What is the true source of inspiration behind an artist’s art? The quest to answer this question is as ageless as creativity itself, and answers continue to be as enigmatic and multilayered as the art artists create.
In the last decade, online platforms such as SoundCloud and YouTube have allowed anyone with internet access to share their artistry with the world. While these platforms are easily available for consumption, the algorithms powering these platforms favor songs or videos with larger quantities of plays or views, feeding into the perception millions of plays or views deem an artist more valid or real than artists with a few hundred plays or views. However, the best of our culture is rarely mass distributed or forced fed to us by marketing masterminds in a board room.
So, who is Belton Sutherland? While his “Blues #2” has 1.2 million views on Youtube, a success for any artist, nothing on Belton Sutherland can be found anywhere on the internet. That is, other from music and documentary forums filled with questions posed by his small and curious following – possibly the same questions you may have after watching his artistry. It is clear from the minute crowdsourced information available on the enigma who ranks high on YouTube’s Southern Blues algorithm – the world will never be lucky enough to know who Belton Sutherland was, akin to many other OG black bluesmen of the South.
Reacting positively to art that has been consumed and deemed as worthy by others reaffirms the commercial music industry’s mission to create valid and authentic artistry via money, energy and careful planning of commercial art architects. This “high art” motif of privileged culture dictating the consumption and conscious aesthetic framework dates back millennia to the traditions of artistic intellect and aesthetics of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. It is no mistake Greek tragedies and subjects matter concerning gods, demigods and royal houses are taught in high school english and drama classes today, rather than, for example, ancient Greek milkmaid oral stories. The high culture of Greece deemed dramatic theater with subject matter relevant to high culture interests as valid and worthy of consumption, enabling this artform to survive the tests of time.
In 2017, Belton Sutherland is seen as just a relic, a marginalized voice from a place most people are lucky to have never experienced: the Jim Crow South. His struggle as a poor black man in the Jim Crow South is a defining part of his artistry, and it is unjust to ignore his artistry apart from this. Belton Sutherland’s voice is a portal not only into his emotions and perceptions of the world shaped by this struggle, but into the millions who identified with this struggle and were marginalized by the separate and unequal society of this time. Maybe those at the Lincoln Center would have never booked Belton Sutherland for a show, or he would have never signed a deal with Columbia Records because his artistry is not considered “high art,” but, his culture was and is important. His culture was and is as worthy and important as other cultures.
To understand Belton Sutherland, one must understand his videos found on YouTube are excerpts from folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax’s The Land Where Blues Began. Alan Lomax captured the entirety of available footage in existence on Belton Sutherland during his quest to share culture from trivialized folk cultures of the world. Belton’s voice, whether he would have liked it or not, speaks for more than just himself, as he was one of the few black bluesmen of the Jim Crow South Lomax was able to document. His voice and his artistry provides insight into a time and place from a perspective that is rarely shared.
Maybe some artists seek to enjoy the pleasures of fame – “the successes money, the cars, the clothes and the hoes.” If these artists don’t get signed to a label, if these artists don’t hit hundreds of thousands of plays and views, if these artists don’t get mad likes on their Instagrams, they are likely to give up their artistry all together. We are not interested in these artists. They are what “high art,” commercial art, has evolved into. An artist whose soul is the very essence of their art, an artist who does art for themselves, an artist who does not care if they are as good as anyone else or an artist who realizes they are just as good as anyone else – that is our artist.
Belton Sutherland is our artist. Belton and the Blues healed pain created by the Jim Crow South. Belton and the Blues nurtured a broken heart. Belton and the Blues energized his brothers and made the time go by a little faster as they hammered rivets in the railroad together on beat. Belton not only sang the blues, he was the blues and the blues was him. Belton Sutherland’s story, and the marginalized cultures he represents, inspire S3R to continue Alan Lomax’s legacy of giving marginalized cultures and voices a platform to share their story and their perception of the world. We can create a culture that stops neglecting the emotions and the perceptions of the often forgotten cultures.