Preacher's Daughter: Beth Hart and Joe Bonamassa, Homage or Cultural Appropriation?

Don't Explain, a collaborative effort between blues revivalists Beth Hart and Joe Bonamassa, hit stores yesterday. It features a range of traditional blues, soul, and even gospel classics first made famous by the likes of Billie Holiday, Etta James, Ray Charles, and Aretha Franklin. Of course, the intention is homage, but the artists are facing criticisms about cultural appropriation.

The opening track, "Sinner's Prayer" (lyrics) was recorded by both Lowell Fulson and Ray Charles in the 1950s. Here's their version:

And here's a collaboration between Ray Charles and BB King:

Despite how much I love this genre—and how much I love hearing women singing in this genre in particular—I cannot really hear anything new in the updated version. At best, this is exaggerated mimicry. And when you hear the two versions side by side this way, Hart and Bonamassa, each talented musicians in their own right, clearly cannot compete with greats like Charles and King. I don't entirely understand why anyone would want to listen to this new version when a remastered version of the classic 1950s recording is readily available.

I have loved blues music for a very long time, and it has always felt current and relevant to me. For years now, I've pulled out Muddy Waters' albums on dark nights of the soul. I love hearing women sing the blues partly because the genre allowed women to be aggressive, angry, even sexual before any other North American musical genre. In the 1920s, long before Loretta Lynn introduced her brand of proto-feminism to country music, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were exploring taboo subjects like women's sexuality and oppression in blues. 

Even now, blues music juxtaposes the sacred and profane like nothing else. In "Sinner's Prayer," the narrator begs for god's mercy, almost growling "I've been a bad girl, baby," only to follow up with promises to "change my ways."

With the exception of John Mayer, I love the fact that younger musicians are carrying on the tradition. If you haven't heard Ruthie Foster, you really should. She's a talented songwriter and guitarist with a voice as powerful as Aretha Franklin's. Susan Tedeschi sings like Bonnie Raitt but writes much more interesting songs. One of my favorites, Michelle Malone, started winning Grammy nominations in blues when she took up slide guitar just a few years ago.

My point is that there are plenty of new blues records out there by musicians who are doing great work that manages to pay homage and feel current. Bonamassa's guitar prowess and Hart's excellent voice notwithstanding, this is not one of those records. With the exception of the Tom Waits cover, these new versions do not hold up to the originals. For example, Hart and Bonamassa give us a rousing rockabilly cover of "Something's Got a Hold on Me" (lyrics):

It's not a bad cover, unless you go back to Etta James' pitch-perfect rendition:

The Hart/Bonamassa version is bigger and brasher, but nobody—not even Hart—can sound as good as James.

And "Don't Explain" (lyrics) is a decent enough jazz cover:

Until you remember that Billie Holiday originally wrote and recorded it the first time around:

At the end of the day, this feels like a covers record that doesn't really need to exist. It is hard to quibble with charges of appropriation given that the album fails to offer a fresh or innovative take on any of these songs. I have always liked Hart's strong, emotive, gravelly voice, and I think Bonamassa is one of the most promising new blues guitarists around. But this album is a handful of copies that fall very short of the music meant to be honored—and of what two musicians of this caliber can actually accomplish.

So, if you want a little blues revival in your life, do a bit of research to see what you like, and buy something other than this album. Though Hart and Bonamassa are important musicians to watch, fans of the genre would do well to bypass this particular record.

 

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Comments

11 comments have been made. Post a comment.

You say Hart doesn't take a

You say Hart doesn't take a fresh or innovative take on any of these songs, but you mention how she does a rockabilly rendition of "Something's Got a Hold of Me" that doesn't sound much at all like the James version. So, because James has flawless pitch Hart's creativity is cancelled out or doesn't count? Since when are the guidelines for determining whether cultural appropriation is taking place are whether the covers are "better?" Isn't it enough to hear the feeling in Hart's voice? I don't think she is "better" than any of the great originals, but she does them justice, no matter what phenotypes are exhibited by her body.

I think the guidelines, if there are any other than don't pretend you're not influenced by another culture and don't mock it, might better be understood as "authenticity." Artists can't sound as fearless, powerful, and brilliant as Hart without having an authentic grasp on the feeling behind what they are singing. If she is not mocking the greats that came before her, and she is not trying to hide her influences or take away any of the greatness of the originals, let her sing what her soul desires.

Let her sing what her soul desires

Absolutely, this is actually what I was about to talk about. Music isn't about being the best, or how good you are at being someone else, it's about expression, emotion. It's about singing what you need to sing, singing what you can't say, and at the very core, I think this cover does that. it might not be "as good", but I don't think it's a cultural appropriation by any means. it's what she wants to sing, and you just have to let her do it.

