As a teenager, Selwyn Birchwood had one rule for whomever he was dating: She had to know the name Muddy Waters.
“I used it as a way to weed out chicks I was dating,” he says, chuckling. “I would put on Muddy Waters and if they got into the car and asked, ‘What the hell is this?’ I’d think to myself, ‘Well this isn’t going to work out.’ ”
For the millennial generation, knowing the music of the great blues pioneer would be exceptional since radio playlists and electronic-based pop music have made discovering traditional guitar-driven blues a needle-in-the-haystack endeavor.
Yet Birchwood, a 29-year-old blues guitarist from Tampa, Fla., is one of a small, but emerging, crop of millennial-aged black musicians who are breaking away from the mainstream and playing music that is an alternative to the playlists of their peers. For many young black musicians, especially those growing up in the South, learning about the blues came by accident and outside the home. Many in the older generation moved away from traditional blues because they considered it antiquated, or representing hardships endured by previous generations they’d prefer to forget.
“A lot of my white friends knew more about the blues than I did. Their parents educated them about it. But we didn’t listen to that type of music when I was growing up,” says Jarekus Singleton, 29, from Clinton, Miss. “I kind of feel bad for my generation because we didn’t have those people teaching us. But we have the responsibility now.”
Even in the cradle of the blues, the Mississippi Delta, the music has fallen in stature among millennial-aged African Americans: According to polling conducted last August by University of Mississippi doctoral candidate Nicholas Gorrell, when asked to name their favorite music, those aged 18 to 29 in the Delta said they most preferred R&B and hip-hop, with the blues a distant third.
The racial shift among blues audiences started decades ago, following the folk revival and, later, the British Invasion, when much of white America heard black music for the first time. At the same time, black audiences identified more with soul, funk and, eventually, hip-hop; up-and-coming black musicians, to stay commercially relevant, followed suit.
“Young black audiences no longer viewed the blues as pop music,” says Adam Gussow, a professor of Southern studies at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. “Music of the now became soul music because it was about rebellion and it was about pride.”
Among blues purists, there was concern that blacks would abandon the music altogether, a scenario many thought might distort the very qualities that made it feel genuine.
Jim O’Neal, founder of Living Blues magazine, said the publication earned its name in 1970 “because people said [blues] was dead.” “We didn’t see any young black musicians coming up and we felt the old music was dying out,” he says. “But it continued.”
For decades, stars such as guitarist Buddy Guy have carried the torch while complaining thatthe blues has been relegated to the back seat of the music industry as radio programmers, club operators and major record labels became less interested in supporting what they consider the foundation of black music.
“My children didn’t know who the hell I was until they turned 21 and could come to my club and see me play,” Guy says. “They grew up in the house with me and would say ‘cut it out playing the blues!’ At one point, I thought that maybe, lyrically, the blues was unfit to sing around kids. But then hip-hop stepped in.”
With second-generation blues artists such as Robert Cray, Billy Branch and Kenny Neal now playing elder-statesmen roles, the crop of younger black blues musicians who can take the tradition and transform it with their own identity is relatively slim. Besides Birchwood and Singleton, other emerging up-and-comers include Marquise Knox, 24, of St. Louis, Blind Boy Paxton, 25, of Los Angeles, and the Peterson Brothers, ages 15 and 17, of Austin.
Otis Clay, the soul music legend from Chicago who entered the Blues Hall of Fame last year, says that once radio segregated blues from other genres, “fans and the music suffered.”
“It’s understandable that young blacks are not getting the chance to hear blues,” he says. He worries that there will soon be a dearth of teachers who will be able to coach younger players in the music: “I learned from the older guys, but what about the other black guys who are out there that want to genuinely play the music? That says a lot about where the music is going to go.”
For Chicago’s Alligator label, the biggest blues label in the world, finding the next generation of blues artists has been a challenge, not just because there are fewer young black musicians willing to invest in a blues career but also because it’s difficult to find exciting new artists with an original voice who don’t feel encumbered by traditions.
“I’m looking for visionary artists with one foot in the roots and one foot in contemporary music and contemporary thinking,” says label founder and president Bruce Iglauer. “It hasn’t been easy.”
Singleton and Birchwood represent the first artists in Alligator’s 43-year history who did not grow up hearing the blues at home but had to discover it elsewhere.
Before Singleton picked up the guitar, he made beats and battle-rapped with his high school friends. His guitar playing was reserved for the house band at church services; when he got older, a basketball career beckoned: He led the nation in scoring at William Carey University in Hattiesburg, Miss., and was the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics’ national player of the year in 2007. “The NBA was the only thing on my mind,” he says.
An ankle injury sidelined those plans and, two years later, after a stint playing professional ball in Lebanon, Singleton found himself back in his childhood bedroom, his foot in the air, recovering from surgery. Passing the days proved excruciating, and one day he reached over to pick up an Epiphone guitar he used years ago in church. Suddenly the opening lyric of an Albert King song popped into his head: “When you’re down and out and you feel a little bit hurt/come on over to the place where I work.”
“I was so miserable and I was down and out,” he says. “That first verse just took me overboard.”
A similar epiphany hit Birchwood who, at age 17, started researching blues music on the Internet after seeing Buddy Guy perform an acoustic show. “Just to witness that emotion and intensity and sheer soul and feeling — it just blew me away,” he says. As with Singleton, Birchwood’s parents were mostly into oldies, so he had to look elsewhere for guidance. He ended up tracking any blues performer who played the Florida area within a reasonable drive of his home, and planned trips every weekend. “I was happy to drive three hours to find two hours of killer music,” he says.
Before signing with Alligator, both met with Iglauer, 66, who spent more than a year flying to their respective hometowns to hear them play. They also traded songs back and forth: Iglauer would introduce them to artists from the blues pantheon they never heard of but might find inspiring and they, in turn, would hand him their original songs to get his feedback. He says he pushed them to “take lyrical chances.”
“Both Selwyn and Jarekus were not getting encouragement from their peers to be blues musicians, so both guys were rebels in that regard and had to follow their own path against the mainstream of young black culture,” says Iglauer. “It speaks to their strength of love of the music.”
Recorded with their respective bands back home, both debut albums with the label reflect a deep maturity but also are indelibly modern. On “Refuse to Lose,” strong with melody hooks and swagger, Singleton leans on his background as a rapper to infuse the songs with lyrics that are personal and acutely poetic. Birchwood, who also plays lap steel guitar and matches his guitar with a chugging baritone saxophone, possess the vocal snarl of Tom Waits; the tougher sound of “Don’t Call No Ambulance” is more eclectic, touching upon boogie, classic Chicago blues and more Southern soul.
“I think it takes that one kind of player to make [blues] hip again, to make it more mainstream,” says Birchwood. “That happened with Stevie Ray Vaughan. He wasn’t doing anything particularly new, but he reached audiences that may not have heard it and he set it afire. That’s what we’re shooting for.”
Jarekus Singleton will play at Gypsy Sally’s, June 17 in Washington; visit www.gypsysallys.com for more information. Selwyn Birchwood will headline the D.C. Blues Festival on Aug. 30. Visit dcblues.org to learn more.
Guarino is a freelance writer.