I Don’t Like the Blues: Race, Place, and the Backbeat of Black Life

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B. Brian Foster 
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020, pp 206, $24.00 (£18.28) (paperback) $95.00 (£69.62) (hardback)

Clarksdale is a community of 18,000 people settled in north-west Mississippi and advertised worldwide as a Bluesy-Jerusalem. The iconic blues musician, guitarist-singer-composer Robert Johnson, lived there and left many stories and myths to posterity. Bessie Smith, an equally iconic female blues musician, died in the town, victim of a car crash on a road nearby. All life in Clarksdale seems to be dependent on the music created by Africans and African-Americans. That music was part of the process of recreating their cultural universe, throughout the exile from their motherland and enslavement, and becoming part of this New World while making it their own. Furthermore, the blues has contributed to the development of a new and revolutionary global music landscape. But are Black Clarkdalians’ lives better than that of their predecessors in the Deep South of the US? In the time of Black Lives Matter, what can be said about racial relations for Black Clarkdalians (and for those throughout the Mississippi Delta) since the international blues explosion?

Interested in investigating what the ‘post-civil rights rural South looks like, and what Black life there sounds like’, (p 107) B. Brian Foster landed in Clarksdale for an immersive ethnographic experience between 2015 and 2019. During this period, Foster gathered demographic data, revisited local and regional history, and interviewed 185 people. The oral narratives from a single mother striving to earn enough to sustain her offspring and hopes, from tour guides who express ‘love and hate’ for the place, from an unknown busker bluesman wishing to depart to better opportunities, and many others, comprise the content of the bookThis is a book about music and culture. But, most of all, this is about Clarksdale’s Black residents’ self-conscious challenging of the possibilities denied to them by the status quo.

Foster resorts to Clyde Woods’ Development Arrested (1998) to explain the blues’  fragmentation in music, development and epistemology. Like a tree, the blues epistemology is the roots providing Black Southerners with a perception of their reality and their challenges. The blues-development is part of the strategies of white officials and business owners who see the blues as the Delta’s ‘greatest export,’ (p28) turning the city into a sort of a bluesy-Disneyland created for white crowds and employing mainly white people. The ‘American Dilemma’ resulting from the ‘southern question’ is still there: persistent micro- and macro-racial aggressions and racist structures of power.

In the first chapter, Foster introduces the place, the social environment, and its idiosyncrasies, particularly the contrast between the limited opportunities for the Black working-class (from the public schools, the general exclusion from the educational system, and also of occasional highly-educated locals from the city) and the official argument claiming the blues as an alternative to assemble a tourism industry in the Delta. The second chapter, titled ‘We ain’t that no more,’ shows black Clarksdalians’ self-consciousness about what is described by the book as the ‘blues epistemology,’ a capacity to understand questions of race, cultural expression, the struggle for civil rights, and the expropriation of the blues. In the following chapter, the book depicts the blues expropriation that excludes Black people from any possibility of social mobility in a tourism industry concentrated on the history of blues music. The last chapter shows not only the disillusionment of Black people in Clarksdale but also their critique of and resistance to the tourism industry, and their refusal to be mere figurative presences within that industry, created from the fruits of their own culture. Thus, they move, often migrating to other parts of the US.

The concluding sections offer some final thoughts on the  methodology used and on the data gathered by Foster throughout his study. After all, the author says that I Don’t Like the Blues was written because ‘studying the rural black South ain’t done enough’. (p15) The book shows the racial violence, poverty and lack of opportunity to which African-Americans have been subjected to by the state and by society, not only in the South but across the United States. Additionally, this work also opens room for other comparative investigations approaching similar processes all over the African Diaspora spaces in the American continent, from Nova Scotia to Buenos Aires, from Bahia to California.

An interview with Brian Foster is available at https://newbooksnetwork.com/i-dont-like-the-blues
How to cite this article:

Cascadura, Fábio. Review of I Don’t Like the Blues: Race, Place, and the Backbeat of Black Life, by Brian Foster. Oral History Journal Online Reviews Section (November 2021). https://www.ohs.org.uk/reviews/i-dont-like-the-blues-race-place-and-the-backbeat-of-black-life/

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