||3-07-05, 8:47 am
From Black Commentator
“I said I’m sitting here watching matchbox hole in my clothes.” – Opening
verse of Beatles’ “Matchbox”
In 1964 the Beatles took America by storm on the basis of some catchy
original songs and a scattering of ‘50s rock ’n roll retreads like
“Matchbox.” In quick succession they were followed by bands like the Rolling
Stones, the Who, the Animals, Them, the Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin, Pink
Floyd. What would become known as the “British Invasion” changed the face
of American – and world – pop music forever.
What got lost between the lines was that the white British Invasion was
fueled by black American blues.
“Matchbox” is a good case in point because the Fab Four said they learned
it off the 1957 Dance Album by rockabilly pioneer, Carl Perkins. Carl didn’t
say where he picked it up, but he readily admitted that “I just speeded up
some of the slow blues licks” for his seminal rock guitar style. He is also
given writer’s credit for “Matchbox.”
“Matchbox” was written and recorded by blues legend Blind Lemon Jefferson in
The Beatles were not alone in their usurpation of African American blues.
The Rolling Stones took their name from a song by blues icon Muddy Waters
and patterned their band after the Waters band. Many of their “original”
hits were direct lifts from older blues recordings. “Whole Lotta Love,” Led
Zeppelin’s only Top10 single, was a close copy of an earlier song by
bluesman Willie Dixon. Dixon heard the song 15 years later, sued and won a
rare settlement. Many British rock bands did wholesale appropriations of
blues compositions, arrangements, lyrics, bass lines, and guitar solos, and
directly mimicked vocal styles and intonations much like their white
counterparts in the 19th Century minstrel shows.
All of a sudden, the rock world was awash with English, Scottish and Irish
singers who sounded like Ray Charles, Sonny Boy Williamson and Elmore James
– modern reincarnations of Eddie Cantor without the blackface makeup.
However, it’s a misrepresentation of the truth to point a disapproving
finger overseas. The Brit rockers were only following a long time American
musical tradition of white musicians and white-owned recording and
publishing companies appropriating African American blues for popular and
lucrative use in the white entertainment world.
The blues can rightfully be called the fountainhead of 20th Century pop
music, out of which flowed jazz, swing, bop, rock, and – yes – country and
western. It was born in Africa, nourished in the wretchedness of slavery and
raised in the cauldron of segregation. It is a unique music of an oppressed
and unbeaten people, unique because of its honesty, dignity and defiance,
and its ultimate 12 bar truth.
The blues is also unique because none of its creators reaped any of the
incredible financial payoffs it generated. From the beginning, wads of money
flowed not to the community from which the blues emerged, but to the looters
who ran away with it.
Muddy Waters wrote famously that “blues had a baby and they named it rock
and roll,” but blues also had two older children named jazz and country
music. The extraordinary relationship of blues and jazz has been the subject
of many worthy dissertations. The fact that American country music has
always been one of the most financially-rewarding arenas for blues-based
music is not very well known.
Jimmie Rodgers is known as the “Father of Country Music,” but this title is
based not only on his incredible impact on generations of performers but
also on his sales of millions of blues-laced records of the late 1920’s,
like “Muleskinner Blues” and “Blue Yodel #2.” How did the white Rodgers,
whose musical tradition was comprised of modal jigs and reels, morph into a
blues lyricist and singer? Easy: when he was not working on the railroad as
a young man, he worked in blackface and black minstrel shows with Frank
Stokes, a black singer from whom Rodgers is thought to have acquired much of
his song repertoire. However, Stokes’ name does not appear on any of the
multitude of copyrighted songs claimed by Rodgers, nor did Stokes share in
the recording and publishing windfall.
One of the female pillars of country music is “Mother” Maybelle Carter of
the Carter Family, the “First Family of Country Music.” Her guitar style,
with its thumb lead and hammer-ons, continues to influence country and folk
musicians today. Maybelle learned that unique “scratch” guitar style from
Lesley Riddle, an African American guitarist who accompanied her cousin A.P.
Carter on his song gathering expeditions in the mountains. Also, while A.P.
wrote down the lyrics, Riddle hooked the melody. Riddle’s name doesn’t
appear in the credits.
Bluegrass is regarded as Bill Monroe’s creation, but Dennis Deasy, the late
San Francisco musicologist, argued that all Monroe did was inject the blues
scale and 12 bar format into Scots-Irish hoedown music. He believed that it
should more rightfully be called “Blues grass.” It is also worth noting that
the featured instrument in Bluegrass, the banjo, came from Africa.
