Join 3,558 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


O Black and Unknown Bards - Among Other Things, Regarding The White Invention of The Blues
August 6, 2009 11:08 AM   Subscribe

...The narrative of the blues got hijacked by rock ’n’ roll, which rode a wave of youth consumers to global domination. Back behind the split, there was something else: a deeper, riper source. Many people who have written about this body of music have noticed it. Robert Palmer called it Deep Blues. We’re talking about strains within strains, sure, but listen to something like Ishman Bracey’s ''Woman Woman Blues,'' his tattered yet somehow impeccable falsetto when he sings, ''She got coal-black curly hair.'' Songs like that were not made for dancing. Not even for singing along. They were made for listening. For grown-ups. They were chamber compositions. Listen to Blind Willie Johnson’s "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.'' It has no words. It’s hummed by a blind preacher incapable of playing an impure note on the guitar. We have to go against our training here and suspend anthropological thinking; it doesn’t serve at these strata. The noble ambition not to be the kind of people who unwittingly fetishize and exoticize black or poor-white folk poverty has allowed us to remain the kind of people who don’t stop to wonder whether the serious treatment of certain folk forms as essentially high- or higher-art forms might have originated with the folk themselves.
From Unknown Bards: The blues becomes apparent to itself by one John Jeremiah Sullivan. I came across it while browsing Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers On The Albums That Changed Their Lives. For Sullivan, that album was American Primitive, Vol. II: Pre-War Revenants (1897 - 1939), which is my favorite CD of the year. Which came out in 2005 while I just got around to buying it this year. Foolish me. It is a piece of art in itself in every respect--all CDs should have such production values.

In it, Sullivan recounts how in 1997 or 1998, he--as a junior editor at the Oxford American, fact checking an article by Greil Marcus--and John Fahey, then yet another recluse in a welfare hotel in Salem, Oregon attempted to decipher the lyrics of Geeshie Wiley's Last Kind Word Blues, which most of you may know from the soundtrack of Terry Zwigoff's documentary film Crumb. There are three or so copies and he, R. Crumb, would have one. Well, among many other things, at least one hearing of Last Kind Words is required for your Cultural Literacy Certificate. As is at least one hearing of I Got Your Ice Cold Nugrape. NuGrape - now available again at Fred Meyers and QFC here in Seattle.

And here is a discussion of the lively reader response in Harper's to his interpetation of Wiley's lyric.

Not wanting to spend money on assorted essays on the Smiths, Beastie Boys and Jay Z, I read Unknown Bards standing up at Borders Books. An ethically suspect practice, no doubt--as is posting the article entire in pdf form. Or in a series of comments at a thread at Jazzcorner's Speakeasy. Well, the scrupulous may pay for it at Harper's where it originally ran.

Unknown Bards discusses the CD American Primitives, Vol. II and two must read books, In Search of the Blues: The White Invention of Black Music by Marybeth Hamilton and Escaping The Delta: Robert Johnson, and the Invention of the Blues by Elijah Wald.


Oh, and for the guitar players out there, here, from Guitar Seminars Dot Com, is a thread with a rough tab of Last Kind Word Blues by one Mr. Mando.

For what it's worth, Marybeth Hamilton's overall thesis about the white invention of the blues sounds about right to me--and I was fascinated by her story of James McKune, the Father of Us All, to whom, more than any other person, we owe the most for the consensual reality we inhabit, and cultural construct we share, when we hear the word 'blues.'
...decades ago it was a lodging house run by the Williamsburg branch of the YMCA, and it was here, in a single room on the uppermost floor one unknowable day in the mid-1950s, that the Delta blues was born.

Born, that is, in the imagination of one of the YMCA’s long-term residents, a record collector named James McKune. A journalist turned postal worker, reclusive, homosexual and alcoholic, McKune conducted his life as a long downward spiral: moving into the Y around 1940, losing job after job as his drinking intensified, and eventually ending up on the streets, where he died at the hands of a violent stranger in 1971. Yet during his years at the Y he scavenged junk shops and used record stores to build up an extraordinary collection of blues 78s. In time that collection became the driving force behind the 1960s blues revival, when white Americans and Europeans discovered - one might say invented - a tradition that they called the Delta blues, constructed out of scraps of old recordings that African-Americans had long left behind.
Oh, and for what it's worth, the title Unknown Bards comes from the James Weldon Johnson poem O Black and Unknown Bards.
posted by y2karl (50 comments total) 99 users marked this as a favorite

 
Great post, y2karl--lots to dig into when I'm not at work.

