📬 Want some Southern goodness in your inbox every Friday?
Get Scalawag's latest stories and a run down of what's happening across the South with our weekly newsletter.
Jan Hirte answers the door in bare feet, jeans, a cotton T-shirt, and he probably hasn't shaved since I saw him play the Monday Jelly Roll Session at White Trash, an American bar in Berlin. Described to me as "one of the finest living German blues artists," Hirte is a homegrown Berliner, more sauerkraut than coleslaw, but possessed with an American vibe. He lives in a small, third-floor apartment in Berlin's Schöneberg neighborhood and owns only one acoustic guitar, which he takes up at one point to play "Sick and Tired" by Fats Domino.
With the proper accent.
Oh, Babe. Whatcha gonna do? I'm sick and tard, foolin' around witch you…
"It definitely puts you into this American feeling," Hirte says. "The names of cities or other famous places like Route 66, Sweet Home Chicago—all the name-dropping—we automatically have to listen to the lyrics and, how do you say, Beschäftigung. Care about the culture." But what of the culture comes through and what is lost in translation? I was sitting around working with some friends in Berlin, the only American among Europeans, when Robert Johnson's "Travelling Riverside Blues" came up in someone's playlist on their laptop. "I got women in Vicksburg," Johnson sings, "clean on into Tennessee"—which happens to be the state I grew up in, where I lived for 20 years of my life. The song made me think of home. What does it make a German think of?
Whatever it is about blues that appeals to Europeans, it's something deep and persistent. The fact is, the music is now part of the European mainstream. Historian Neil A. Wynn in his introduction to the book Cross the Water Blues claims that Europe buys 70 percent of blues records produced worldwide, and a big chunk of that figure accounts for blues music produced by European artists.
In 2011, various blues organizations from around the continent founded the European Blues Union and simultaneously created the annual European Blues Challenge. Regional or national blues associations, like the Baltic Blues Society and France Blues, hold annual competitions modeled on the International Blues Challenge held in Memphis, Tennessee, and send their local winners to the European event. Sixteen countries competed in the first challenge, a live-music competition held in Berlin. The fifth competition was held this March in Brussels and featured representatives from at least 20 countries.
Among the participants, it's hard to find a band that doesn't orient itself westward toward that mythic rural land from which the blues arose a century ago. Band names channel a historical South: B. B. and the Blues Shacks (Germany); Doghouse Sam and his Magnatones (Belgium); Big Creek Slim and the Cockroaches (Denmark); the Delta Blues Gang (Croatia). Howlin' Bill Rudolf, the Belgian artist who won the first European Blues Challenge in 2011, apparently took his name from Howlin' Wolf, one of the first blues stars. The names, if not borrowed from Black American blues artists, draw from as Wynn characterizes it, the broader stereotypes of a "rural southern community… a pre-modern era with an oral tradition and references to mojos, black cat bones… a life of hardship and suffering."
Sometimes, below the surface of the charming monikers, however, lie quite sophisticated interpretations of the genre's origins. Impressions of the South can be scattered and contradictory—which is not to say off-base. Rick Asherson, a British blues amateur, talks about the region as a poverty-stricken land where the descendants of slaves created a "beautiful music that helped [them] survive." That's something I heard a lot when asking people in the European blues scene what they knew about the American South. They know about slavery; they know about the Civil War. They know about Black Americans creating a new music from their own traditions—music of the oppressed, outsiders in their own homeland.
But then there's this other vision of the South as a mythic melting pot. Frankie Jürgensen, lead guitarist for the German band Mhowl told me he associated blues music not with segregation but with the multi-cultural aspect of Southern cities like New Orleans where all the world's traditions fused into new forms. "I would love to see New Orleans," Jürgensen said, "at least once."
Many in the European blues scene do make the trip. Olaf Dähmlow, current owner of Berlin's 120-year-old Yorckschlösschen jazz and blues bar, has visited New Orleans six times in order to learn "what a cool jazz club should look like" and to maintain contact with the music at its source. Over the years, he has collected souvenirs from New Orleans that cover nearly the whole interior of his bar: a poster of Tipitina's music venue, a green "Bourbon St" sign, and a Leo Meiersdorff "Cooking with Jazz" poster—that watercolor print, so common in the American South, depicting a caricatured Black chef carrying a lobster to a boiling pot. His bar serves German food, "not jambalaya," Dähmlow says, because he didn't want to be in the business of imitation. But, impressed by how "friendly and open" people were in the South, he tries to offer his clients "American service."