Yes, absolutely, you're

Yes, absolutely, you're right, unless you are actually copying someone else, which I maintain happens here. If you are copying something and not giving it your own interpretation, then you better be just as good or better. With the exception of the one rockabilly song that I mention, I think this is just a collection of copies. And in the case of the rockabilly cover, I just don't find it a very interesting or compelling cover. On an album of covers, you have to make it very fresh, or it has to be "just as good." Eva Cassidy was one vocalist who I always thought could do both most of the time. Here she is singing "People Get Ready."

Preacher's Daughter: Beth Hart and Joe Bonamassa, Homage or Cult

The great blues tradition of sharing songs, that is covering other's songs is so honored by this new Hart-Bonamassa collaboration. Yet you mock it as a copy that doesn't need to exist. What a small small view of music you must have. Both of these artists have brought legion of new fans to the Blues genre who so enjoy what they do. The two wonderful artists not only honor the blues tradition with this wonderful album, but they will win new fans to the original artists by seeking out their recordings of these songs, and others that they have left us. How in the world can it be a bad thing to take 10 great songs, put a new twist on them, and renew interest in the original artists and in the genre itself. Hart's vocal and emotional performance of these great songs in brilliant and Bonamassa adds a small new twist layering his guitar licks into the mix while still satisfying his own tradition of balls out guitar playing. . This is a terrific compilation performed by these two wonderful artists, and bravo to them both for being brave and skilled enough to do it! I hope to hear more from them both in the future. Oh and many of us Hart and Bonamassa fans ARE fans of the original artists, and share the joy of their music with everyone we come across on a daily basis. I know, I am one of many! Respectfully-Dr. Lary

I think it's probably

I think it's probably overstating the facts to suggest that these musicians have brought some new "legion of fans" into blues music. I mean, really... Where are they? It simply isn't the case. John Mayer, for all of his ineptitude, has introduced far more "new fans" to blues music. I am not opposed to the idea that blues songs should be shared. Thank you for calling me "small-minded," though. That's awesome. I think what you meant to say is that we both have a different opinion about whether or not these covers were done well. I do not think they were. It's not a "blues tradition" to copy the arrangement, instrumentation and even vocal inflections of someone else. 

I can show you 12000 of these

I can show you 12000 of these new fans anytime you are willing to take me up on it! But I would guess you really don't want to take me up on it. You are more interested in "protecting" something that you think belongs in someone elses hands now aren't you. After all, you are the "culture" police I guess. As we speak, fans of Hart's and of Bonamassa's are on sights such as YouTube downloading Charles and James and Holiday and King. I know, I am watching their posts.

Open your mind and come and meet us if you dare! We are having a good time listening and sharing music of many genres.Oh and we would be happy and humble to learn from you as well. This is a very open minded, musically speaking, and diverse group of folks from around the world.

Thank you for your time, attention and response. We are music lovers and our favorite artists will survive the criticism...

Dr. Lary

Joe B

You are entitled to your opinion on how these covers compare to the originals but what if some music fans (of Joe B as we call him) are not all that familar with the originals? What if we are introduced to Beth via Joe and just plain enjoy the CD because we appreciate Beth's voice and Joe's guitar skills.?
We are not supposed to pick up this CD?
You are way off on Joe's influence on bringing in fans ( not all that familar with Beth...yet). Our groupies ( we are in our 50's) have followed Joe for 6 yrs from the bars of New Haven (Toads) to the now sold out 3000 seat theatres. We turn Joe on to new fans every chance we get and enjoy adding Bonavirgin's to Joe's fans base. Joe plays primarily blues rock not the blues. Unfortuantely, this is one reason he is shunned by the hard core blues community. Joe's fans are not all that bothered by this as we know he will get his just due from his peers in time. In the meantime we get to turn Joe on to new fans everyday and get 3rd row seats to boot. Now I need to go listen to some of the origianls of the covers.

Preacher's Daughter: Beth Hart and Joe Bonamassa Don't Explain

I've listened to every original song I could find of the songs covered by Beth and Joe. I wanted to hear them side-by-side so I could compare. I think in every case - Beth and Joe's versions were smokin' hot and better...hands down. Beth's deep guttural voice rising up through the depths, filled with lightning popping highs; coupled with Joe's exquisite guitar playing and this CD is not to be missed. #4 CD on the UK Alternative charts means plenty of others agree...I'd say you missed your mark. But that's okay - don't explain...

You are entitled to your

You are entitled to your opinion however I do not agree at all. I love this album and find it brilliant. I think it's very fresh and updated and original.

I feel your article lacks context. Hart listened to Etta James and Billie Holiday as a young child because her mother loved those artists. She grew up with them. When Joe approached her to do this album he asked her to make a list of her favorite songs and he would do the same. They would narrow down the songs for the album based on the connection that Beth felt toward the material and lyrics. Beth chose songs in which she really connected with in her personal life. Doing a covers album was a departure for Hart as she mostly sings her own material. Bonamassa has always done covers and he does a great job.