If you like Escaping the Delta, you might also enjoy Wald's How The Beatles Destroyed Rock & Roll.
posted by box at 11:14 AM on August 6, 2009


Holy crap. Great post. I need more hours in a day to dig through all of this!
posted by strixus at 11:24 AM on August 6, 2009


I'm not sure what it says that I have never heard of twenty of our best contemporary writers (or at least not the ones mentioned in the anthology's blurb). I do know, however, what it says that someone wrote of somebody's "headbanging passion for Pearl Jam's Ten" with a straight face, and that is that that anthology is totally not metal.

(Luckily, that is not the subject of the FPP.)
posted by kittens for breakfast at 11:28 AM on August 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


Those American Primitive discs are indeed great -- there are a lot of wonderful collections of really old, really scratchy (the way the good lord intended), really formative recordings out there, but these dig up some obscuro gems.
posted by FelliniBlank at 11:30 AM on August 6, 2009


::clicks "more inside"::

::stares in astonishment::

Well, my evening is blown. The end of the work day can't come soon enough.
posted by EvaDestruction at 11:33 AM on August 6, 2009


To hell with the laundry. This post just became my to-do list.
posted by padraigin at 11:43 AM on August 6, 2009


Thank you. So. So. Much.
posted by asfuller at 11:50 AM on August 6, 2009


Awesome post. Thank you. Also thanks to box for the reminder that I need to seek out the new Elijah Wald book.
posted by blucevalo at 11:52 AM on August 6, 2009


I feel I should clarify my remark about being in agreement with Marybeth Hamilton's contention that blues was a white invention. While I think there is a great deal of merit to her contentions, I also am in agreement with the sentiments Sullivan expressed in the quote starting the post: that this was serious grown up music to the people who bought the records first.

And the collectors, whatever their intentions, managed to save and preserve the music--
“The serious blues people are less than ten,” one who contributed to Pre-War Revenants told me. “Country, seven. Jazz, maybe fifteen. Most are to one degree or another sociopathic.” Mainly what they do is nurse decades-old grudges. A terrifically complicated bunch of people, but, for reasons perhaps not totally scrutable even to themselves, they have protected this music from time and indifference.
-- and for that, we owe them, despite all their quirks and vanities.
posted by y2karl at 11:56 AM on August 6, 2009


holy shit. leave it to y2karl to put an editor's note in brackets commenting on his own text in the alt-text of a hyperlink in an fpp like this. and for it to say "true dat, imho." seriously excellent fpp, sir. hot fuck.
posted by shmegegge at 11:58 AM on August 6, 2009


the sun is out, it's almost Friday, and there's a great, meaty, blues-laden post filled with goodness from y2karl ... some days are just damn fine days.
posted by madamjujujive at 12:09 PM on August 6, 2009


Man, it's a good day when y2karl makes a music post to Mefi. Thank you.
posted by fourcheesemac at 12:15 PM on August 6, 2009


Another great post y2karl; whether its blues or human rights or the imbecility of Iraq you are out there in a league of your own. Your erudition and thoroughness should be a guideline to us all. Many Thanks.
posted by adamvasco at 12:22 PM on August 6, 2009


If you like the Blues, you'll *LOVE* BluesHammer!
posted by Artw at 12:39 PM on August 6, 2009


y2karl, you feed a hungry man...

Many thanks.
posted by Mental Wimp at 12:40 PM on August 6, 2009


Wow. Thanks.

How did you get those little mouseover pop-up thingies containing copy from the linked pages to work?
posted by notyou at 12:50 PM on August 6, 2009


There's an album on Impulse! titled Live At Birdland by the John Coltrane Quartet. It includes a version of a song Coltrane had previously recorded in the studio, I Want To Talk About You.

The live version features a long saxophone cadenza, Coltrane playing his beautiful beeps, boops, & tweets; sounding just like a lover, incoherent with adoration, falling all over him- or herself while trying to talk about "you."

On the LP, at the end of the song, there's a bit of applause & then the voice of an audience member—a plummy, tony, Ivy League white boy's voice, reminds me of the voice of a snobbish friend of mine—solemnly & smugly informing his date that what they had just heard was assuredly, in his judgement, a "Good ballad."