It was a similar attraction that lured in Asherson. Born and raised in London, Asherson wandered into the South in 2001 and never left. An information technology professional with a passion for the blues, he had just finished a consulting job in Massachusetts. "I had no other commitments, no significant other and was just touring the country with all my possessions in the car, mostly camping out at night in beautiful state parks and being a tourist in the day," he said. On a whim he followed signs to Clarksdale, Mississippi —a town name he recognized from blues songs—and chanced upon the Freedom Creek blues festival headlined by Willie King. With no place to stay after the festival was over, he ended up crashing with King in his trailer and then stuck around for several months, touring and playing harmonica and keyboard alongside him. "As soon as I arrived," Asherson said, "I felt totally at home."
Asherson met his future wife, Debbie Bond, through King, and became involved with her Alabama Blues Project to teach the music and preserve its heritage. Bond, describing her love for the blues, synthesizes the melting-pot image with the music's marginalized roots.
"It was world music from the beginning," she wrote me in an email, "a blending of African and European musical cultures…. The blues, forged in a cauldron of oppression, is a testament to human beings' ability to transcend and create in the most trying of circumstances. It's the musical roots to so much later evolution in American—and the world's—music, giving birth to rock, soul, rap, etc."
Bond, who was born in California but was raised in England, says that her and Asherson's outsider reverence for the music was perhaps the motivating factor in founding the Alabama Blues Project.
"I moved to Alabama in 1979, and Johnny Shines was still alive and living here in [the town of] Holt," Bond said. "He was very much taken for granted, as was the thriving blues culture. I couldn't believe it. Lots of backwoods festivals, blues bands, and joints. No one seemed to know what was in their own back yard."
When I meet the Blues Ambassador for breakfast, I order pancakes, scrambled eggs, and bacon. There is something strange about the bacon. Not that it's bad. It's meaty, salty, still sizzling a little—but it's not bacon. I don't blame Uncle Sam's, the small American-style diner in Berlin where the Ambassador takes his breakfast regularly. Different pans and different ingredients make different breakfasts.
The shortcomings of the breakfast, however, don't seem to disappoint the 70 year-old Arkansas native, who has shown up in a sharp black suit and a matching hat bejeweled with a brass horse charm—not so different from his suit on display in the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He orders the usual, albeit in passable German. He seems at home here in Uncle Sam's.
The Ambassador normally doesn't go by that title—Eb Davis is his real name. He's modest about his 2008 induction into the Blues Hall of Fame (as a blues ambassador to Arkansas). But by all accounts, Davis is a true diplomat. Born in Elaine, Arkansas, he built his reputation as a front man for blues bands in Memphis and then New York City, mingling with the masters of the genre like B. B. King, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, and Isaac Hayes.
The Army drafted Davis in 1960, but he remained stationed in the U.S. and never shipped out to Vietnam. Instead, after the war was over, Davis was sent to Berlin and between 1983 and 1985 participated in the so-called cultural offensive, assigned to a tour devised by the State Department that involved lecturing in East Germany to halls of communist students about the influence of the blues on all subsequent pop genres.
Davis had expected the Eastern Block to be a sort of blank slate when it came to the blues, but instead he met a culture that had already, eagerly, been importing the American music for quite a while.
"I was kind of surprised myself when I saw the first blues bands over there," he said. "These were bands that were playing what they thought was blues for years."
Blues had come to Europe a long time before Davis. Not long after the American Civil War ended, a number of Black musicians, fleeing the racist climate in the States, where the Ku Klux Klan had just formed, came to ply their trade in Europe. Here, they were exoticized but not terrorized.
"Given the extent of violence and discrimination experienced by African Americans, it is not surprising that an astounding and ever-increasing number pursued their livelihood overseas," writes historian Rainer E. Lotz, pointing out that in 1896 the German music publication Der Artist counted more than one hundred Black performers touring the country that year.
