On April 26, Dr. Ulrich Adelt, Junior Professor of American Studies from the University of Wyoming, gave a talk at American Studies Leipzig as part of the Fulbright lecture series. His presentation was titled “Just Play the Blues: African Americans, Afro-Germans, white Germans and the Politics of Primitivism.”
Professor Adelt’s research interests include pop music, transnationalism, and racial politics.
In the 1960s, blues music underwent a shift from black artists and audiences to white artists and audiences. With the appropriation of the blues by white artists and audiences, the genre shifted away from its former black working class base. The white middle-class embrace of certain notions of blackness stood in contrast to black audiences’ increasing attraction to new music genres emphasizing civil rights and black power, such as Soul and Funk. For white audiences, black masculinity was perceived as a marker of authenticity. Nevertheless, African American performers often resisted such forced constructions of blackness.
Adelt used the American Folk Blues Festival, a music festival organized by German promoters starting in the early 1960s to illustrate the complex relationships between transnational popular culture and race during the Cold War.
The Transatlantic Dimension of the Blues
In the 1960s, blues music became a transatlantic phenomenon in its own way. Black American blues musicians, some of whom became expatriates, brought their music to eager European audiences. After a while, blues in an updated form was re-imported to the US, mostly through British rock bands.
As an example of an expatriate blues musician, Adelt mentioned Memphis Slim (1915 – 1988), who was portrayed in the June 1966 issue of Ebony magazine while living in Paris (You can read the issue in the Ebony archives). But this was not the norm. Most African American blues performers did not become expatriates.
Germany Gets the Blues (Sort of)
In Germany, promoters Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau organized the American Folk Blues Festival, beginning in 1962. Their construction of the blues was highly romantic. It used the genre’s blackness to highlight blues as the primitive root of Rock’n’Roll. Lippmann and Rau saw the blues as a vehicle of Denazificiation and Anti-racism. In retrospect, however, they continued to deploy racial constructions that are uncomfortably close to that of the Third Reich.
Adelt argued that pop culture is not always a liberating force, but can also work to uphold racial hierarchies and oppression.
Primitivism in Germany
In Germany, positive racism in the form of appropriating the art of ‘savages’ has a long history. African bodies used in art were seen as modern, fresh, or lively. Examples of works of art in this vein include Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), Emil Nolde‘s Dance Around the Golden Calf (1910), or the enthusiasm for American-born French dancer/singer/actress Josephine Baker (1906 – 1975).
During the Third Reich, this former positive racism was replaced by negative racism, exemplified by terms such as Entartete Musik (‘Degenerate music’) (see also here) for jazz, and a fear of Vernegerung (‘Negroidization’) or Verjudung (‘Jewification’) of German culture through ‘foreign’ popular culture.
After World War II, certain Nazi imagery survived in popular children’s television series such as Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver (Jim Knopf und Lukas der Lokomotivführer) (1960). [There is a debate in Germany about whether Jim Button has to be read as racist or anti-racist.]
Racism was also present among parts of the white German left. Here, a “fascination with the real” drove the interest in the black embodiment of suffering.
Race in Germany Before and After World War Two
Transplanting the blues to Germany brought with it certain traveling problematic racial conceptions. While the US certainly had its own historic issues with race, the blues was entering a German culture that was no stranger to racist ideas, even before National Socialism. Among these were the ‘Black Horror on the Rhine’ (“Die Schwarze Schmach“)—fear of the presence of black French troops during the Occupation of the Rhineland following World War I, the vilification of interracial fraternization in the phenomenon of ‘Occupation Babies’ (“Besatzungskinder”) after World War II, caused by sexual relationships between black American GIs and white German women.
Such negative racial constructs were later challenged by Afro-German activists, for instance in the book Farbe Bekennen (‘Showing our Colors’) in 1986.
After the reunification of Germany, a wave of Neo-Nazi attacks on immigrants and non-white persons conveyed an urgency among ethnic minorities and sympathetic parts of the mainstream German population to organize against racial stereotypes. Within German popular culture, Hip Hop artists, especially multi-ethnic or Afro-German Hip Hop artists, such as Advanced Chemistry (early 1990s), Samy Deluxe (starting in the late 1990s), or Brothers Keepers (early 2000s) were involved in anti-racist activism.