Whenever I come across something pompous & portentous about soulful art, like the opening quote above, I just shiver with embarrassment. Probably because I've been the plummy, tony, white boy many times myself, & maybe because if, instead of being struck dumb, you're able to make a comment in the ain't-I-cool spirit of "Good ballad," it seems likely you haven't in fact heard a thing.

I was tickled to find the comment had been edited out of the CD version of Live At Birdland.
posted by Forrest Greene at 12:53 PM on August 6, 2009


How did you get those little mouseover pop-up thingies containing copy from the linked pages to work?

When you make a link, in the comment box, it looks like this:

[a href=""]linked word or text[/a]

--only with <> corner brackets rather than the [ ] perpendicular ones. So, make a space after the last quote in [a href="" and write title="" before the end corner bracket, as in title="">. (I use the perpendicular brackets here because if I used the corner brackets, they would become invisible on the page. Such is HTML.)

Put your text in between the quotes. Never use double quotes with " double quotes, instead type in two consecutive ' single quotes. If you write them in Notepad, they look like ' ' instead of ". In the comment box, two single quotes and one double quote are identical. There's a limit on how much text you can put in before things go crazy--not much longer than what I have put in here.

I fured this out by looking at a MetaFilter page in View Source.

As the great quonsar once said, 'View Source is your friend.' Count on it.
posted by y2karl at 1:18 PM on August 6, 2009 [4 favorites]


Never use double quotes within the " double quotes after title=, is how it should read....
posted by y2karl at 1:21 PM on August 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


Whenever I come across something pompous & portentous about soulful art, like the opening quote above, I just shiver with embarrassment.

I do the same thing whenever I encounter someone passing judgment on a 6000-word essay when they've only read a few sentences.
posted by neroli at 1:28 PM on August 6, 2009


And sometimes I just laugh & ignore it.
posted by Forrest Greene at 1:35 PM on August 6, 2009


Amazing post. So many links I want to click, I don't know where to start. Will explore further, but I think I have a new must-buy CD. Thanks.
posted by threeturtles at 1:46 PM on August 6, 2009


...because if, instead of being struck dumb, you're able to make a comment in the ain't-I-cool spirit of "Good ballad," it seems likely you haven't in fact heard a thing.

And sometimes I just laugh & ignore it.

How those two talk to each other.
posted by y2karl at 1:50 PM on August 6, 2009


Isn't it something?

The CD sounds interesting. I hadn't heard of it.
posted by Forrest Greene at 1:55 PM on August 6, 2009


y2jarl: I've just been listening to the revenat CD... have you listened carefully to the first verse of "The Shrimp Man" by Old Mose? The verse seems to go "Shrimp is the thing / Jews love best... Bring 'em live shrimp / they help themself"

How did he know?
posted by zaelic at 2:08 PM on August 6, 2009


> Man, it's a good day when y2karl makes a music post to Mefi. Thank you.

Pretty much what I was going to say. Your title texts are worth more than most people's posts. Thanks much for this, and I look forward to exploring it.
posted by languagehat at 2:26 PM on August 6, 2009


"Shrimp is the thing / Jews love best... Bring 'em live shrimp / they help themself"

Hey! That ain't kosher, man.
posted by y2karl at 2:49 PM on August 6, 2009


The idea that the "Delta Blues" was the construct of white scholars and record collectors, reminds me of the theory that the Indian religion we now know as "Hinduism" was similarly the construct of white, imperialist British scholars and administrators. The process seems to have been the similar in both cases, with a powerful, self-aware, but non-literate tradition being collated and codified by renegade overlords with an agenda.
posted by Faze at 3:45 PM on August 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


Great post. I had the privilege of working at the Oxford American as they put together their 2001 Music Issue (this was just before they went out of business for the first time). It was an eye-opening experience; I've never been exposed to so many different artists all at once. For every track that wound up on the CD, fifty more were considered. It was a better than any education I ever got in a classroom, that's for sure.
posted by Rangeboy at 4:01 PM on August 6, 2009


I've missed these posts y2karl
posted by wheelieman at 5:22 PM on August 6, 2009


'Bolted meal'? Bollocks. 'Beaujolais'.