Fast-forward 60 years: The "folk music revival" of the 1960s brought recordings of early 20th century American blues artists to both American and European mass markets, creating a musical foundation for European rock 'n' roll bands like the Rolling Stones and Cream. Propelled by the new popularity of the genre, Black American blues musicians like Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters followed their reputations across the Atlantic to fill concert halls in Liverpool, Paris, Copenhagen, and Munich—in turn inspiring more awe and emulation. It wasn't the same success story for every Black musician in Europe by any means, but in 1966, Ebony published a piece about blues star Memphis Slim who went on tour in Europe and decided to stay, comparing his Chicago life of working for "rent money and grits" to his "six-room flat along Paris' Boulevard Exelmans."
In East Germany, "city blues and rhythm and blues became vehicles of protest against the lifestyle monopoly of the East German communist regime," note Detlef Junker, Philipp Gassert, Wilfried Mausbach in their book The United States and Germany in the Era of the Cold War, 1945-1990: A Handbook. "East German blues bands like Monokel, Jonathan and Freygang induced pilgrimages of fans from concert to concert."
But when Davis booked shows in East Germany in the 1980s, he would go right to the front of the queue.
"I was in pretty good demand," Davis said. "I guess for some I was authentic, and for some I was a novelty. And for some of them maybe it was that curiosity of seeing something they'd been listening to but never seen."
The question of authenticity comes up a lot in European blues. Davis, a Black man born in the Mississippi River Delta, was raised in Memphis where he played alongside and learned from legendary blues players—he is the real thing, and he knows it. He has been invited to compete in the European Blues Challenge but has always turned it down.
"I've been doing this for a little over 50 years. I've played from one end of the globe to the other. Why would I want to get involved in some kind of contest for somebody to judge?" he asks. "Most of the people I would be going against—I was doing this before their daddies ever planted a seed."
Still, Davis accords respect to his European colleagues whose world he has inhabited for over 30 years now. He's married to blues pianist and native Berliner Nina T. Davis. He supports the theory that the blues is the cultural heritage of the world now, a global music that doesn't "belong" to anyone anymore, if it ever did.
"I did a festival last week and there was a guy singing about 'down home,'" Davis says, laughing. "Here's a German guy singing about 'down home' in America, but in reality 'down home' for him would be in Bavaria or someplace, you know? But that shows the influence the music has on people. Because you can go anywhere you want in Europe—anywhere—and you're going to find a hundred blues bands."
For Davis, the question "Can Europeans play the blues?" is a moot question. Europeans do play the blues.
Nevertheless, the mass appeal of the blues in Berlin, Davis thinks, is primarily of the blues feeling, the universal emotions that are conveyed. The historical context is fuzzy. The political significance is often an afterthought.
"In general, Germans don't show emotions so easily," he said, "and this is quite an emotional music. So it's quite an outlet. But do they get the significance of the whole thing? I doubt it. Maybe one or two here, one or two there that's gotten really deep into it.
"But to really understand it," he muses, then takes a long pause. "You'd have to be an American."
I ask him if he'd go as far as saying you'd have to be a Black American. I had just read an interview with the president of the European Blues Union in which he said the belief that only Black musicians can play real blues should be "struck from people's minds.… Everyone may experience hard times." His statement wasn't false, but he seemed to think the difference between a century of racism and getting cut off on the Autobahn was inessential.
"It would be very hard for a non-Black person to understand it," Davis said, "because the things that have happened to Black people—and still happen—who else can understand that? I mean you can see it and say, that's bad, it shouldn't be like that. But unless you are the one that it's happening to, no one's going to understand it the way you do."
The role of "Black music" in Europe has changed quite a bit since the days of the "coon songs" and "Black operas" staged by White entertainment moguls who demanded that Black musicians perform an exotified and stereotyped version of themselves for curious Europeans. The pan-Atlantic revival of blues and other African-American folk genres that coincided with the cultural revolution of the 1960s infused the blues with a rebellious counter-culture verve that it didn't have before—at least not for its White audience. Class- and race-conscious artists were selling records in Europe because they were singing songs like Leadbelly's "Bourgeois Blues" about getting snubbed by well-to-do Whites in Washington, D.C., not in spite of it.
