Fred de Vries’ Blues for the White Man shows us how much knowledge helps and heals
Given the title of this book, it would be easy to imagine it belongs to that new genre of books bemoaning political correctness and fighting back against notionally odious attitudes toward white men in the style of Jordan Peterson. Nothing could be further from the truth.
But having said what it isn’t, that is a lot easier than saying what it is. The book is part travelogue, part musical narrative, and part examination of the concept of race in South Africa and the American South.
Intrigued by the intersection between race and music, author Fred De Vries sets off from Cape Town for the American South in part to discover the origins of the music he grew up with and loved in Rotterdam, Holland, but also to explore in his honest, receptive, sensitive way, the idea of “blackness” and “whiteness” in music and society.
The first part of the book is therefore a first-person travel narrative of the cornerstone geographic sites typically associated in some way with the origins of the blues; Memphis, Clarksdale, New Orleans, and his stepping-off point Atlanta.
In the process, he attends music concerts, interviews people, meets odd types, relates history, and provides the sense of the place with an impressionistic eye. He then returns to his adopted hometown, Cape Town, to witness the new campus eruption of what might be called the new wave of black consciousness.
You can sense the aim of the book is mutating slightly from an examination of music and race, towards an examination of race and music. More intrigued now about the modern version of the race/music intersection, he returns to the US for the second time and visits a new set of towns and cities, including Jackson, Birmingham, Selma, Savannah, and Forsyth.
The Black Lives Matter movement is now in full swing in the US and the comparisons with the always intense racial debate in South Africa is illuminating. And at the core of it all is De Vries himself, ever forthright, conscious, and entertaining. He speaks to a range of people across the debate in the US, something you suspect might be difficult for a local US writer to do, given the huge cleavages that now exist in the US.
The blues, the music style most associated with black suffering, is somehow always hovering in the background, a kind of implied and often explicit soundtrack to his journey. His journey is also, of course, metaphoric; De Vries is examining his own responses as much as those of his interlocutors for the purpose of enlightenment.
It’s sometimes said that travelling is the antidote to ignorance. I would put it differently; travelling doesn’t solve ignorance; rather it teaches you how ignorant you are. And so it is with this book: De Vries’ discoveries sometimes surprise himself.
The nature of the blues, an endlessly discussed topic in itself, becomes not more explicable, but more complex and nuanced. De Vries records how his own appreciation of the music he thought he knew so well changed in the process of the trip. For example, the overlap between the blues and US country music is often minimised now, but the historical evidence roundly contradicts that view.
I should acknowledge that De Vries and I are friends, and have been for years. We have played in bands together and jammed to many of the songs recorded in the book. His voyage of racial discovery in some ways mirrors my own. Except for our different homelands, we are in many ways peas in a pod.
The opening sequence of the book involves a disastrous interview De Vries did with Abdullah Ibrahim, and I am somewhat complicit even in that since I commissioned the piece from him as the editor of the review section of the long-departed Weekender newspaper. De Vries absolutely loves Ibrahim, and particularly his unique blend of the blues and South African indigenous music. So the fact that the interview ended disastrously was obviously a deeply felt wound.
But it also serves as a microcosm for the larger examination of black music, and blackness for that matter, by a white man. Was Ibrahim’s rudeness in the interview aimed at De Vries or De Vries’ whiteness, or at whites in general? Was it an inevitable hangover of his own bottled-up hurt that festered through his tough life? Or is he just an unpleasant, prickly person with his own racial prejudices?
It’s possible that in our era, no one is interested, or should be
interested, in this unusual perspective: white European man’s views of
black history and music. De Vries’ difficulty finding
reviewers for the book – so much so that he has to rely on a friend –
does suggest there is something illegitimate about even broaching the topic
from that perspective.
Yet, that would be such a pity, particularly as this book is about as
humble and fair-minded an attempt at broaching this thorny subject as
you will ever read – but then, perhaps, I only think that because we
are those peas in that pod. Yet, I would argue we need more books like this,
not fewer. This should be an open debate, not a closed one. Surely?
His conclusions about the origins of the blues, racial difference, white blues, and South Africa and the southern US are … well, I will leave you to discover.
But I would say, the book shows how much knowledge helps and heals. If travel is an antidote to ignorance, then this book maps a path that is a loose guide in a haphazard, illuminating, and entertaining way. DM/ ML