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.
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.