The phrase "cultural appropriation" implies something sinister that in the context of music does not make sense to me. I think this album shows a lot of respect and homage to the original artists. To me this is art which is self expression.

I find Beth Hart's interpretations of these songs amazing and passionate and her voice simply out of this world. Joe Bonamassa has incredible skill and his guitar work in these songs is original, beautiful and inspired.

Joe has a practically encyclopedic brain when it comes to music history and artists and how each decade influenced the next. I can see he has the utmost respect for those that came before him.

You claim "the artists are facing criticisms about cultural appropriation." I have read everything I can about this album and you are the only one I have heard say anything of the kind. I've read at least 15 reviews by music critics who have raved about this album, not to mention the many fans who are blown away by it.

If you don't like it, don't purchase it and don't listen to it. However, your claim of "cultural appropriation" I find quite disturbing. Also, stating that art that does not suit you does not need to exist? That is a very narrow minded view.

You included only 3

You included only 3 comparisons out of the 10 songs on the album:

1. Sinner's Prayer: This song has a TOTALLY different vibe than the original. Joe adding a signature slide guitar riff ramps up the power behind the Beth/Joe version and is a great base for Beth's powerful dirty vocals and soul wrenching emotion. This is a VERY different approach to the laid back vibe of the original which was based upon the piano and the more basic guitar licks by BB King. I'm sure BB King himself would approve as he is the one who launched Bonamassa's career when Joe was merely 12 years old, and has since guest starred on Bonamassa tracks.

2. Something's Got a Hold on Me: This song was also done differently by Hart/Bonamassa. The original is much more laid back R&B. The Joe/Beth version is more of a power soul high energy gospel version and is not at all the same style. Beth & Joe definitely put their own stamp on the song and Beth's vocals hit it out of the park.

3. Don't Explain: Beth paid homage to Billie Holiday here but their voices are very different. I find Hart's vocals to be warmer. The nuanced guitar work in this song adds a whole new dimension to it as Joe makes his guitar sound like a sax. Absolutely beautiful and a different take on the song. The strings are also very lush and add another layer to the arrangement. I feel this track is elegant and adds a contemporary touch.

Merely adding Joe's unique guitar sound to these songs brings a new dimension to them. The mixture of genres - from soul to blues to rock to jazz to gospel makes for a fresh take and is in line with the multi genre styles of both Hart and Bonamassa. I also would not characterize Hart as a "blues revivalist." She is primarily a rocker who would first and foremost describe herself as a rock singer-songwriter. She is influenced by multiple genres including blues, soul, jazz and classical. Much of Joe's guitar work here is subtle and nuanced and takes multiple listenings to fully appreciate. I notice your article was published the day after the album was released.

As for the other songs on the album that you did not put up for comparison:

Chocolate Jesus is totally different from the original Tom Waits version - done here in a french cafe style supported with a reverb guitar sound.

Your Heart is as Black as Night is a simplified arrangement and more of a torch song than the full jazz orchestration on Melody Gardot's original.

For My Friend: Much more bold blues rocker than the original Bill Withers version. Joe uses very muscular guitar riffs and Beth belts out the lyrics like no one else. This song is perfect to showcase both of their strengths.

I'd Rather Go Blind: Again here the use of guitar in the song is a big departure from the original Etta James song and Bonamassa's emotive guitar has a wonderful build. Beth's vocals are sublime, aching with sorrow and vulnerability. Several music critics have raved about this track - "masterpiece" - " eight minutes of musical bliss" - "the whole world should hear this," etc.

Beth and Joe's take on Brook Benton's song I'll Take Care of You I feel is the best version of this song ever. Beth's vocals soar and Joe's playing is razor sharp and restrained throughout the track, ending with a stunning ballsout solo which is by far different from the original version.

Well Well: This is a ramped up stompin version supported by Joe's unique guitar work, the harmonies and Beth's use of scat makes it fun.

Ain't No Way: This is also different than the original Aretha Franklin number which again was more R&B whereas Joe's use of the slide guitar and Beth's vocals in a lower key make it more of a torch song.

I don't see any of these songs as direct copies. Hart is a commanding presence with a unique voice and Joe definitely has his own unique skill and style. They put their own mark on these recordings. I feel they paid homage to the originals but did not compete with them. The other musicians did a stellar job and the production is outstanding. Great material was chosen - some well known songs and some back catalog stuff which was smart. It was gutsy to choose some of the material they did and kudos to them for doing so. I think they nailed this project.

As for your statement "it is hard to quibble with charges of appropriation" can you please explain what you mean? It seems you are accusing these artists of something, but it is not clear to me exactly what.

Congrats Beth & Joe!

Congrats to Beth & Joe on their nomination for a Blues Music Award. Don't Explain has been nominated for Best Contemporary Blues album of 2011. Cultural appropriation? Bollocks.