Brilliant post. Thank you.
posted by motty at 5:32 PM on August 6, 2009


What's crazy is how many of these songs were recorded in Grafton, Wisconsin a place far far removed from the Mississippi delta.
posted by afu at 7:36 PM on August 6, 2009


Website of the Grafton Blues Association -- going strong.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:48 PM on August 6, 2009


What's crazy is how many of these songs were recorded in Grafton, Wisconsin

Not crazy at all: the Paramount recordings were what these days would be called "content," intended to be played on the phonographs sold by the Wisconsin Chair Factory to black folk in the South. They were analogous to games for the Wii or Playstation; the more there were, the more "boxes" could be sold.

These "race" records sold like hot cakes in the late 20s, all but exclusively to blacks. After 1929, and the collapse of the "Roaring 20s" boom and the onset of the Great Depression, the market for race records all but dried up. Robert Johnson, who flourished in the late 30s--the time of the swing craze--, sold a minuscule number of records compared to the paramount stars like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, and Blind Blake.

Madame Hamilton's thesis--with all due respect to the redoubtable y2karl--is a crock. While certain white folks may have fetishized blues performers, the music itself originated in the frontier region of post-Reconstruction, newly Jim Crow Mississippi at the dawn of the 20th century. It existed independently of white collectors and cross-pollenated with the jazz arising in post-Reconstruction, newly Jim Crow Louisiana. How? Railroads and phonograph records.
posted by rdone at 8:22 PM on August 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh, it's all so simple and sweepingly generalized--it's the technology, stupid. As if.

Certain white folks fetishizing black music goes all the way back to the first steps African slaves took on these shores. Think blackface minstrelsy, think ragtime and coon songs, think patting juba, cakewalks, tap dance and marching bands playing the Second Line on the way back from the cemetery. American musical culture is a giant braided Ouroboros of white and black--Hepcats, hipsters, whiggers, White Negroes, white people making themselves right by making other white people wrong by way of sweeping pronouncements on how only they have their fingers on the pulse of the nature, culture and music of black folk that goes back to the very foundation of this settler nation. Whites define and blacks invent, recreatr the secret handshake and talking drums over and over. When we're finally hep, they're hip. We're finally hip, they're hip hop. And this push me pull you is how we conquer the world. They're rockin' in the free world, rapping in China, playing Heavy Metal in Baghdad and all goes back to slavery and slavery by another name. Our sin, our shame, our crime, our culture is our gift to all nations. Irony abounds.

The noble ambition not to be the kind of people who unwittingly fetishize and exoticize black or poor-white folk poverty has allowed us to remain the kind of people who don’t stop to wonder whether the serious treatment of certain folk forms as essentially high- or higher-art forms might have originated with the folk themselves.

True that. Or so I think at this particular moment. Otherwise, I'm all over the map on this in head and heart and make no claim to any expertise beyond that gained from reading album liner notes and Creem magazine. And so forth, et cetera.
posted by y2karl at 9:20 PM on August 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


playing Heavy Metal in Baghdad

Have you guys noticed that since the start of the Iraq war, Arab-influenced motifs have been finding their way into all sorts of US pop music? Or at least the hip-hop heavy stuff they play at my local gym, anyway.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:37 AM on August 7, 2009


Also, I have played that Nugrape track about a dozen times today. For that alone, much thanks.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:42 AM on August 7, 2009


Sister Mary has a beau
Says he's crazy, loves her so
Buys a Nugrape every day
Know he's bound to win that way

I got your ice-cold Nugrape
Turning someone on to I Got Your Ice Cold NuGrape was high on my agenda and right now, I standing on the podium on the USS Abraham Lincoln, with a big banner behind me reading Mission Accomplished. Those lyrics, that quirky harmony, their gospel fervor and that stately turn of the 19th century parlor piano--oh, the whole is so much greater than the sum of the parts. Simply sublime.

If I didn't dislike grape soda so, I'd run out to the Broadway Market QFC and buy me a case. And it appears on a Jonathan Richman concert bootleg, no less. Will wonders never cease ? And what was the story of that song ? Was it a bought commercial or a volunteer tribute ? I want to believe it's the latter.

