TALKING ABOUT THIS is uncomfortable: On that we can all agree. Yet each morning last week, a theater full of people talked about race, theft and spirit.
These discussions, titled “Deep Story,” were part of Centrum’s Acoustic Blues Workshop, which brought together some 300 students and teachers for jamming, songwriting and free-range conversation at Fort Worden State Park.
For centuries black music has been stolen and sold: Cultural appropriation is what we call it nowadays. A central question at the workshop was: How can people who didn’t grow up in the African-American culture explore blues music respectfully?
Answers don’t come in a few glib words. But the black artists and scholars at the front of the fort’s Wheeler Theater were generous — and gutsy — with their thoughts.
Junious Brickhouse, a dancer and educator from Washington, D.C., spoke in a soft voice. This is not a political matter, he said. It is a moral one.
“Cultural appropriation lacks kindness,” Brickhouse said. That’s one way to identify it.
In the presence of a culture not your own, be a student, not always an easy thing, “but definitely a good thing.”
To discover the rich history of the blues, listen. Read — about Memphis Minnie, Langston Hughes, Lead Belly, “The Midnight Special” — forerunners with us long before the Rolling Stones.
Two other formidable men helped lead the “Deep Story” discussions: ethnomusicologist Mark Puryear, who curated 2016’s “Freedom Sounds: A Community Celebration” at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and Canadian videographer Jamaine Campbell, whose heritage is African and First Nations.
Our culture “is a highly commodifiable thing,” Campbell said, “but it’s us,” the essence of our being.
“Appreciate the person behind the pretty thing they made,” he added: “the black people who made the blues.”
Puryear explained how, for African-Americans, dancehalls have served as sanctuaries. With music as the elixir, a people under siege could let their guards down. They could be themselves.
“I almost welled up when I heard you talk about it,” Campbell told Puryear. Yes, he said, a sanctuary is where you can do your thing.
Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes of New Orleans went deeper. We swim in consumer culture — but nobody can commodify our souls.
“Your spirit is the great equalizer,” he said. Music is spirit-sharing. When you’re with someone who has a beautiful spirit, you know.
Shirley Smith, who came from her Detroit hometown to teach gospel singing, spoke of how people can be a sanctuary. She felt this when she was part of a trio of women at a conference in Las Vegas; during one event all they needed were facial expressions to have an entire conversation.
Then Smith mentioned an experience at the blues workshop. Talking with a participant named Chris, she learned they had much in common. Both are from the Midwest and love their soulful music.
With such a person, “I let my barriers down,” she said, “because I’m safe.”
Chris is white, Smith added.
Out there in the world — beyond this “blues utopia,” as Barnes called it — we’ve got to be patient. Well-intentioned as we are, our interactions across cultures can be tense.
The “Deep Story” folks’ message: Engage anyway. Listen anyway.
When the tension rises, take a moment to breathe.
The workshop culminated in Saturday’s Acoustic Blues Showcase, a multi-course meal of live music laid out at McCurdy Pavilion. Guy Davis, one of 20 performers, shared a gem of a tune.
“I was thinking my old thoughts,” he sang.
“I’m thinking my new thoughts now …
“I feel like dancin’. ”
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a freelance journalist and former PDN features editor, lives in Port Townsend.
Her column appears in the PDN the first and third Wednesday every month. Her next column will be Aug. 21.
Reach her at [email protected]