February-10th-2007, 10:02 PM
Fairy tales of happy slaves
I'm most interested to hear what our blues aficianados think of this new book and its revisionist interpretaton, or spin, on blues history.
from The Telegraph
Fairy tales of happy slaves
Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 04/02/2007
Mick Brown reviews In Search of the Blues: Black Voices, White Visions by Marybeth Hamilton
Of all the candidates for the title of father of the Delta Blues, James McKune is probably the most improbable. A social isolate, closeted homosexual and alcoholic (and white, to boot), McKune could neither sing nor play an instrument. Born around 1910, he spent much of his working life as a re-write man on the New York Times, until, undone by drink, he drifted into an itinerant life, before finally being murdered by a stranger in a welfare hotel.
But it was McKune, according to Marybeth Hamilton's provocatively entertaining thesis, who, as much as anyone, was responsible for shaping our understanding of the blues.
McKune was an obsessive collector of rare recordings the more obscure the better a connoisseur who spent his life scavenging in junk-shops, but whose collection, stashed in his room at the YMCA, contained only some 300 discs, none of them having cost him more than $3 (it was a point of principle) but all made priceless by his blessing. Pieces of the true cross.
It was McKune who in 1944 unearthed a recording made in 1929 by an obscure Mississippi blues singer named Charlie Patton, and anointed Patton as the true exemplar of "real Negro blues" an idiom characterised by its sparse music, oblique lyrics and voices as guttural and unpolished as possible. The only appropriate response to Patton, McKune once wrote, was to listen "silently. In awe."
With the benediction of McKune, and his small coterie of fellow-collectors, who called themselves the Blues Mafia, Patton, and his fellow Mississippi singers Skip James, Son House and Robert Johnson came to exemplify the romantic notion of the bluesman as primitive, tormented genius a vision that would inform the next generation of music writers, among them the dean of critics, Greil Marcus, and musicians such as Eric Clapton.
In Search of the Blues is less a history of the music itself although Hamilton does that job superbly than of how our understanding of it has been irrevocably shaped by what she describes as "an emotional attachment to racial difference" not least an enduring enchantment with the singular power of black singers to attain a primal intensity generally held to be beyond the reach of whites, an infatuation with notions of "authenticity" of both experience and expression.
Conventional history has it that W C Handy, the writer, publisher and self-styled "father of the blues" first heard the blues in a railroad station in Tutwiler, Mississippi in 1895, when in Handy's words "a lean loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me as I slept", plaintively wailing "Goin' where the Southern cross the Dog".
But it was not until 1920 that the first blues recording, Crazy Blues by Mamie Smith and her Hot Jazz Titans, appeared, selling 75,000 copies in the first month of its release.
While black audiences apparently embraced the new technology of recording with unmitigated zeal, of more interest to white observers and enthusiasts was the quest to capture the "pure" blues, uncorrupted by modernity and commercialism.
To the ethnographers and folklorists who first began to collect and chronicle blues songs in the early part of the 20th century, the blues were regarded as anthropological evidence of the black man's true nature, "what he is rather than what he appears to be" but also what the white man wanted him to be.
Dorothy Scarborough, a teacher, writer and the grandchild of slave owners, travelled through the South in search of music that would confirm her belief in the Negro's "highest gift, his spontaneity". But her researches were confined largely to white plantation-owners, fondly remembering the songs and dances they had learnt from their kindly black "aunties and uncles" as children, enshrining what Scarborough called "the lighter, happier side of slavery" or as the black historian W E B DuBois put it, "the fairy tale of a happy slave civilisation".
John Lomax, who "discovered" Leadbelly in the Angola Penitentiary, paraded him as an example of "primitive purity" but quickly became disenchanted when Leadbelly began to demand a fair share of his earnings. To Lomax's son Alan, and his friends in the Left-wing Popular Front, Leadbelly was the proletarian folk artist, a symbol of the black man's struggle against suffering and oppression. Assiduously researched and beautifully written, what this book reminds us is that the blues has always meant something quite different to white audiences than to black ones the catalyst for a relationship that awkwardly commingles reverence and exploitation, love and condescension.
When the last surviving Mississippi bluesmen emerged from obscurity and in most cases retirement in the 1960s, their audience consisted almost entirely of white college students, enthralled by the notion of the bluesman as the last pure symbol of the romantic outsider and the more obscure and decrepit the better. As the singer and guitarist Lonnie Johnson put it when approached by one white critic for an interview: "Are you another of those guys who wants to put crutches under my ass?" La plus ηa change
from The Observer
Marybeth Hamilton's seminal work In Search of the Blues records the birth of the blues, the most powerful and lasting influence on modern music, says Caspar Llewellyn Smith
Sunday January 14, 2007
In Search of the Blues: Black Voices, White Visions
by Marybeth Hamilton
Cape £12.99, pp246
The idea that the Mississippi Delta is the birthplace of the blues haunts the history of popular music. The alluvial soil brought forth cotton and slavery, and from despair was wrenched the howling moan of Charley Patton, Son House and the damned Robert Johnson. Even before their time - the Twenties and Thirties - the archetype existed.
