I couldn’t help myself. I previously wrote about white artists taking on black music and making it their own, and a prime modern example of that is The Black Keys.
They had a surge in popularity in 2010 with the release of the single, “Tighten Up,” and naturally, it annoyed me, because “music hipster,” that I am, I already listened to them.
I’m so sick of this song, it’s become the more recent version of “Yeah.” Gag.
Anyway, one of my favorites by The Black Keys remains to be their cover of the Junior Kimbrough song, “Meet Me In the City.” It was quite nearly Brandon and I’s first dance song at our wedding.
Junior’s version is a much more natural, traditional blues song. It has a simple chord progression and his vocals are muted into the background. At points, they’re almost unintelligible.
In 2006, The Black Keys released Chulahoma: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough. It was a tribute album that was their last released on Fat Possum, which was also Junior’s label.
Their version is more velvety-smooth and the lyrics were brought into the forefront. The chord progression that’s so easy to pick out in Junior’s version is melted into a smooth-flowing blues ballad.
To me, there’s a fine line between appropriation and paying respects. And The Black Keys really, REALLY like to hang out on that line. When Brothers was released in 2010, the artwork drew a lot of attention. Austin Kleon, the writer behind Steal Like An Artist wrote a blog post about the eerie comparison. In it, he quoted a New York Times article that highlighted the “shrinking” album artwork.
(Personally, I think that the NYT article was a limited, inaccurate perspective. Maybe for major label artists, this trend was valid. However, whenever I peruse Shake It Records, I find plenty of detailed, insane album covers.)
ANYWAY – my point is: the comparison is unmistakable. In 1969, Chess records was pushing their more traditional blues artists like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters toward a more amped up, psychedelic sound. Hendrix had came out blazing onto the scene, and Chess was doing everything possible to squeeze their artists into that mold. So, they encouraged Waters and Wolf to head in that direction. Unlike Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters did his best to embrace the change, and released Electric Mud in 1968.
Story goes, that in 1969, when Howlin’ Wolf was being pushed toward his album, he fought it quite a bit, even going so far as to call it “dog shit.” Chess did their best to make his resistance tongue-in-cheek, and (now infamously) put it on the album cover.
So, when The Black Keys released Brothers, I knew something seemed familiar. I’d heard about Howlin’ Wolf’s album, and the comparison is uncanny.
The Black Keys are known for the compression in their vocals and sound, and it matches spot-on with Wolf’s album. When I snagged it at Shake It and gave it a listen, I almost didn’t recognize Wolf’s signature blues sound. I’m able to still enjoy the album because it’s nothing radical to me.
But with artists like The Black Keys and Jack White making such a huge musical impact now, it makes me wonder why the repackaged, white artists are so much more widely popular than their black predecessors. I appreciate the attention that their giving the original artists, but I urge you to take a look at the foundation before you put in the windows.