There is nothing better than like minds meeting and sharing musical experiences. I have been a musician for the majority of my life, and every time I have the opportunity to ask questions and probe into the life of another musician, it is a very rewarding experience.
I’ve also been on the artist selection committee for the Riverbend Festival for years now. As part of this, I have met a lot of very interesting people—and we all share the same love and passion for music. The committee's job is to determine what acts will play the festival. Everyone on the committee has their own special interest and knowledge in music—which makes for an enriched musical experience without clamorous exchanges of ideas. In our meetings genres are discussed, new artists are introduced, CDs are shared, and emails with artist bios are forwarded so that everyone is on the same musical page. From time to time, new individuals are brought into the fold to add to the already conversant group. So when Dr. Clark White, aka Deacon Bluz, a harmonica-toting front man with his own group, called the "Holy Smoke Band" joined the club, I immediately wondered: Where has he been? Who has he met, and what experiences would he share with the group?
What I quickly learned about Deacon Bluz was far more than I could have ever imagined.
Dr. Clark White was born in Chattanooga in 1949, started his scholastic journey at Orchard Knob Elementary School—and ended it with degrees from Morehouse College, a Ph.D from Michigan State University and post-doctoral work at Harvard University.
He has taught at Michigan State, Temple University, Northeastern University, Brown University, Morehouse and Spelman College, and now, though semi-retired, is an adjunct faculty member at UTC. In an interview, Dr. White told me that music was always around him as a child, and that he was always encouraged to share his love of it. Never shy about performing, he laughed as he recalled his first TV appearance, which happened in the WDEF studios in the old Volunteer Building at the tender age of 5 years old. He sang "The Yellow Rose of Texas" in a cowboy outfit.
Dr. White “always knew that from an early age that music, in some form or fashion, would play a vital role in his life.” One of the very first things he can remember musically was the sound of his aunt's upright piano. He started receiving formal music training in middle school, playing in the band while learning to master the clarinet and saxophone. This training continued into his senior year of high school.
In the White household, knowledge was absolutely paramount. His parents stressed the importance of a good education in a time where chances of upward mobility for blacks in Chattanooga were few and far between.
"I was socialized to be successful and think highly of myself. Behind segregated walls my parents had to do that, because the entire society was trying to tell me that I was inferior,” Dr. White remembered. “I thought segregation was a joke. It was like living in a fairytale. I was always trying to be heroic and fight it. Anytime I had an encounter with my white counterparts, we were trying to out do them in any kind of way whether it was sports, band, elocution, anything."
His parents, who were highly educated, saw to it that he was exposed to as much as possible. "There were no opportunities for us back then,” he said. “If I had not left when I did, I knew that I would be someone's janitor because that was the only work that a black man could get. We knew growing up that we would be leaving Chattanooga. This was a place to be from, not a place to stay."
In 1966, the young Clark White left home for Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga. As a college student in the times of the black power movement of the late ’60s, he was exposed to powerful ideas. At Morehouse he would be introduced to the beliefs and idealogies of the Nation of Islam, The League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and a group of college students that organized to fight segregation and white supremacy in America called the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
The SNCC was started by people like John Lewis, Julian Bond, fellow Chattanoogan Willie Ricks, and Stokely Carmichael—who would later become Kwame Ture, the honorary prime minister of the Black Panther Party. According to Dr. White, the Black Panther Party was not a racially based, black, essentialist organization.
"That was the media image that was put out about the Black Panthers, but you had all types of people in the organization." he said. "If you read their literature, you will find that they never said that they were an all-black party. They were a party of the people that wanted to empower those in the community who were under siege by American capitalism and bring them to some level of equity."
He went on to explain that many non-black celebrities donated money and helped raise millions of dollars for the party. “People such as actor Marlon Brando and composer Leonard Bernstein," he said. There were many whites that had an affinity for black culture These people showed support in many different ways, according to Dr. White. For instance, in Michigan, there was a group known as the White Panther party that started the multi-million dollar The Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival.
So where does the music fit into this story? I asked. It was everywhere, Dr. White responded. One of the many ways artists showed their support for the movement was to express it in their art.
“Music was always a part of the movement and reflected the time. It was a social expression of ideas that existed at the time,” he said. “So any period of my life when I was listening to music, it always had a political component to it. One thing you've got to remember is that jazz musicians, then and now, were some of the most independent, outspoken artists of our time—because they could be. This is why I do the blues, because it is the soundtrack of the American experience. The vernacular expressions that we ignore and put down really formed the nucleus of what we called black culture,” he continued. “Very few people understand or appreciate American blues music." He explained that the blues tells the story of three centuries, and is dedicated to the people's blood and sweat that made the cotton grow—essentially African American history.
"To teach you about the blues, I have to teach you about the history of black working class people, the life of the black slave, the black royal peasant, the black early industrial proletariat worker, and the present unemployed, marginalized group of black youth in this country. The blues is nothing but the facts of life,” Dr. White told me.
I've listened to Dr. White's—or should I say Deacon Bluz's—music now with new ears. I no longer hear the music in the same way, but I listen to it and all other blues music critically. I've even pulled out some of my mother's African American history folders from when she was a teacher to gain a greater perspective of the pain and struggle of Black America and its effects on the art form we call the blues. Even though I took music appreciation courses, and I'm very familiar with the history of jazz and blues, reviewing it kind of knocks the dust off of my brain to see it, appreciate it, and value it even more. Thank you, Deacon Bluz! Your knowledge is invaluable.
Eric Foster is a musician, stand-up comic and longtime DJ/program host at WJTT/Power 94. He can currently be heard on “Midday Motivations with Eric Foster.”