“Blues Foundation— have y’all lost your minds?”
It was a shot heard around the blues world. A cry for change being echoed throughout society.
“It has come to my attention that a winner of the Blues Foundation Award for Best Blues Something or Other proudly displayed a Confederate Flag on his social media pages, drove around with it on his fucking car.”
No less a person than Muddy Waters’ daughter, Mercy Morganfield, was speaking out on Facebook. She didn’t name the offender Kenny Wane Shepherd by name. “When this was pointed out to the Blues Foundation the official statement is ‘We are not a political organization,’ ” she wrote.
“Huh? What do you all think the Blues is at its core? At its foundational roots? If not political? “This type of shit is not just pissing off black people; it is pissing off a lot of white people who understand the blues at a deeper level than a white man growling out what he thinks sounds like Howlin’ Wolf.
“The problem with blk (sic.) in the blues is the wyte (sic.) guys can always find that one blk (sic.) guy who agrees to turn the other cheek.”
Two days after Mercy spoke her mind on Facebook, The Blues Foundation had removed Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s song from its Blues Music Awards contention, fired his father from its board of directors and issued a statement condemning racism in general and specifically in the Foundation.
Mercy explained to me the sequence of events the day she wrote her Facebook entry. “When I woke up that morning, I wrote it in 20 minutes. Then I went on and cleaned up the house and did whatever.”
Two hours later, it had been shared over 50 times. “That is when I said, ‘Oh, shit!’ So, it hit a nerve. By the time I (went) on Facebook, the next day, it had been shared over 600 times. There was no name mentioned. It was like I just poured out everything in my heart that I saw happening in the blues and the blues industry. It wasn’t even about the Blues Foundation. It was that the Blues Foundation has lost its motherfuckin’ mind. The people in the industry can’t speak out on race because they’re blackballed. Why aren’t you out there descending on them pretty much?
“I just went through like I was talking to a girlfriend. You don’t follow me on Facebook, but I bounce a lot of shit like that, and it’s not just about the blues. It’s just about social reactions in the United States, period. Or the environment or the coronavirus.
“I went through and berated every damn body. I gave white people in the industry a piece of my mind. I gave blacks in the industry a piece of my mind. I gave the Blues Foundation a piece of my mind. I gave the Confederate flag a piece of my mind.
“I’m very, very open about what I say. I’m very open, and that’s why I have the following because I am unfiltered, and since then I’ve had people come on my post. Now, I can’t respond because I’m banned from Facebook for 30 days, and no alga rhythm picked me up. So, someone made a call because 600 people shared it, and they made Facebook take it down, but people knew that I was going to be banned.
“I had one guy who went in and screen shot it and then retyped it word for word, and put it on reddit. So, they didn’t change a thing, whoever it was, bless his heart. And since then, the blues community came on my page to tell me my father would be ashamed of me. I’m a disgrace. ‘You’re a lying bitch. How dare you come after Kenny Wayne Shepherd?’
“If you looked at my post, I never, never even mentioned Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and I went from the Confederate flag to the blackballing of artists to saying, ‘Hey, everybody should play the blues. Everybody should listen.’ I had a guy come on my post and said, ‘White people shouldn’t play the blues.’ It was an Asian fellow, and I said, ‘Don’t say that. Everybody can play the blues. Anybody can play, enjoy, listen to the blues. They can sing it out of tune. I don’t care.’
“The problem is ownership. You own the genre when you have all the connections with all of the festivals. Blues is live music. When you have connections with all festivals and the venues and you allow some black people to be in it and disallow other people, then that’s ownership. It’s not appropriation. It’s ownership.
“So, when you look at someone like Kenny Wayne Shepherd, they made an award called rock blues award. Where’s the (whole) blues award? Where’s the rap blues award? You know you are catering to a particular audience, and there’s no way you become 99.9% white without it being orchestrated, without it being something in the system that makes it that way.”
Among the 600 comments on Mercy’s Facebook page were these.
Kenny Wayne Shepherd: “Years ago I put that car in permanent storage and some time ago, I made the decision to permanently cover the flag on my car because it was completely against my values and offensive to the African American community which created the music I love so much, and I apologize to anyone that I have unintentionally hurt because of it. I want to make something very clear and unequivocal; I condemn and stand in complete opposition to all forms of racism and oppression and always have.”
Mikki Mulvehill, veteran blues manager (Luther Allison, Doug MacLeod): “Kenny Wayne Shepherd is NOT a racist period. The car has been in storage since 2015, there has never been a photo on Kenny’s page showing the flag on the car – ever, the car yes-the flag no. The guitar was a gift and was NEVER played, never been on stage. He has NEVER sold Merch with the confederate flag on it. He has never condoned oppression or racism in any way and respects all people. Many people commenting on these threads don’t know Kenny, have never met Kenny and certainly cannot speak to his beliefs. Have we learned nothing from the last several years about the damage misinformation on social media can do?”
