Bob Dylan: Can a White Man Sing the Blues?

October 17, 2008

In 2007, I wrote an article on Bob Dylan’s use of the Blues in the Oxford arts magazine, Veritasse. The article was a little difficult for some people to access since it wasn’t online. But now you can read it right here on my site, thanks to the very generous permission of Veritasse.

“Can a White Man Sing the Blues?” was partly inspired by my love of blues music and partly by my reading of the great Black Liberation theologian, James Cone.

Bob Dylan’s work has long relied on the blues (from his 1962 cover of “See that My Grave is Swept Clean” to his 2007 near-copyright-infringement, “Rollin’ and Tumblin'”). A white Minnesotan using the music of an oppressed people, however, might seem to some more like Theft than Love.

I argue that the jury may still be out on whether Dylan’s use of the blues is ethical or not. But the language of the blues, in Dylan’s hands, is undeniably powerful. For an artist who prizes his privacy so dearly, the blues allows him to speak freely about God, death, and apocalypse. And in doing so, Dylan keeps the blues alive.

Veritasse magazine is currently on a bit of a hiatus due to printing costs, and might re-emerge in online form. But the magazine is only one aspect of Veritasse’s overall mission of promoting and celebrating Christian artists. Check out their website.



  1. Ethical? For Dylan to sing the blues. Wow. I’d suggest the question itself is racist.

  2. Fair enough, you’re entitled to that opinion, but it’s a rhetorical question.
    The article never says it’s unethical… and I don’t think it’s a racist question.
    Artistic appropriation of a medium like the blues, rap, klezmer, or native American drums could be racist if not done with care.
    Is it right to appropriate someone else’s narrative, especially when your own societal place is radically different?
    Dylan’s a rich, white northerner singing songs of the south. He steals blues lyrics and claims them as his own.
    My article was influenced by the writings of black liberation theologian James Cone, which made me look at the question much differently.

  3. You sir are ridiculous. The blues do not belong to any certain group of “oppressed” people. Human beings use the blues as a way to express themselves and deal with their problems. Sort of like laughing at yourself when you’re really down to get by. I see what you’re saying, but music is a gift for the whole world to enjoy, no matter where you come from.

  4. I fully acknowledge my ridiculousness!

    I agree that music is for all people. But that doesn’t mean that some types of music don’t have special meaning for certain oppressed groups.

    I think there’s a distinction, something like the difference between tribute and performance, when someone borrows someone else’s musical tradition and makes it their own.

  5. This is a very iteertsning article, and clearly lots of research went into it. I think the two groups of theorizing (evolutionist vs. contextualist) is helpful to navigate the intense debates. I’d also add a similar grouping between “identity politics” and, say, a more “materialist” approach. The identity politics aspect seems closer to the evolutionists, and the contextualist is closer to a more materialist analysis. If I had to side with one, I’d say i’m closer in my own understanding of blues (even though I’m not a researcher of the blues, and basically only a player and listener) to the contextual group. What irks me about both sides (at least through your own narrative of both sides) is that both sides prefer not to look more deeply at the connections between slave society in America and post-slave society in America. What mediates both is the history of capitalism in the world and especially in 19th century America. And as you pointed out, one of the most signficant things about early 20th century american culture is that it had a clear “internal” colonial dimension in the area of sound recording, where “negroes” were captured on tape, much in the same way that colonial anthropologists photographed natives in colonial territories. But to say that recording was a fundamental “context” in which we could first imagine and know what blues is, as an object of knowledge, is also to say that we couldn’t ever know anything about the blues if it weren’t for the expansion of capitalist commodities,including recording artists’ records. I think it’s telling that this kind of analysis is almost obsessively cut out of debates on the origins of the blues because it implicates all of us in trans-racial ways. It’s precisely this trans-raciality of the blues as a commodity that I think a lot of people don’t want to deal with, precisely because it displaces a notion of any origin of blues as an ethnic question to a more economic one. But frankly, the economic one is more objective to me. I’m rambling now, but thanks for your work, you got me thinking.

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