White guy Laurie’s de­but al­bum fac­ing in to some mean dog blues

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Opinion -

ACLARIFICATION from ac­tor Hugh Laurie: “I was not born in Alabama in the 1890s. I’ve never eaten grits, cropped a share, or rid­den a box­car. No gypsy woman said any­thing to my mother when I was born and there’s no hell­hound on my trail, as far as I can judge. Let this record show that I am a white, mid­dle-class English­man, openly tres­pass­ing on the mu­sic and myth of the Amer­i­can south.”

Such hand-wring­ing could only come from a white, priv­i­leged, English grad­u­ate of Eton and Ox­ford (all of which Laurie is), but there are wider is­sues at work con­cern­ing mu­si­cal fun­da­men­tal­ism. Laurie’s Let Them Talk, due out next month, is an al­bum of blues cov­ers, and al­ready the “How Dare You” brigade are fling­ing pe­jo­ra­tives and drag­ging up wretched old ar­gu­ments about “prove­nance” and “au­then­tic­ity”.

Laurie is one of the most­watched ac­tors in the world thanks to his TV se­ries House. When you’ve that big a pro­file you can ring up any la­bel you want, say “I want to do this”, and a stretch limo will be out­side your door be­fore you hang up. Hardly his fault.

But the Tal­iban of the blues world (sec­ond only in an­noy­ance level to the jazz ji­hadists) are al­ready hav­ing a strop about this al­bum. The more elo­quently ex­pressed ar­gu­ments are that some­one like Laurie couldn’t con­ceiv­ably un­der­stand a form of mu­sic that was borne out of racial op­pres­sion.

This from a cur­rent mu­sic blog: “Should mu­sic born out of a racialised cru­cible by his­tor­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged and op­pressed com­mu­ni­ties be dab­bled in by oth­ers? If we are hon­est, such ap­pro­pri­a­tion has of­ten been naked cul­tural piracy and ex­ploita­tion for fis­cal mo­tives. Elvis, Justin Tim­ber­lake and Bri­tish soul singer Joss Stone, to name but a few, are of­ten cited as the chief cul­prits of this mu­si­cal phe­nom­e­non.”

Of course, it’s true that the mu­sic in­dus­try has a filthy his­tory (just read Fred­eric Dan­nen’s Hit Men or look at how the cover ver­sion came about when la­bels got white singers to cover songs sung by black peo­ple in or­der to “cover” their race). But a slow moral evo­lu­tion (en­forced by leg­is­la­tion) means that most of the viler as­pects of the in­dus­try have been con­signed to the his­tory books.

Which leaves us with the rather ridicu­lous “Can a White Man Sing the Blues?” pseudo-dia­lec­tic. And this isn’t just about skin pig­men­ta­tion and one genre of mu­sic. You have to fac­tor in acts such as Eminem and The Pogues, two of the most vi­tal voices of their gen­er­a­tion, both of whom took a crit­i­cal beat­ing for “mis­ap­pro­pri­a­tion”. The qual­ity of their mu­sic (imag­ine that – be­ing judged solely on your mu­si­cal out­put!) means a lot of now shame-faced peo­ple had to mod­ify their prej­u­dice about both acts.

But there will be lit­tle largesse af­forded to Hugh Laurie and his blues al­bum. And bless him, he’s not do­ing him­self any favours by try­ing to en­gage with a cer­tain mind­set.

“I could never bear to see this mu­sic con­fined to a glass cabi­net, un­der the head­ing Cul­ture: Only To Be Han­dled By El­derly Black Men. That way lies the grave, for the blues and just about ev­ery­thing else: Shake­speare only per­formed at the Globe, Bach only played by Ger­mans in tights,” Laurie says in the press re­lease for his al­bum. And, for what’s it worth, Let Them Talk is re­ally good.

It’s quite clear that this is Laurie’s mu­si­cal de­but‚ be­cause if he had any idea of the sort of world (and the sort of jour­nal­ism) that he’d be get­ting into, he wouldn’t be do­ing the “ter­ri­bly sorry about all of this chaps” thing and try­ing to meet the mu­si­cal Tal­iban at a half­way point that sim­ply doesn’t ex­ist. Why not just say “here’s an al­bum of mu­sic I love”? Man up, Laurie, and quit the gen­u­flect­ing.

‘I’ve never eaten grits’

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