The second half of the 20th century saw Black artists taking control of their own act. Dähmlow, owner of the Yorckschlösschen, says the historic bar was transformed before his time from a traditional German bar into a hotspot for jazz and blues in the late 1970s by Black American GIs who had been stationed in Berlin after the Second World War and again during the Cold War. "Black musicians, Americans in the military," recounts Dähmlow, "played quite often at the bar. Eb Davis, for example. Always more and more blues until one day it took hold."
And when White European performers imitated Black music, it was often intended as a threat against the chauvinism of mainstream culture. Early blues bands formed by young White Europeans, according to Junker, Gassert, and Mausbach, "irritat[ed] the authorities who feared the 'decadence' and rebelliousness of the artists and their fans."
But if an anti-racist, proletarian backlash against conservative music ever typified the whole of the European blues scene, those days are over now that blues has been relegated to that unsexy genre known as parents' music. And the legacy of how the blues was first received in and imported to Europe resurfaces from time to time. In Hamburg, the Cotton Club boasts that it is the city's "premier jazz-cellar." The owner never responded to my phone calls, so I can only wonder if he knows the history of that name, that the early 1900s New York City "Cotton Club" was a Whites-only establishment and that the painting of an all-Black jazz band behind the stage at the Hamburg club depicts King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, a group that never performed at the original Cotton Club because the owner refused to pay Oliver what he asked. To make things worse, one advertisement for the Hamburg club reads like a list of colonialist stereotypes of Black people: "It's dark. It's hot. It's crazy. It's loud: It's an evening in the Cotton Club."
There was certainly some naiveté in Dähmler's décor inside the Yorckschlösschen. The "Cooking with Jazz" poster is more latently than blatantly racist, but Meiersdorff's full-lipped caricature of a Black chef is likely not an image you would find inside a Black-owned blues club in Louisiana.
And then there was the Confederate flag I saw hanging above the door inside Vienna's Louisiana Blues Pub back in March.
"I think the average European might not think about it," Susanne Plahl said. Plahl is a regular performer at the Pub who recently released the song "Colours" in response to the xenophobia of the Austrian far right. She didn't even notice the flag, she admits, until the June 17 shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, made the controversy world news. One of her bandmates sent her an article about the racist legacy of the flag, and they decided "it shouldn't be there any longer," so Plahl brought it up with the owner of the bar. It was gone by the morning.
Davis has confronted the Confederate flag on several occasions, but, like Plahl, chalks it up to a failed interpretation of American symbols, or, at worst, an ignorance of the history of the blues:
"They don't know what they're doing."
On the other hand, he's heard from some Germans that White people should be forbidden by law to play the blues, which to him is ridiculous.
"I'd say 'Okay, we invented the art of telling a story in this particular way. But it's still a story about people. And everybody has a story,'" he said.
A few weeks later, Davis emails me an invitation to "EBsolutely: The Concert" at Quasimodo jazz club. For a venue so famous, it's oddly difficult to find, but I finally spot a bright red marquee above a concrete stairwell heading underground. Inside the show has started. Davis, this time dressed in a red suit and white hat, is under the spotlight between his wife at the piano and his long-time bandmates on guitar and sax, dipping the microphone stand in his signature fashion as he sings. The over-30, fairly classy German audience is captivated.
When the band goes on break he disappears for a while then returns from a door beside the bar and urbanely makes his rounds to greet people he knows, stopping a few times to talk to fans he doesn't. It makes me think of something he told me at Uncle Sam's.
"Everybody's trying to get a little piece of that gold, you know?" Davis said. "What people don't understand is there's a lot of brass but just a little bit of gold. So I said a long time ago, if I could get enough of the brass that I can live decently, piss on the gold, I don't need it. I've seen so many of my contemporaries chasing the dream, chasing the dream, chasing the dream. I said, no, I'm going to go the other way. Just get established enough that I can make a living."
But I think he knew I'd see through the modesty. It was pretty obvious at Quasimodo that night that he'd found at least a little gold in Berlin.