It was at a Delta railhead that the blues were first documented; in his 1941 autobiography, composer WC Handy recalled being woken from a reverie one night in Tutwiler in 1903: 'A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me as I slept,' he wrote. 'His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar ... his song struck me instantly ... the weirdest music I had ever heard.'
Never mind that when the first commercial blues record was released in 1920, the singer was a vaudeville practitioner from Cincinnati (and a woman to boot). 'Crazy Blues' by Mamie Smith sold 75,000 copies in its first month of release and began its own craze, as labels such as Paramount discovered an audience of black Americans and flooded the market with 'race' recordings. Nor, as Marybeth Hamilton notes in her iconoclastic study, did the Delta bluesmen even enjoy much of a local audience. Even in and around Clarksdale, jukeboxes played the hits, which meant acts such as Louis Jordan and Count Basie, Fats Waller and Duke Ellington. Patton's recordings sold only moderately in his lifetime and those of his followers barely at all.
It is not the history of blues performers in which Hamilton is interested, nor in their prehistory - the theory, for instance, that the blues have their origins in the Islamic music of west and central Africa. But between 1890 and 1930, she observes, ethnographers studying Native American song made some 14,000 field recordings using primitive phonograph cylinders. By contrast, no one much bothered with African-American voices, but Hamilton discovers that the Georgia-born sociologist Howard Odum might have been the first person ever to record the blues - 40 miles east of the Delta in Lafayette County in 1907, 13 years before Mamie Smith's studio date.
Travelling the back roads, Odum heard 'music physicianers', 'musicianers' and 'songsters', singing songs made up of a single line, repeated two or three times, and he persuaded them to sing into his phonograph in return for a token sum. But tantalisingly, Odum seems to have lost or discarded his cylinders at some point in the Twenties.
Even so, it is not evident that he captured the kind of performances that later aficionados would have cherished - the blues in their rawest form, before commercial processes contaminated the results. Odum saw himself as a scientist and conceived of his phonograph as an instrument of science; it was insight into the potentiality of the 'Negro race' that he really sought. But his subjects saw the machine as a wonder in front of which they might show off and they sang 'ragtimes', 'coon songs' and the latest 'hits', which, he lamented, replaced 'the simpler Negro melodies' that Odum had sought.
It is Odum and fellow travellers such as writer Dorothy Scarborough, folklorist John Lomax and a group of collectors who named themselves the Blues Mafia who are the subjects of In Search of the Blues. Its central conceit is that 'the Delta blues were "discovered" - or, if you like, invented - as the culmination of a quest that began in the early 20th century, as white men and women, unsettled by the phenomenal success of race records set out in search of black voices that they heard as uncorrupted and pure'. It is a picaresque journey, ranging from Mississippi to Manhattan, mirroring the journey that Lomax took with the ex-con Huddie Ledbetter in the Thirties.
Ledbetter, or Leadbelly as he became known throughout the world, killed a man in Texas and was sent to the Central State Prison Farm in 1918. There he came to the attention of the state governor, who told his friend Dorothy Scarborough that the inmate had sung to him seeking clemency. The daughter of a Confederate veteran from Louisiana, Scarborough had studied at Oxford University and Columbia, and was living in New York before she launched a four-year journey back through the South to collect black folk songs in 1921. Captivated by an image of the 'old-time Negro', she believed the music passed down by black Southerners reflected 'the lighter, happier side of slavery'; indeed, that the songs had first been appropriated from the white plantation owners, rather than springing from their own culture.
Scarborough opted not to meet Leadbelly, relying, as in other instances, on the state governor's recollections for her 1925 book On the Trail of Negro Folk Songs. Lomax, father to the more celebrated folklorist, Alan, their relationship always full of ambiguities, acted differently. He met Leadbelly when the singer was incarcerated in the Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana 10 years later.
Lomax was not only amazed by Leadbelly's facility as a performer, he valued his 'primitive purity'; jail had inoculated him from contamination with the modern world. The 65-year-old Mississippian also relied upon his assistance on his journey through six Southern states in the autumn of 1933, when he sought to record other black voices. But Leadbelly came to chafe at Lomax's demands, telling him finally: 'I'm tired of lookin' at niggers in the penitentshuh. I wish we could go somewheres else.'
'Somewheres' turned out to be New York, where in 1935, Lomax presented Leadbelly in concert, advertising him to the public as something akin to a noble savage. Crowds flocked, but the singer refused to accept his role and, rather than simply sing his prison songs, he started playing new hits that he heard, whether the country songs of Gene Autry or Tin Pan Alley standards.
In New York three decades later, the blues were reborn, when Columbia issued Robert Johnson's recordings, and singers such as Skip James, assumed dead, were rediscovered and brought before new audiences. Key to the blues revival were the activities of the Blues Mafia, a group of collectors who, from the mid-Forties onwards, congregated around Indian Joe's second-hand record store in Manhattan and the mysterious figure of James McKune.
McKune was the record collector nonpareil, the model for the Steve Buscemi character in Terry Zwigoff's film Ghost World and everyone with a spot of Nick Hornby in them. In 1944, through a contact or from one of the second-hand stores that he frequented, he chanced upon a battered copy of Paramount disc serial number 13110, 'Some These Days I'll Be Gone' by Charley Patton, an entirely neglected genius about whom he knew nothing. McKune was transfixed, and passed his passion on to his acolytes, who went on to promote the idea of the country blues - the blues of the Mississippi Delta - to a much wider public. Fans included the young Eric Clapton in Britain and the similarly influential US guitarist John Fahey, who, in turn, was responsible for the 2001 release of Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues, a monumental seven-disc boxed set tribute to Charley Patton, hailed by the likes of the White Stripes' Jack White.
If the Blues Mafia has predecessors, they were Frederic Ramsey, Charles Edward Smith and William Russell, three friends who had rediscovered Jelly Roll Morton in the late Thirties as part of a quest of their own - to identify the origins of jazz. In Search of the Blues sketches their story, too, including their pursuit of a rumoured box of wax-cylinder recordings made in New Orleans in the mid-1890s by Buddy Bolden. Smith even tracked down a woman who confessed she had owned just such a box - the mythic cornet player might be heard at last! - but the cylinders had gathered dust in her living room for 40 years and 12 months previously she had thrown them out.
It is in these detective stories - these searches for obscure recordings and pursuits of an idealised past - that Marybeth Hamilton proves herself a fine and sensitive detective. The author spent her teenage years in San Diego and was a fan of prototype punks the New York Dolls. She came to the blues through the writings of critic Greil Marcus, in whose seminal Mystery Train, Robert Johnson was fancifully identified as rock'n'roll's progenitor. It took Hamilton 15 years to get around to listening to Johnson's recordings - and he only ever did commit 29 songs to vinyl, before his death at the probable age of 27 in 1938. (The story is that he was poisoned; an article in the British Medical Journal last year also posited Marfan's syndrome - a connective tissue disorder, symptoms of which, such as spindly fingers and limbs, Johnson seemed to share.) When the author did listen, she confesses: 'I heard very little, just a guitar, a keening vocal and a lot of surface noise' and certainly not the tale of existential anguish that others identified.
Her brief but provocative book doesn't aim to question the artistic accomplishments of the spectral Delta bluesmen, whose recordings might all too easily have slipped from view. But it shakes the foundation myth of so much in music that followed, as well as explaining a great deal about what it is to be a record collector, itself a dying calling in the age of the iPod, when every kind of music from every age is digitally accessible.
· Caspar Llewellyn Smith is editor of Observer Music Monthly
February-12th-2007, 04:11 AM
Thanks, Steve. That looks like a book to avoid at all costs. I am not about to put myself through the aggrevation of reading it simply for the purpose of understanding how somebody came up with such fucked up ideas about the blues.
The author is evidently not a musician. Anybody who thinks that Charlie Patton is a simplistic primitive musician
should try to duplicate what he plays on records. And nobody could ever duplicate his voice.
This seems to be the general trend in new books about jazz and blues: emphasis on the role of white fans, producers, critics, etc. on what became widely heard and celebrated, on the one hand, and a psychoanalysis of white fascination with everything "black" (particularly with regard to sexuality) as molding the attitudes of fans, producers, and critics, on the other.
It is not that there is no scholarly merit in these types of studies. But the end result is sometimes disparaging of the greatness of the music and the artists who made it, i.e. these studies admit an interpretation that complex racial attitudes, and not genuine artistic merit, are responsible for the degree that blues and jazz are celebrated throughout the world. Classical music snobs must eat this stuff up.
Last edited by John L; February-12th-2007 at 07:41 AM.
February-12th-2007, 07:54 AM
Don't blame the messenger, John. She's saying that it was Lomax and his ilk who came up with the "primitive and pure" nonsense.
It is worth remembering that musical history in the 20th Century was shaped by the people who owned the recording facilities.
February-12th-2007, 08:04 AM
Yeah, echoing Dr. Dave, that was the impression I got from Steve's post, that the issue was more the white producers molding history into a form that fit their own beliefs and stereotypes, ignoring what might have been the truth of the matter. On the face of it, that would seem to fit in comfortably with all manner of revisionist history, not just the blues "tradition".
February-12th-2007, 08:19 AM
Maybe you guys are right, and I am jumping the gun.
From what is posted, however, I get a distinct impression of a suggestion that Charlie Patton, Skip James, and Robert Johnson are a bunch of primitive and second rate musicians who are celebrated today only because of complex white attitudes about "primal blackness."
February-12th-2007, 03:18 PM
Maybe John L is right.
Originally Posted by Squaredancecalling Steve
In any event, this woman has no ears.