With the world momentarily distracted by the “Black Lives Matter” marches, much attention has been devoted to racism. The police (from whichever country) have been made the scapegoats. The death of George Floyd at the hands of the police in Minneapolis has turned the police into the enemy. This is a simplistic view of a complex problem. As a musician, I see things from a different perspective. We all agree that racism exists. It continues to exist in many parts of society and cultural, but does racism exist in music?
As you may guess, music biographies take up a great deal of space on my bookshelf. With the Covid-19 lock down, there has been plenty of time for reading and listening to podcasts. My latest fascination has been for the early days of rock music. This has lead me to question, does racism exist in music?
Black American Music
One of the books I have recently read was “Mystery Train”, the biography of Scotty Moore. He was Elvis Presley’s original guitarist. The first half of the book gives insight to the early days of Elvis Presley in Memphis, Tennessee. Scotty Moore first met Elvis when he (Elvis) was nineteen. The book gives detailed accounts as to how Elvis got started.
Elvis was a great fan of Black American music. The first song he recorded was “That’s Alright Mama”. Elvis recorded this in July, 1954. This was a cover version. It was written and originally recorded by Chicago blues artist Arthur Crudup in September, 1946.
“That’s Alright Mama” – Elvis Presley’s Version
Arthur Crudup’s Original Version
The second song Elvis released was “Good Rocking Tonight”. This song was written by and originally recorded the African American singer-songwriter Roy Brown in 1947.
“Good Rocking Tonight” – Elvis Presley’s Version
Roy Brown’s original Version from 1947
Milk Cow Blues – Elvis Presley version
Elvis’s third release was his cover version of “Milk Cow Blues”. The song was originally written and recorded in 1935 by the African American blues artist, Kokomo Arnold.
Original version of “Milk Cow Blues” by Kokomo Arnold
Black Music For White People
Elvis Presley’s first three song releases were all remakes of songs by African Americans. Elvis went on to be one of the most renowned singers of all time. Meanwhile, Arthur Crudup, Roy Brown and Kokomo Arnold are all pretty much unknown. This idea is nothing new. It is commonly considered that the British bands of the 1960’s such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Animals basically took Black American music and sold it back to white America.
Rhythm & Blues versus Rock’n’Roll
The labelling of music wasn’t invented by singers, musicians or composers. Labelling music was created by the business people of the music industry. If you are going to sell things, you need categories so that the buying public can filter out what they don’t want. Think of visiting Woolworths or Coles. Tinned tomatoes are in a completely different place to fresh tomatoes. Really, it’s the same product except that one has been more processed. Back in the late 1950’s, “Rock’n’Roll” sounded very similar to “Rhythm & Blues”. The difference was that “Rock’n’Roll” was being marketed to White America, while “Rhythm & Blues” was being marketed to Black America.
Labelling Comes From Business
Musicians never invented musical genres. Every musician I know enjoys music from a vast range of genres. I have always been at odds with how my eclectic repertoire of songs confuses people. “You’re really a jazz musician, aren’t you?”. “You’re really a rock band, aren’t you”. You do this…you do that…
Throughout my career as a musician, I’ve always struggled with music agents trying to categorise me and put me into one box. The business of music seems to need to label what you do.
Racism In The Business Of Music
I don’t think I’ve ever met a racist musician. There must be some, but I’ve never met any of them. But I do think that racism exists in the business of music. The fact that there’s a specific genre called “R & B” is racist. It implies that it’s “black” music, even when it’s played by musicians with no African ancestry.