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.”