Sometimes the thievery is so outrageous that it boggles the mind. Leon
McAuliffe was the signature steel guitar player of Bob Wills and the Texas
Playboys and his trademark tune was “Steel Guitar Rag.” When a young Sonny
Rhodes – who was helping set up equipment on stage – asked McAuliffe how he
could learn to play the steel, McAuliffe replied that the steel “was a white
man’s instrument, and no n-----r could ever learn to play it.”
McAuliffe claimed authorship – and, of course, the royalties – for “Steel
Guitar Rag.” The truth is that he stole it from “Guitar Rag,” a 1923
recording by black blues guitarist Sylvester Weaver. In fact, it has been
recently established that playing a stringed instrument by sliding a piece
of steel on it can be traced to Central and West Africa. Like the banjo,
African slaves brought the concept of playing steel to America.
In the early 1950’s, Sam Phillips, the genius behind genre-bending Sun
Records, reportedly said “if I could only find a white boy who could sing
like a Negro, I could make a million dollars.” Ultimately, he found that
white boy and that white boy began cutting blues sides written by Big Boy
Crudup, Roy Brown, Little Junior Parker, and Kokomo Arnold. That white boy’s
name was Elvis Presley.
These are just a few examples of the extent of the cultural theft of African
American music. The beat goes on with continuing CD sales, blues festivals,
blues documentaries, t-shirts, posters and even a sizeable internet market
of instruction videos like “How To Play Guitar Like Blind Blake.”
The money made on record sales alone is formidable. The record company makes
money; the publishing company makes money; the recording artist and the
songwriter get royalties. Then there are further royalties for performances,
radio play, and usage in film and television. In 2005, the mechanical
royalty for songwriter/publisher is 8.5 cents a song. A million selling
single brings in $85,000. That’s just the songwriter share. Consider how
much money Bill Haley’s 12 bar blues “Rock Around the Clock” made, selling
25 million copies. Or the blues-drenched Aerosmith, with 18 platinum and 11
multiplatinum disc sales in the U.S. alone.
These figures are an indication of only the artist’s share of the sales. The
corporate recording and publishing share of music income is the lion’s share
of a very expensive pie, amounting to billions of dollars in rock and roll
alone. Blues had a very fat baby, but the African American mother community
only received a pittance – if anything – in return. We’re talking hundreds
of rock/blues songs alone which sold millions and millions of records.
Blind Lemon died on a street in a snow storm in segregated Chicago. It was
regarded as such an inconsequential event that no death certificate was
issued. Bessie Smith, the “Empress of the Blues,” was buried in an unmarked
grave. Her recording contract had a “no royalties” clause. Many other blues
geniuses died in Jim Crow poverty and illness. Leroy Carr was barely 30 when
he died of alcoholism. As late as 1960 Jesse Belvin, a young Rhythm and
Blues artist, was killed in a suspicious car crash after performing the
first integrated concert in Little Rock, Arkansas. Earlier in the evening,
white supremacists had repeatedly disrupted the show.
This is not to say that white musicians didn’t suffer similar fates as a
result of corporate exploitation, but the exploitation of the white
musicians was not a result of the color of their skin and the power of the
state was not arrayed against them as a race, thereby stifling any claims
for justice before they could arise. The blues was stolen from the black
community simply because the white musical power structure had the ability
to do it. It was not given away for free and billions of dollars were made
on the blues. It is time for the music industry to pay the bill.
Reparations are just too complicated, according to some people. In the case
of the Blues, reparations would be easy because the recording industry has
always maintained financial data on sales and royalties. A national
foundation could be established with a board of directors possibly composed
of people like Harry Belafonte, Alice Walker, Cornel West, and Danny
Glover. The mission of the trust would be to develop strategic, legal and
political actions to pursue the royalties owed the black community. Many
white musicians have honored the origins of the music they play. They should
be in the forefront of the campaign to recover the stolen royalties. It
should also be possible to file class action suits for the descendents of
Where should these recovered funds be distributed? One choice could be urban
schools where students have no instruments or music programs but can flick
on a pop station and hear the music their community created being played by
Justice demands that this 12 bar debt be paid.
Blind Lemon’s actual hard times lyrics for “Matchbox” were:
“Standin’ here wonderin’ will a matchbox hold my clothes
Standin’ here wonderin’ will a matchbox hold my clothes
I ain’t got so many matches but I got so far to go”
--Don Santina is a cultural historian who writes on film, sports and music.
His articles have appeared in the Black Commentator, Counter punch, the
Peoples Weekly World, and the San Francisco Chronicle. His monograph on the
film history of the Cisco Kid is in the Academy of Motion Pictures archives.