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Holly George-Warren

Holly George-Warren is the award-winning author of more than a dozen books, including biographies of Gene Autry and Alex Chilton. She is the co-editor of American Roots Music and Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: An American Journey, among numerous collaborative volumes. Currently at work on a biography of Janis Joplin, she teaches at the State University of New York at New Paltz. She has presented at every EMP Pop Conference but one.

“Blues Singer or Appropriator?” 
In the 1960s when young white artists including the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Janis Joplin began showing their emulation of Black artists by vocalizing in the style of their heroes, questions began to be raised in the music community: Do white people have the right to sing the blues? Artists like Butterfield and Joplin found themselves defending their vocal style and material to journalists quizzing them about their musical choices. Mick Jagger, ironically, told a U.K. reporter prior to Joplin’s debut at the Royal Albert Hall that if he wanted to hear the blues, he’d rather see a Black singer than a white girl from Texas. By the 1970s, as blues rock segued into hard rock, such conversations about race fizzled—for a while. Bonnie Raitt, who played alongside Sippie Wallace and Mississippi Fred McDowell at Newport and other festivals, reports that she was treated as more of a novelty (who’s that redheaded white girl singing and playing the blues?) than an appropriator. My presentation will look at the questions raised in the ’60s, glancing back at antecedents (touching on Emmett Miller and Blackface)—and the reverberations today (a glimpse at white rappers). I’ll use music and video excerpts and the words of musicians—Black and white—to explore this issue.

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