If you don’t know (and if you didn’t take music journalism classes in college, you might not), Peter Guralnick is an important name in music journalism. Since the 1960s, the Boston-born Guralnick has been writing about the blues music that enchants him. He is the author of a two-volume Elvis Presley biography and several volumes tracing the lives and indelible influence of African American Blues musicians on modern music. He has covered and championed artists like Sam Cooke, Skip James, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, and many others. Several of his books have won Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame Awards, and his book Sweet Soul Music (1999) was named one of Pitchfork’s 60 Favorite Music Books.

The Mosesian Arts Center in Watertown thought highly enough of him that they held a gala performance honoring Guralnick with the 2018 Mosesian Award for the Arts in April. The gala was part of their ongoing Art and Soul exhibition, which shows portraits of legendary musicians done by local artists. Although there was music later in the evening, Peter Guralnick was the undoubted star.

The gala started with a discussion between Guralnick and Boston Globe art critic, Mark Feeney. They discussed Guralnick’s past and influences and love of baseball. His grandfather was an educator and sports enthusiast who took young Guralnick to Boston Braves’ games and supported him in everything he took on. Guralnick discussed his love of literature and how he was invited to speak with British novelist Henry Green at Green’s home while studying abroad. He told stories about Elvis’ wily and bombastic manager Colonel Tom Parker and how he got on the Presleys’ Christmas card mailing list. And, of course, they discussed blues music.

After a few brief speeches from Mosesian Arts Center staff, the award was given to Peter Guralnick. There were more speeches, a promotional video asking for donations, and it was revealed that the envelopes under our seats were there to house any donations.

And then it was time for some music.

The acts were all local bands playing well-executed blues. There was something inauthentic about the whole thing—especially because Guralnick’s career has been built on documenting an African American art form played by African American artists, and nearly all of the musicians were white (except for Boston blues guru, Barrence Whitfield, who was the highlight). The band, Giant Kings, were variously joined by vocalists Jesse Dee, Dennis Brennan, Andrea Gillis, and the aforementioned Whitfield. The band was simply smooth; these are instrumentalists so seasoned that they could improv with aplomb in their sleep. Dee was an engaging vocalist, although his voice is more reminiscent of Brett Dennen than other soul singers that come to mind. Brennan croo a gravelly voiced tune accompanied by only a guitarist and slide guitarist. Andrea Gillis was just fine—blues seemed to be out of her comfort zone. Whitfield, however, was a performer instead of just a vocalist. He engaged with the audience and with Peter Guralnick.

It was wonderful to see so many people out to celebrate a music journalist and historian. And if he was pleased with the performance, who am I to complain?

2 Responses

  1. Mike Denneen

    Hi Meaghan –

    Peter specifically requested most of the musicians who were onstage for the event, and he was thrilled when we were able to arrange for them to be there. If you have an issue with their race, you should take it up with Peter. I doubt you will.

    I promise you Peter’s more concerned with their musicianship than their race. And, by the way, you’ve completely missed the point of his writing.

    Sincerely,

    Mike Denneen
    Chair, Board of Directors
    Mosesian Center for the Arts

    Reply
    • Meaghan O'Brien
      Meaghan O'Brien

      Hi Mike,

      I’m sure Peter enjoyed the performance very much, and I did, too. Thank you for all of the work you did to honor music journalism. You all put together an enjoyable evening. Regardless of Peter’s intentions, I was invited to the event to review it based on my observations and the opinions I formed from them, which is what you saw in the article.

      There is a very long history in this country of white musicians coopting and appropriating Black art and calling it their own. The local music scene here does have a problem with inclusion, which you will find written about on this site along with other local publications and media outlets. The lineup could have been chosen by Peter and enjoyed by him and the musicians, but it’s still an entirely valid observation that Black musicians were largely absent. It’s a commentary on the inclusiveness of Boston music in general, as much as it was about your evening.

      And no, I won’t bother Peter with this. Again, I was making observations, not attacking Peter (who is a personal hero). I think he has done plenty for inclusion and celebration of Black music genres through his work, which I understood to be about celebrating African American musicians for their identity and their music. You’re more than welcome to send him this article if you see fit.

      Best,
      Meaghan

      Reply

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