Adam Gussow, legendary blues educator, musician and author: “Shepherd, a native of Shreveport, Louisiana, and a collector of muscle cars, has a little Confederate flag problem — although the precise dimensions of the problem remain in dispute. Back in 2005, he’d commissioned a replica of the General Lee, the iconic orange Dodge Challenger festooned with a huge rooftop Confederate flag that was the centerpiece of The Dukes of Hazzard (1979–1985), a hugely successful post-Civil Rights era TV sitcom. Along with Smokey and the Bandit (1977), the show helped redeem the white South by reconstructing white Southern masculinity into the figure of the fun-loving good ol’ boy — a ‘trouble-making’ but harmless rogue who represented a stark departure from the violently racist and unregenerate poor white lynch-mobber that had long dominated the American imagination.”
Billy Cox, Jimi Hendrix’s bass player: “We know that he (Kenny Wayne Shepherd) does not deserve the ‘cross-town traffic’ that he is caught in. Let us not overlook that this controversy speaks to a BIGGER ISSUE and that is the dismantling of our country’s history. I believe, to avoid and to correct previous mistakes, we must see it all. History must be comprehensive, although most times it has not been. WE OVERLY KNOW THAT…. and…that is why we speak now. To dismantle and to do away with, could make it easier to later claim certain events or atrocities never happened; because, there would be no reminders. Show the history, the good, bad and ugly, warts and all. It can serve as a reminder for us to avoid the pitfalls of human nature and the knowledge that we are obligated to pass on….All else, Kenny Wayne Shepherd should be STONE FREE to do as he pleases.”
So, who is Mercy Morganfield? She’s Muddy Waters’ daughter, brought up in poverty by her maternal grandmother.
“I was one child of six children of my mom’s, and when my mom died at 33, we all went to live with my grandmother. I went to school in clothes that somebody else in school had given to Goodwill, and when it came out that I was Muddy Waters’ daughter, it was crazy in the light of my extreme poverty. There were five other kids.”
Mercy paid her own way through undergraduate school, graduating third in her class magna cum laude. She earned a master’s degree while an intern writing front page articles for The Chicago Defender, The Windy City’s respected black newspaper. Her beat was Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition and The Guardian Angels.
“Daddy had a third-grade education. One of the “games” he played with me when I came home from college, he would have somebody go to the bank and get pile of real money, and he would put a pile in front of me and a pile in front of him, and he would count it. He was intelligent, but there was a fine line you walked in those days.
“He was also friends with the Chess brothers (his bosses at Chess Records). They were friends. Or they had as much friendship as a white man and a black man in an unbalanced society could have back then.” But Muddy told his daughter, “(Leonard) might never record me again. He might stiff me.”
Today, Mercy Morganfield is the executor of her father’s estate, works for Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, and is a former member of the board of directors at the Blues Foundation where she coordinated activities with her own Muddy Waters Foundation.
“We weren’t doing a lot with it (The Muddy Waters Foundation). We were (coordinating) with The Blues Foundation which is how I got involved in the Blues Foundation, and we wanted to do Blues in the Schools. That would be a good platform, but running a foundation and running an estate is a lot of work, and doing both of them is a lot of work, So, we have a board of directors is a lot of work, the Blues Foundation and we were working with the Chicago Blues Fest, trying to get enough money to give to the Blues Foundation for the Blues in The Schools Program which is basically their blues camp, but after I joined the board, I found out the Blues Camp is primarily white kids, almost 90%.
“I resigned from the Blues Foundation maybe a week or so before the Kenny Wayne Shepherd thing came up. Anyway, I don’t know Kenny Wayne Shepherd from Adam. If he came up and slapped me, I wouldn’t know who he was.
“I don’t want separate systems. I don’t want a separate black blues society and a separate white blues society. My father would never have wanted that.”
At the end of an hour and a half interview, Mercy said to me, “I hope you’ll report fairly on me ’cause I was nervous about talking to a white guy from a music publication because, to be honest with you, a lot of people have not been very nice to me. Although, out of the 600 shares, I’d say 70% are from white people. So, there are people out there that get it, and I have since called Patty (Patty Wilson Aden, President and CEO of the Blues Foundation). I still call Michael (Freeman, Board Chairman). I know he’s mad at me. I know they’re mad. That’ll be ok when the swelling goes down. If we had waited for them to make the changes, we’d be having this discussion 10 years from now.”
Of her dad, Mercy says:
“(He was) born into the most oppressive world anyone can imagine, and if you look at that, Muddy Waters IS the American dream.”
*Feature image credit: Paul Natkin/Getty