreck volume as the crowd got drunk. It felt like someone was driving a nail through my forehead.

I reminded Swamp Rabbit that the “Irish” music I prefer is by people like Van Morrison and Rory Gallagher who grew up in Ireland playing African American music. I confessed to him that I still don’t understand why so many white people in Pennsyltucky — and in the Philly area, for that matter — embrace black music but avoid or are actively hostile to black people.

“Blah blah,” he said as we drove into the Lehigh Tunnel. “There’s a lot you don’t understand, Odd Man. Just be glad we ain’t gotta work no more of them Irish festivals this summer.”