Black Blues, White Label

But the way they are presenting him and other black artists on the label at times smacks of a hip plantation mentality for the late Nineties. Based in Oxford, Mississippi, and run by Matthew Johnson, Fat Possum has put out a spate of records this decade, mainly by Mississippi bluesmen such as Burnside, Kimbrough, T-Model Ford, Cedell Davis, Elmo Williams, Robert Cage, Paul "Wine" Jones, and Super Chikan (that's right). For the most part they are black, male, at least middle-aged, and connected to the state of Mississippi by either birth or longtime residence there. They all play guitar and sing, some in unique styles: Cedell Davis, who contracted polio when he was a child, now plays slide guitar with a butter knife. And all these Fat Possum musicians are what you would call rough-hewn or rural people. They come across as somewhat unsophisticated, country, or Mississippi, for lack of a better term.

And Matthew Johnson has done quite a job signing and promoting this roster of backwoods bluesmen to a primarily white, young, urban audience. He has managed to make aging, hard-drinking, and hard-working black men into pop artists of a sort. This is quite a feat given that most Fat Possum artists are neither young nor pretty. Some of the promo material, and the artwork on the label's releases, however, seem to cross a line that can slip into the most blatant kind of racial stereotyping. Much is made of R.L.'s numerous drunk driving arrests, T-Model Ford's violent life, and the late Kimbrough's affinity for moonshine and the large number of children he fathered in his lifetime. Some of this mythology is true, but is the fact that certain Fat Possum artists like to drink whiskey enough of a reason (or an excuse) to market them as moonshine-drinking, rural, Ybermen who just wanna get drunk, ball, and play the blues for a mostly white audience? Matthew Johnson is selling records and paying his musicians royalties, helping them attract larger performance fees and audiences than they ever received playing Mississippi juke joints. Is it okay for Fat Possum to use a photograph of T-Model Ford and his drummer Spam goose-stepping in a cotton field if it helps to sell their records and earn them more money? If they don't object to being marketed this way are these somewhat racist images hurting anybody?

Ultimately white record labels and fans license what is hip in blues even though blacks created the form. White fans of the music have constructed a purist image of what blues should be and how a bluesman should conduct himself. And this purist image usually centers on the typically American view of the black man: primitive, spontaneous, impulsive, and violent. An image of black men that would be considered insulting and ridiculous to most people still finds a home in white blues circles, even though the majority of purists would insist that it is simply the sound of the music that they love. But somehow this image of black bluesmen as primal auteurs who live and create purely by instinct always becomes entwined with the music at a point where it is hard to separate the two. So if Fat Possum seems to follow that old familiar pattern of marketing their talents as untutored but gifted rural savants (read "primitive Negroes" who make good dance music) and also releases really interesting and enjoyable records, what is to be made of that? It's a little late in the game to pretend that racism in its various guises can be avoided by a bit of goodwill and decent royalties, but if one enjoys the music on a Fat Possum record, does that make listening to it a guilty pleasure and some kind of racist act? Probably, but the label does put out some damn good sounding records and Come on In happens to be one of their best so far.

Matthew Johnson of Fat Possum says that Come on In has generated more negative mail than any other release on the label. Most of the outrage is directed at Tom Rothrock's altering and remixing of Burnside's basic tracks: How dare Fat Possum dilute the purity (that "P" word again) of Burnside's sound? It sounds like another take on the Mississippi bluesman as a noble savage whose undiminished and undiluted style must be protected from the greedy and misguided white entrepreneurs who want to "change his sound." But if interviews and Fat Possum press releases can be believed, it was R.L. who approached Rothrock to mix his material after he heard some of the producer's Beck remixes. So if it was Burnside's idea to make this release just what it is, then isn't it rather pointless to shout charges of exploitation at Matthew Johnson and Fat Possum for allowing Rothrock to put a trip-hop/techno stamp on the recording?

It is interesting to note that Rothrock and Beal Dabbs share songwriting credits on several songs with Burnside on this record. Is that just another example of white men stealing writer credits from a black artist, or is it true collaboration in the studio, even if R.L. cut the basic tracks by himself or with his band? You'd probably have to ask Burnside to find out the truth, but this looks and feels more like a collaborative project. The Rothrock touches seem to be part of the whole rather than add-ons after the fact. There is only one true remix on the record: "Heat," done by Alec Empire of Atari Teenage Riot. Rothrock functions as another band member on most tracks with his programming and mixing. There are even a couple of Rothrock-produced tracks that have no traces of samples or loops, in case any blues purists need reassuring that R.L. can still do it all on his own.

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