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Jewish World Review Sept. 10, 1999 /29 Elul, 5759

Paul Greenberg

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Who owns 'the blues'? -- WHO'S GOT A RIGHT to sing the blues in Phillips County, Arkansas?

A court now has been asked to decide that remarkable question, as, sooner or later, courts are asked to decide everything else in American life. The answers to the most obvious questions must now be spelled out, preferably in an injunction. Which is what happens when the common law swallows up common sense.

Back in the 1830s, the greatest of commentators on American democracy noted that every political question in this all too lawful society soon enough becomes a legal one. But even Alexis de Tocqueville might not have foreseen that every cultural question in this country would become a legal one, too.

Not even the annual King Biscuit Blues Festival at Helena, Ark., has escaped the contagion. In this latest incursion of litigation on civilization, the City of Helena is accused of "involvement in a racially conspiratorial process which, in effect, kidnaps, steals and disrespects, for the purpose of private profit, the musical legacy of African-American citizens in Phillips County.`

Now is that the real blues I'm hearing, or just more of the same old jive? Whatever the legal merits of such a claim, it certainly runs counter to the intuitive assumption that great music, like great art and great food, knows no ethnic boundaries.

The distinguished plaintiffs' proprietary air toward the blues has all kinds of ramifications, none of them attractive. If white folks can't be involved in the blues, does that mean Charlie Pride can't sing country-western, Leontyne Price shouldn't have been messin' with grand opera, and you have to be Jewish to like Levy's Jewish Rye?

Is old Jim Crow coming back to segregate our music, our food, our one nation now highly divisible?

The unsettling possibilities of this line of unreason abound. Should the Gershwin boys have been restricted to waltzes, and Paul Robeson enjoined from taking a role in "Othello,'' the work of still another dead white European male?

The blues, it used to be understood, belong to everybody. They were thought to be part of the human condition -- before it was drawn and quartered along ethnic lines in the current, most advanced multicultural way. A copyright on the blues? To borrow a line from Muddy Waters, you can't lose what you never had.

Don't start me to talkin', as Sonny Boy Williamson would say. The notion that art is the exclusive property of one race/class/sex/nationality might have got a receptive hearing in other times and in other societies. One thinks of the Soviets' reducing art to Socialist Realism, and the Nazis' insistence on Aryan kitsch.

But Americans dip into each other's music, lingo, cuisine and culture in general with an abandon that respects no ethnic monopoly. You might as well try to stop white folks from humming along, or the rest of us from ordering Chinese.

When it comes to culture, we've got a kind of uncodified Sherman Anti-Trust Act going in this country: No monopolies allowed.

Just the other day, I was talking to a new reporter on this Southern newspaper's staff from New York. She confessed that, having lately discovered cheese grits, she now swears by 'em. And there was a time when New Yorkers were recommending -- I'm not making this up -- Goldberg's Pizza. Melting pot? America is more one big stew.

Perhaps most remarkable of all, the Americanized product of any old-country standard tends to attain an integrity of its own. Whether we're talking language, law, food or, yes, music. They all undergo some basic change on these shores -- in their very essence.

African-American music is certainly not African music; it's American. The African in African-American is the modifier, not the noun, and the hyphen should be abolished. Jazz was born not in Africa, but, as Walker Percy once pointed out, on Perdido Street in New Orleans.

How these changes from foreign to native are effected remains a continuing mystery, and equal-opportunity delight.

The notion that the blues could be copyrighted by one ethnic group in one Arkansas county is a charming conceit, but scarcely accords with mother wit.

Such thinking may be a natural outgrowth of the hoary old assumption among a different kind of racist, that only black folks have troubles. If that were so, the audience for the blues would be an exclusive club. But white folks, too, go (ITAL) ummm hmmm (UNITAL) when they listen transfixed by Muddy Waters or B.B. King or Rufus Thomas or Stevie Ray Vaughan or, yes, Bonnie Raitt.

Beware, readers across the land: This lawsuit may mark the beginning of a whole new trend in the national jurisprudence. What we may have here is the invention of a new tort: theft of ethnic services.

Who owns the blues? What a question. Anybody's who's ever had 'em and had 'em bad knows that ain't good. Nobody owns the blues. 'Cause they own you, and the onliest way to overcome 'em is to let 'em out. Doesn't everybody know that? Sophocles knew it when he wrote the lines for those Greek choruses, who were singin' the blues, even if they called it catharsis.

Any great poet can rise to the occasion; the greatness of the blues is that they don't need an occasion. They speak to the human condition. They get us down so far, they raise us up. The blues are life, or at least an unavoidable part of it, and they get us through it. The blues aren't about rising above things, but going through them.

Copyright the blues? What'll they trademark next -- jazz? Gospel? Ragtime? Swing? Klezmer? Mariachi? Zydeco? Claiming the blues as a racial entitlement sounds more like rap than soul. The blues are about making poetry of misery. They're the sound of a soul reaching out. And what color is the soul?

You might as well ask whether the Southern language is black or white. It's neither and both. Like Suthuhn, the blues defy ownership. We may call ourselves their author, but it's life that deals them out.

After all is said and the King Biscuit Festival undone, after all the legal claims have been filed and counterfiled, what is the law without grace, the blues without a heart? The best response to this lawsuit may come not from the Annotated Statutes, but from Patsy Cline's plea in blue: Have you ever been lonely? Have you ever been blue? Be a little forgivin'. ...

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©1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate