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