Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Happy Birthday, Eric!

Today, Eric Burdon of »The Animals«-fame celebrates his 70th birthday. I wish him all the best.
     It is a good occasion to re-read his 1966-essay on race and music in the U.S.A., published in the December '66 issue of EBONY, here:

»An "Animal" Views America: Young British rhythm-and-blueser talks on music and race« (EBONY, Dec. 1966, pp. 160 ff.)

Eric Burdon since the 1960s passes as the white musician who more than anybody of the British music scene emulated black music, tried to sound black and spoke out in favour of black musicians. This made him, during the 1960s, not a very popular figure in the U.S.-mainstream media, especially when he was commenting on race issues: »The white people in America are the most hospitable that I have ever met anywhere in the world. It's only when the race issue is brought up that they suddenly turn into something monstrous« Burdon boldly stated.
     He constantly stressed the big impact black music had on himself and his generation, while at the same time criticizing the U.S. public to have forgotten or ignored the black roots of 1950s-Rock 'n' Roll and 1960s-Beat music. In the EBONY- essay he says: »An example was a guy I met in Tampa, Fla., who asked me where the Animals got their ideas and style from. And just one mile down the road was a Negro church that he passed by probably 20 times a week and he didn't even know it was there.« And this attitude did lead him to pass severe judgments on white musicians popular at the time, e.g. Bob Dylan: »Bob Dylan has arrived now. It has taken him all of his 25 years to get to the point Chuck Berry was at 10 years ago. Dylan didn't know which direction he was going in until he found out that what he really wanted to do was what Chuck Berry had been doing for years. To me, now, Dylan is the modern-day, white Chuck Berry.«
     On the other hand, however, I cannot agree with everything he put forward. His enthusiasm for black music is undoubted but Burdon unconsciously still condoned basic elements of ethnic stereotypization or even white racism towards the blacks, e.g. by seeing the musical expression of black people as something »animalistic«, and certainly his respective comments in this vein do sound rather outlandish from today's perspective, to say the least. In EBONY he referred to the likes of Fats Domino, Big Maybelle, Wynonie Harris, Louis Jordan and others, saying: »I knew ... that someday I just had to try and sing like that. ... Rock and roll music is simple, basic, animalistic.That's why we call ourselves the Animals. To most people Animals mean tigers, lions, elephants and zoos. But to me it means sweat, lies, music, worry, soul.« And not satisfied with playing on the »animal-metaphor« he returns to it when speaking about Nina Simone: »I've been in the States often and I've met most of the people I worship. I've learned so much, not only about their music, but about life from people like Sonny Boy Williamson, B.B.King, John Lee Hooker, Nina Simone (being in the same room with Nina for the first time is like being face to face with a black panther) and Chuck Berry.«
     But then, these were other times. It is to Burdon's credit, in any case, that he always spoke out strongly against any prejudice based on race conceptions or others. And he didn't hold back when it came to that: »When I was in Mississippi I spoke to the mayor of Laurel and other government officials. Whatever they may say in the newspapers, I found out where they are really, because they talked to me as a fellow white person. I taped one interview and brought it back to New York. I listened to it time and time again and thought, "Jesus Christ, you know, those guys are running a state!"«. In saying this, Burdon surely had a point.
Happy Birthday.

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