How many times can a bluesman be inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame?
It depends on how you’re counting. In recent years there has been a conflict between the national nonprofit Blues Foundation, which runs the Blues Music Awards and the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, and the owners of blueshalloffame.com. Anyone, of course, can start a hall of fame. The conflict here is about the trademark, the domain name, and a certain amount of confusion for blues fans everywhere. First let’s get into what the two organizations are doing, and then we’ll see what’s at stake.
The Blues Foundation is a nonprofit organization with full time staff and a long history of serious work. Most fans will be familiar with the Blues Music Awards (formerly the WC Handy award); the foundation also runs the International Blues Challenge, bringing people from all around the world to Memphis every year to compete. For the past 34 years they have also been inducting musicians and other important blues people into their Blues Hall Of Fame. The nominating process is closed to the public and relies on a panel of “blues scholars” to determine annually who will be inducted. To date they have inducted 130 performers, averaging slightly less than four per year. The 2014 inductees are Big Jay McNeely, Eddie Shaw, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, R.L. Burnside, and Robert Pete Williams. The foundation has raised more than $2.5 million and is now constructing an actual bricks-and-mortar Hall Of Fame in Memphis, across the street from the National Civil Rights Museum.
By contrast, the Blues Hall of Fame at blueshalloffame.com is a “virtual eMuseum,” solely dedicated to inducting blues musicians. Founded in 1999 and run by Dan Marolt, it is not, strictly speaking, a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization, but operates under a “fiscal sponsorship” through United Charitable Programs, which allows the organization to take tax deductible donations without requiring the process of incorporating or having to disclose their financial statements. They take a different approach to inducting performers; as they say on their website, “we are big enough to hold every Blues Artist that you think should be inducted.” They offer different levels of honors: Legendary Blues Artist, Master Blues Artist, and Great Local Blues Artist. While the nominating process is open to the public, it is not clear what criteria distinguish each level of honor; however, they note that “this level system allows most performing Blues Artists to be included.”
And they hold true to that goal. The website lists 319 inductees in the “Legendary” and “Master” levels, including the fictional character “Joliet Jake Blues,” which is listed as a “promotional award.” Curiously his brother Elwood is omitted. While the formatting of their site makes a comprehensive count of the “Great Blues Artists” difficult, a quick estimate based on the promotional posters on their site indicates that they have inducted more than 359 artists in the last three years.
The stakes are actually pretty low. Not owning the domain blueshalloffame.com has not stopped the Blues Foundation from raising millions of dollars to support its international programs and put up a building. If anything, the question is one of language being watered down and a brand being diluted. Simply put, if a Hall of Fame includes everyone, is it still a Hall of Fame? It would seem that blueshalloffame.com is essentially handing out Blues Participation Awards (the BPAs?).
None of this is to say that local artists don’t deserve to be recognized, or that we shouldn’t support great blues bands wherever they are, famous or not. However, if every blues player in the country has a certificate on their wall, we will cease to think of the Blues Hall of Fame as being a meaningful honor; and fame would, on the face of it, seem to be a requirement for being enshrined in a Hall of Fame.
For a more in-depth look at the differences between the two organizations, with a particular focus on what it means to be a non-profit, check out this article.