Friday, January 8, 2021

B. Brian Foster's "I Don't Like the Blues"

B. Brian Foster is assistant professor of sociology and southern studies at the University of Mississippi.

Foster applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, I Don't Like the Blues: Race, Place, and the Backbeat of Black Life, and reported the following:
Page 99 finds me sitting at a coffeeshop in Clarksdale, Mississippi, talking with 27-year-old resident P.J. Echols. In the part of the conversation captured on page 99, there is a quote that does well to summarize what I Don't Like the Blues is about. P.J. says, "Clarksdale is not just the blues, right? Let's highlight the people who led those movements, that started those efforts, those visionaries." He clapped then held his hands together, giving his words a beat. "Those innovators, those creators, those disruptors…Those people made the blues, created the art, built the infrastructure." His voice took on the rasp of a preacher. As our conversation continues, P.J. continues emphasize his point: the town of Clarksdale, which has emphasized blues tourism in its economic plan since the early 1980's, has more to offer its residents than the blues.

The test works; and it actually works in two ways. First, at the most basic level, the conversation captured on page 99 pretty effectively the thesis of the book: black residents of Clarksdale, Mississippi are frustrated with and tired of the town's heavy emphasis on blues tourism. Among other things, they believe that by focusing only on the blues, local elected officials and stakeholders deemphasize other important parts of the town's history, and ignore a whole segment of local residents. The second way that the test works is that it requires us to sit with and think about a seemingly mundane interaction, a conversation between a local resident and I. That's also a part of the argument that the book makes: there is value and meaning in even the most mundane parts of black lived experience.

I Don't Like the Blues is informed by more than 200 conversations with black residents of Clarksdale, Mississippi—conversations like the one, with P.J. Echols, captured on page 99. In these conversations, which I had between 2014 and 2019, I heard something over and over again that confused me. In the world's most famous "blues place" the people who created the blues were telling me they didn't like the blues. Talking about the blues made them sad. It made them feel left out and ignored. It made them angry and skeptical. The point of the book is to document and unpack these feelings.

The punchline of the book is that the blues evokes different feelings because people see it as a stand-in for different things. For many, the blues represents "hard times from back in the day," times that they don't like to think too much about. For some, the blues represents a type of entertainment and recreation (e.g., a blues festival or blues club performance) that they aren't interested in. And for some, the blues represents a failed approach at economic development. However black residents defined the blues, at some point they were clear with me that they didn't like it.

You hear that on page 99 from 27-year-old P.J. and on page 5 from 71-year-old Mrs. Irene Sandiford, and on page 44 from 45-year-old Mac McIntosh
Visit B. Brian Foster's website.

--Marshal Zeringue