Blues as Cold War Propaganda in East and West
The blues was used as a propaganda tool on both sides of the Cold War divide. The capitalist West promoted blues and Jazz as symbols of openness in contrast to the Soviet system. Nonetheless, during the early Cold War, the Jim Crow system was still very much intact in the US, and the Civil Rights Movement had not yet gained that strong a foothold.
The communist East was eager to point out these contradictions, presenting blues and jazz as a signs of resistance against the inherent racism of the capitalist system. In the German Democratic Republic, blues was promoted as music of the oppressed masses, embedded into a critique of US capitalism. On the other hand, there were crackdowns on long-haired blues fans nonetheless, and racial stereotypes were not absent.
Lippmann and Rau Bring American Popular Music to Germany
The organizers of the American Folk Blues Festival were coming from very different backgrounds. Lippmann was Jewish and his family had been persecuted by the Nazis. He saw similarities between black suffering in the US and the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany. Rau, on the other hand, came from a family that had profited from the Nazis’ war buildup. He discovered Jazz in the 1950s and imagined the possibility of Dennazification and “rebirth through Jazz.”
When Lippmann and Rau began to organize jazz concerts featuring African American artists, for instance the Modern Jazz Quartet, they sought to give Jazz an aura of “respectability” by having artists wear tuxedos, advertising events with abstract art, and setting up concerts in symphony halls instead of small, smoke-filled clubs. As Adelt argued, this idea of having to make jazz and its performers respectable can be traced back to racial ideas of the Nazi era.
While organizing blues concerts, Lippmann and Rau gave up on the concept of creating respectability and appealed to primitivist ideas instead. The American Folk Blues Festival, staged between 1962 and 1972, and 1980 to 1985, usually went for three to four hours and featured eight to ten headliners.
What was presented in these concerts can be described as nostalgic blues for white audiences. Both folk music from the 1930s and 1950s blues were at this point somewhat outdated. Older blues artists, such as Willie Dixon (1915 – 1992), were rediscovered during the 1960s. In this context, there was also a conflict between older black and younger white blues performers.
Lippmann and Rau’s posters advertising their events made extensive use of romantic primitivist imagery. The artwork often featured guitars and earthy colors, reminiscent of nameless black bodies. Overall, their design conveyed a “non-threatening” nostalgia.
The events themselves even surpassed the posters in their stagecraft. To enhance the atmosphere of the spectacle, concerts sometimes featured recreated juke joints and other scenery, and African American GIs were bused in as studio audience in Germany.
In 1967, Lippmann and Rau started booking Soul and Funk artists such as James Brown. With a turn towards these more contemporary forms of black popular music, the audience also shifted notably from white Germans to black American GIs.
Blues, Civil Rights, and Well-Meaning Racism
In 1965, Lippmann and Rau linked their American Folk Blues Festival to the US Civil Rights Movement. While well-meaning, in retrospect they upheld problematic racial constructions. In concert booklets, for example, blacks were presented as victims without an agency of their own. In a sense, Lippmann and Rau catered to their audience’s expectations of blues as a primitive, raw, emotional, but certainly not intellectual form of art.
Some African American blues artists developed what Adelt sees as strategies to counter such forced constructions of identity. At times, they spontaneously changed playlists at their shows. Some defied stereotyping by showing off their extraordinary skills and gimmicks in musicianship, for instance on the guitar. Stage antics, appearance in decidedly flashy clothes, or the performance of novelty songs were forms of resistance against expectations. White audiences did not always take this too well. In 1965, Buddy Guy (born in 1936) was booed for playing a medley of James Brown songs. To some degree, the blues resisted against expectations of white middle class respectability.
In conclusion, Adelt remarked that the appropriation of the blues by white German audiences was characterized by ambiguity. While there was great optimism about the prospects of Denazification through American popular culture, the project of transplanting the blues to Europe had a blind spot in its continuation of racial stereotypes.
Here is American Studies Leipzig’s video interview with Ulrich Adelt: