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An interview with MaryBeth Hamilton, author of In Search of the Blues
May 26, 2012 9:31 AM   Subscribe

...The cult of and luster for country blues among these record collectors came about because not only were recordings by Charley Patton, Son House, Skip James and Robert Johnson not successfully sold to African Americans, but other record collectors were not interested in them either. There were so many collectors of New Orleans jazz that not only did the recordings became too expensive to collect, they also didn't want them -- they wanted to find something that required more energy to uncover, and more energy to actually appreciate. Anyone who has ever listened to Charley Patton knows that you have to learn how to listen to him, you have to really struggle -- it is a work of archeology, really, to make out what he is saying. It is powerful, and I don't want to deny its power, but you have to learn how to hear that power, and African Americans, when these records came out, didn't necessarily hear that.
From an interview with Marybeth Hamilton, author of In Search of the Blues

Here, for the well connected, can be found a 49.1 MB mp3 audio interview of Marybeth Hamilton. Which may very well be the one transcribed in the first link of this post. But I am too pressed for time this morning to wait to find out.

And here are two reviews of In Search of the Blues:

Pro: Anthony Heilbut

Con: Dave Marsh
posted by y2karl (13 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
Rather than potentially derail Trurl's most excellent Charley Patton post with my comments there, I decided to post this interview here.
posted by y2karl at 9:39 AM on May 26, 2012


What an interesting interview and a fantastic post; thanks, y2karl.

It's interesting that Dave Marsh invokes the image of Eric Clapton being inspired by Robert Johnson; of course, we later discovered that Clapton was and is something of a racist. I'm not sure whether that undermines Marsh's argument, but it seems worth mentioning.
posted by koeselitz at 10:08 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


(Okay, I am sure. It absolutely undermines Marsh's point. It makes clear the fact that the popularity of the delta blues was often filtered through a racist lens.)
posted by koeselitz at 10:12 AM on May 26, 2012


FWIW?

I have a vial of dirt from Robert Johnson's grave sitting next to my laptop right now.
posted by timsteil at 10:31 AM on May 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


koeselitz - I don't know. I mean, I know that I have an anti-Clapton bias to begin with, but if you look to his contemporaries, players like Peter Green or Michael Bloomfield, they had a reverence for the players themselves, for the men not just the music. It wasn't about some sort of musical colonialism - it was a kinship or a brotherhood (maaannnn). A love for the music, yes but also a respect for the musicians - as men, and as fellow humans who loved what they loved. Their approach was not to take that' treasure for their own, but to master their playing and in the course of that, to show their idols what they learned, and their respect for the all those involved.

as an aside, this isn't meant to be so man oriented, it just happened to be in this case - Dave Van Ronk would be an example of a blues/jazz player who had a tremendous respect for women artists, both past (Bessie Smith) and current (Odetta).
posted by horsemuth at 10:35 AM on May 26, 2012


One person I think about a lot in reading this interview, also, is Bix Biederbeck. Bix was important (I think) largely because he was the first instance I know of where a musician got into his music solely by listening to records alone in his room. But unlike the collectors whom Mary Beth Hamilton is discussing, Bix left his room and, although he was a bit of an introvert and it was a struggle for him, he forced himself to join that world and be part of the music. It makes it all the more inspiring to know how much easier it might have been for him to take the route of the armchair critic.
posted by koeselitz at 10:45 AM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well timed.....I just listened to WNYC's Soundcheck yesterday, which featured RadioLab's Jad Abumrad talking about his search for the truth about Robert Johnson and the crossroads. Pretty interesting. Thanks for posting this!
posted by New Old User at 10:47 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


mixed feelings about this - on the one hand, i see what the obscurantist mentality has done with several kinds of 60s music - obscure bands that never reached any success become collector's items because they're rare and they're different - never mind the difference is often that the bands weren't as good and the rarity is caused by lack of sales or a real record deal - from 1969 and 1970, there were a lot of american bands who were basically on the same path as grand funk railroad and never made it - and you can pay a 100 or more bucks to buy records that just aren't very good

i don't get that - i don't get the northern soul thing, either - most of those records sound like also-rans to me - something's missing that caused them to be ignored by the public

then, what you hear on the 60s oldies station is certainly not the mix of music you would have heard on a real top 40 station of that time

sure, this post is about delta blues music from a different time period, but it's interesting to see the same changes happening with the music i grew up with

where i have the problem with the idea that the delta blues were some kind of reconstruction caused by white folklorists and record collectors is - someone was listening to this music at the time, enough so that people like robert johnson and charlie patton could make money performing it and having it recorded - those records were being bought by someone

it's one thing to say that our picture of this music is an inaccurate one compared to what people were actually listening to at the time - but it's quite another thing to say that it wasn't a legitimate part of the scene - there was a community of musicians and an audience for them

it's kind of becoming a dated argument and subject anyway - a lot of today's rock music and players have pretty much thrown the blues out of rock - and some of them don't even seem to be aware it was ever there

music is poorer for that
posted by pyramid termite at 4:09 PM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


pyramid termite: "where i have the problem with the idea that the delta blues were some kind of reconstruction caused by white folklorists and record collectors is - someone was listening to this music at the time, enough so that people like robert johnson and charlie patton could make money performing it and having it recorded - those records were being bought by someone ... it's one thing to say that our picture of this music is an inaccurate one compared to what people were actually listening to at the time - but it's quite another thing to say that it wasn't a legitimate part of the scene - there was a community of musicians and an audience for them..."

i wonder about this. What I find odd about "Delta Blues" is the sort of lack of context it often seems to have about it - this makes it really very different from other genres in the music, to the point where I become skeptical about the genre as a classification at all. Ditto with "country blues," which the article talks about as well as being a highly sought-after collectible music years later, in the 1960s.

What I mean is - we hear about these individuals, Robert Johnson at the crossroads, Leadbelly in prison, et cetera. As you say, there were certainly people buying these records and watching performances at the time who were into the music - but that is curiously left out of the narrative. If anything, these guys are prized for their obscurity and for their primitivity - and that is somehow unsettling, in the way that Alan Lomax's hoarding of Leadbelly and his fear of recorded music "corrupting" Leadbelly is unsettling.

Which is why it's hard for me not to be skeptical of Delta Blues. The myth seems a bit like the myth of jazz being born in New Orleans, which turned out to be too perfect: in fact, as it has turned out, jazz was born in several different places all at once, a spontaneous coming-together of the music all over the South and even in the rest of the country. The myth of it being a local music that was popularized broadly outside its home turned out not to be true. Similarly, I think the early 20th century in America was a time of extraordinarily diverse creativity, and blues figured heavily into that; there were blues musicians from New Orleans and from Atlanta and from the Delta and from Chicago and many other places.

In the end, I don't know that Delta Blues was actually a thing of its own, a cohesive genre seen as such at the time. It seems more likely that it was a category drawn later to point up similarities between diverse artists with very different perspectives who probably didn't actually see such a deep kinship with each other musically. It's like "Krautrock," which is a fine genre I like very much, but which was certainly invented at least a decade after the fact by British music critics. The truth at the time was more complicated and less cohesive than the genre and the categorization might imply.
posted by koeselitz at 5:48 PM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


i don't get that - i don't get the northern soul thing, either

The northern soul thing was primarily about a club culture looking for music to dance to. They started dancing to well known stuff, but once that had all been consumed, the desire for new music with the same elements led people to start digging further afield.

most of those records sound like also-rans to me - something's missing that caused them to be ignored by the public

You're listening to the wrong records. With any genre, there's going to be dross, but a failure to chart has never been an indicator of a lack or quality in Northern Soul or in any other genre.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:25 AM on May 27, 2012


This article: How Sears, Roebuck & Co. midwifed the birth of the blues gives a more realistic picture of Delta Blues, without romanticizing it.

In the end, I don't know that Delta Blues was actually a thing of its own, a cohesive genre seen as such at the time.

Probably not. From the article: Audiences expected [the bluesman] to perform everything from traditional European social dances to blues and ragtime. He had to be able to provide enough rhythmic propulsion to move a dance floor one night and enough sensitivity to accompany storytelling ballads the next morning while busking on the street corner.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 6:49 AM on May 27, 2012


But unlike the collectors whom Mary Beth Hamilton is discussing, Bix left his room and, although he was a bit of an introvert and it was a struggle for him, he forced himself to join that world and be part of the music.

Ironically, Eric Clapton was one who spent 8 hours a day in his bedroom practicing guitar.

And, on a side note, I believe it was Johnny Shines who remarked on Robert Johnson's ability to hear what people were playing on guitar on a record. Someone could play a Lonnie Johnson record and, hours later, Robert Johnson could play his riffs note for note. A lot of his records are his takes on other people's songs -- Hellhound on My Trail is his version of Skip James's Devil Got My Woman, for example..

....talking about his search for the truth about Robert Johnson and the crossroads.

Oh, man, don't get me started on this.

They started dancing to well known stuff, but once that had all been consumed, the desire for new music with the same elements led people to start digging further afield.

And like the country blues collectors, whatever their motives might have been, they found gem after gem and brought these to the greater public. There are a lot of songs which we would have never heard, had someone not picked them out of a used record bin and put them on a compilation.

And,also, like the country blues collectors, they were prototypical hipsters, who, in matters of taste, didn't want, as the maxim of La Rochefoucauld goes, to sit behind anyone. Jealousy in the form of information snobbery is a very human emotion that helps drive our quest for the novel.

Audiences expected [the bluesman] to perform everything from traditional European social dances to blues and ragtime.

One of the sad facts of the blues revival is that no one ever bothered to record the likes of Skip James--just imagine Skip James's recording of Stardust, for example--or Mississippi John Hurt playing their entire repertoires.

Or, for that matter, Charley Patton, in his time, as the people who recorded pre-war blues in the 20s, 30s and 40s wanted original material on which they could claim the songwriting copyrights so as to collect the royalties for themselves.
posted by y2karl at 7:53 AM on May 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


where i have the problem with the idea that the delta blues were some kind of reconstruction caused by white folklorists and record collectors is - someone was listening to this music at the time, enough so that people like robert johnson and charlie patton could make money performing it and having it recorded - those records were being bought by someone

Whatever money Robert Johnson and Charley Patton may have made performing was a pittance and, in comparison to that, the money they made off any song they ever recorded was a pittance of a pittance. There were no royalties for such records and, if there were, there were so very few copies sold. .A hit for Johnson or Patton would be a record that sold a a very few thousand copies at most. The live audience for such music was extremely local as was the record buying public. And none of them thought of themselves as delta bluesmen. Any concept of any regional style of pre-war blues was not one made by either the musicians themselves or their original core audiences. Such always came long after the fact.
posted by y2karl at 8:16 PM on June 2, 2012


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