Electronic Theses and Dissertations

Date of Award

2018

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

M.A. in Southern Studies

Department

Southern Studies

First Advisor

Adam Gussow

Second Advisor

Jessie Wilkerson

Third Advisor

Darren E. Grem

Abstract

This thesis interrogates the marketing strategies of the Oxford, Mississippi-based record label Fat Possum, which was founded in the early 1990s by Matthew Johnson with the goal of recording obscure hill country blues artists. Fat Possum gained recognition for its raw-sounding recordings of bluesmen, including R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Cedell Davis, and T-Model Ford, as well as its irreverent marketing techniques. Adopting the tagline “not the same old blues crap,” Fat Possum asserted that its blues were both different from and superior to all other blues music. This thesis argues that while Fat Possum claimed to be a disruptive force in the blues world, the label actually repeated marketing strategies that have been used to sell the blues since the genre was first sold during the 1920s race records era. The label’s use of edgy, punk and hiphop influenced aesthetics made its work seem daring and new, and were perfectly targeted towards an audience of young music consumers in the 1990s who were fans of grunge and rap but perhaps unfamiliar with blues music. A closer look at these records reveals that the imagery and rhetoric found on Fat Possum’s albums is riddled with troubling stereotypes about black men from the rural South. Fat Possum seized on the black badman, a character that has served various purposes in African American folklore and culture since slavery, and leveraged this trope to sell its bluesmen using a minstrel caricature of the uneducated, violent, oppressed, oversexed black man. Matthew Johnson’s role as a white male label head selling black music also echoes blues history. Using Grace Hale’s term “rebel persona,” I analyze how Johnson fits into a lineage with other white men who have shaped our understandings of blues music, including Alan Lomax, Harry Smith, and James McKune. An analysis of Fat Possum reveals that contemporary audiences are still being sold blues music with the same racist tropes that were used to market blues during the race records era, and that much of the “same old blues crap” is indeed present in Fat Possum’s work.

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