Not that any of this has anything to do with Black and Unknown Bards, but still... There is for me something so above and beyond about that song. American Primitive indeed.
posted by y2karl at 2:03 AM on August 7, 2009


And don't forget the total awesome kick ass cornucopia of Oz's own NuGrape Records, where the first track on the sound files page is none other than Geeshie Wiley's Last Kind Word Blues. Will the Circle Be Unbroken or what ? Fugeddabout your Mayan calendar WooWoo 2012, yobbo--we on NuGrape Apocalypso Time.
posted by y2karl at 2:25 AM on August 7, 2009


American musical culture is a giant braided Ouroboros of white and black

This statement is poetically and actually true. It is absolutely preposterous to say, however, that "whites invented the blues." Whites damn sure exploited the original blues artists but the record producers and distributors made the blues immortal. Marshall Chess did not tell McKinley Morganfield to call himself "Muddy Waters" or tell him, "gee, boy, why don't you play a Telecaster with a bottleneck just like you did down home?" He just recorded what Muddy played in the Southside Chicago bars--and made a shitload of money off it.

Various white inventors electrified the Spanish guitar--Loar, Rickenbacher, Bigsby, Les Paul, Leo Fender--but black musicians--Charlie Christian, Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Minnie, T-Bone Walker, and Muddy Waters, to name just a few-- made it the voice of the urban blues. Ironically, it was the availability of mail order guitars that made the original "country" blues possible, and the evolution of the early blues music directly parallels the availability of inexpensive factory-made guitars. Was this all part of whites inventing the blues?

One cannot examine the history of blues or jazz music without coming to grips with the overwhelming impact of the phonograph on the spread of the music. Before the phonograph, one heard music in person or "read" it from sheet music. Inexpensive but durable phonograph records and inexpensive phonographs enabled millions of people to hear music they never possibly could have heard in person. It is not only the "technology, stupid"--but one would have to be deliberately stupid to ignore that popular music in America propagated like wildfire with the advent of the phonograph and the radio. Paramount Records or Graphanola--Mr. Chicken, meet Mr. Egg. As to the Nugrape song--this was a radio advertising jingle for a regional Southern soft drink, not what you could call high art under any circumstances. Idiosyncratic and entertaining, sure, but nothing that anyone would take seriously for a minute.

Elijah Wald knows perfectly well that Robert Johnson's music was highly derivative of other people's recordings. Johnson's unforgettable voice and apt guitar accompaniments are what caused him to be dubbed "King of the Delta Blues" in the early 60s--as well as the fact that pristine copies of his record masters existed that enabled the owners of his recordings to transfer them without noise to LP--unlike the cheap Paramount discs, whose original masters were lost. Johnson was no more than a scufflin' road musician working the juke joints of the Mississippi Delta, and not the "King" of anything. That Columbia Records so successfully promoted him as "King" was not the invention of the blues--just another moneymaking opportunity.

White folk did not invent the blues. Black folk invented the blues. White folks popularized the blues among white folks, who were smart enough to appreciate that it was authentic and powerful music created for themselves by an unjustly oppressed people in order to transcend the misery of the Jim Crow South. Even if the segregationist culture that gave rise to the raunchy "hip hop" of its day is no more, there is still no shortage of misery to go around. As long as the misery of the human condition persists--as long as anyone loses his or her "baby" to another--the blues will never die.
posted by rdone at 7:26 AM on August 7, 2009


This post was awesome. So was the previous one ( Caravaggio Rembrandt ) incidentally. As far as I'm concerned if someone is able to listen to Skip James or Geechie Wiley and not be blown away by it I would consider they're tastes quite suspect.
posted by Hickeystudio at 7:30 AM on August 7, 2009


As to the Nugrape song--this was a radio advertising jingle for a regional Southern soft drink, not what you could call high art under any circumstances. Idiosyncratic and entertaining, sure, but nothing that anyone would take seriously for a minute.

"Gentlemen, we've found him!"

"No!"

"Are you serious?"

"Yes... I'm quite certain."

"My God."

