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Did The Rolling Stones Steal The Blues?

07/12/2016 11:51 GMT | Updated 06/12/2017 10:12 GMT

52 years have elapsed between The Rolling Stones' eponymous first album, and their latest offering Blue And Lonesome. They've endured through decades of an ever-changing musical and cultural landscape. Unlike so many of their hard-partying contemporaries, they've not only lived to tell their tales (it's almost become a cliché to suggest that Richards will probably outlive us all), but they're showing no signs of slowing down following a historic South American tour earlier this year and the release of their best album in decades. But despite having been the world's biggest rock band for over half a century, The Rolling Stones are today still dogged by questions about whether they deserve their status as music's monoliths, or whether their entire career has been founded on the appropriation of the innovativeness of black, American blues musicians.

Accusations levied against the Rolling Stones that they've made fortunes from ripping-off and commercialising the African-American blues sound have unsurprisingly emerged in recent weeks due to the fact that Blue and Lonesome is a blues covers album, the first such in their discography. And while the phrase "cultural appropriation", which you'll find in many reviews of the latest album, is certainly part of the 21st century lexical zeitgeist, the concept, and these criticisms of the Stones are by no means new. Back in 1965, the black poet Leroi Jones said: "What is the difference between Beatles, Stones etc, and Minstrelsy? Minstrels never convinced anybody they were black, either." Some fifty years later in an interview in Rolling Stone Magazine, Richards still inexplicably tries to assure us, and himself, that he's "as black as the ace of fucking spades, man". At best this is naïve and ill-informed, at worst it's downright moronic and, to many, offensive.

Anyone arguing that the Rolling Stones aren't guilty of cultural appropriation because they're "black in spirit" or that "music is colour-blind" is largely missing the point of this sensitive issue. That said, it seems to me at least that there is nothing malicious or mendacious about the Rolling Stones' use of the sounds pioneered by black blues musicians, nor is there any sense of aggressive cultural imperialism that the term "appropriation" implies. Jagger and Richards grew up listening to American blues musicians; they idolised the likes of B.B King, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and Howlin' Wolf, and they've always openly acknowledged that their own music is indebted to these blues greats. They showed nothing but genuine reverence to those that influenced them, and by talking about their heroes and inviting them on tour, the Stones helped downtrodden black blues musicians to obtain the recognition and relative commercial success they so merited. In one famous incident in 1965, the band stipulated that they'd only play on the American show Shindig! if they could be supported by Howlin' Wolf.

Whilst it's almost impossible to ignore the uncomfortable narrative of the young white English saviours giving their patronage to older black men, it's a sad fact that back then this was the only hope many black musicians had to succeed; Muddy Waters himself had apparently been hired to paint, rather than play in recording studios before the Stones reenergised the blues genre and found a new audience for it in the mid-60s. As Chicago blues icon Buddy Guy perhaps said it best, "They were putting the music where we never had put it before, and they just let the world know who we were".

In the same Rolling Stone interview in which Richards claimed he's one of "the brothers", Jagger rather more tactfully spoke of the "exchange" between white and black musicians, suggesting a sense of this reciprocity rather than any kind of exploitation of the blues players. At a time of entrenched racial segregation and oppression, The Rolling Stones' interest in blues and admiration for its pioneers was a symbol of music's ability to unify people from ostensibly polarised backgrounds. The Rolling Stones learned from, adopted and revised the styles of the black blues masters, and in turn they were able to give the latter a platform unlike one they had ever been granted before. And though you can understand the frustrations of those such as Leroi Jones that a white band playing music from a historically black genre had been more financially and critically successful than black musicians, the label of minstrelsy seems unwarranted to me.

There is nothing gimmicky or parodic about The Rolling Stones' playing the blues; not back in the 1960s, nor today with their new album, has there been any indication that their music belittles or undermines the profound heritage of black blues music. This isn't some kitschy pop group who've released a blues album on a whim to make headlines and money, but a band with a sincere love of the genre. Nor are the Stones' own songs carbon copies of blues standards. Their music is suffused with guitar riffs and vocal effects that have been clearly influenced by black musicians, but there's a definite Rolling Stones sound that is unmistakably theirs. And for every bluesy "Carol" (a Chuck Berry cover) , "Brown Sugar" and "Can't You Hear Me Knocking", there's a ballad like "Moonlight Mile", "Angie" or "Wild Horses" that's closer to country than guitar-led blues. If you want to hear a band unashamedly mimic the blues then look up Led Zeppelin.

It is sometimes hard to judge what counts as positive, educated influence, and what strays into the territory of appropriation, but it is an extremely important distinction to make. We must be wary of using the term cultural appropriation too liberally and to the point that artists fear embracing other backgrounds and we find ourselves with parochial art that can be neatly demarcated. Equally, we should be quick to reprimand those who complacently lift from other cultures for mere commercial or entertainment purposes. But so long as it's done respectfully, with awareness and sensitivity, cultural interchange and fusion is at the heart of what makes art vital, captivating and able to continually evolve and adapt. I think The Rolling Stones succeeded in that regard, just don't let Keith Richards try to explain it.