"There he is. The man who determines what art is."
posted by shii at 8:10 AM on August 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


Excuse me, but an ... authentic and powerful music created for themselves by an unjustly oppressed people in order to transcend the misery of the Jim Crow South --there's your white folk's invention of the musical category of the blues, romanticized, exoticized and mish mashed voice of the heart in a heartless land people's received opinion what is folk music right there in that sentence. The blues will never die. Um, no, it's dead, Jim, just like Dixieland and ragtime. The peformers have passed on, the core audience passed on, it is all chamber music now played by people who learned it as chamber music. If it is not dead, it is on do not resucitate life support. It is a cliche, a genre, a repertory. But not a living breathing music made by young men and women growing up as neo-slave peasantry in an oppressive agrarian culture. We were talking about Delta blues here. That was what Hamilton and Wald were on about. And there is an argument to be made that Delta blues was a white invention and that no Delta bluesman thought Gee, I am a Delta bluesman. And so on, and so on.
posted by y2karl at 9:18 AM on August 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


I hope you are not suggesting that life was just a bowl of cherries in Jim Crow Mississippi; ain't nothin' romantic about being sent to convict labor on Parchman Farm for being "uppity". . . But I'm not going to change your mind about the blues being "dead" or "chamber music:" I merely suggest that the blues has evolved, just as it was evolving "back in the day" in its Delta home.

From Lost Delta Found, Afro-American musicologist John W. Work III's unpublished report on his field work in Coahoma County, Mississippi in 1942-3. At p. 118-119, here's a pertinent bit of Work's biographical sketch of Muddy Waters:

"McKinley "Muddy Water" [sic] Morganfield, one of the Delta's most popular guitarists, was born in Rolling Fork, MS, in 1913, but his family moved shorty after to the Stovall Plantation in Coahoma County where he has since lived.

His musical career began with a harmonica, but after listening to "Son" House play the guitar, there developed within him an ambition he could not restrain to play that instrument. Under "Son" Sims instruction and on his instrument he learned and mastered the rudiments of guitar playing. Acquiring an instrument, Muddy Water practiced endlessly. The first piece he remembers playing with any large degree of satisfaction was [Leroy Carr's 1928] "How Long Blues." He copied the style of the guitarists to whom he listened constantly on phonograph records. A particular favorite was Robert Johnson whose playing he studied assiduously. Many of the features of his playing were learned from Johnson's records. Most of Muddy Water's repertory has been learned from listening to jukeboxes."

Treating the evolution of the blues from the Delta as deconstructive lit crit ignores the messy reality of the fact that the Worm Ouroboros of 20th Century American Music has been fed with other peoples' recordings. One may concede that Mr. Morganfield probably never considered himself a "Delta Bluesman." But he was--and remained all his life--a blues man from the Delta. And it is undeniable that a few remarkable musicians from the Delta--Patton, House, Johnson, Waters--have inspired generations of young guitarists around the world to play just like them. I prefer to think of such recreation as living history, a spiritual hat tip to the memory of brilliant artists who managed to flourish against all odds.
posted by rdone at 2:36 PM on August 7, 2009


There's a whole literature on these issues. What doesn't change no matter which side is winning this decade is the creative genius of certain musicians.

Thank you again for a kickass post, y2karl.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:43 PM on August 7, 2009


I hope you are not suggesting that life was just a bowl of cherries in Jim Crow Mississippi; ain't nothin' romantic about being sent to convict labor on Parchman Farm for being "uppity"....

Yes, as this comment demonstrates, I hope I am not, either. "Ain't nothin' romantic..." Sho-huff, ain't, cap'n.

It is absolutely preposterous to say, however, that "whites invented the blues." Whites damn sure exploited the original blues artists but the record producers and distributors made the blues immortal. Marshall Chess did not tell McKinley Morganfield to call himself "Muddy Waters" or tell him, "gee, boy, why don't you play a Telecaster with a bottleneck just like you did down home?"

This is what is called a straw man argument, a form of creative wilfull misunderstanding. First of all, we were talking about pre-war, as in World War II, blues, not post war, involving no Telecasters. No one linked suggested that Marshall Chess or Henry Spiers, to be historically accurate, told anyone what to play. But, what the hey, stuff that dummy full of straw.

I believe what Marybeth Hamilton was about was how the choices and tastes of a small group of record collectors, who in the person of James McKune, chose very early on to regard certain 78 race records as deep, as high art, and that the social construct which they cooperatively created became the recieved wisdom of the rock'n roll generation. Because James McKune thought someone like Charley Patton was an especially great artist, later generations of record collectors and the muscians they knew came to appreciate Charley Patton as a great artist.

You write ...it is undeniable that a few remarkable musicians from the Delta--Patton, House, Johnson, Waters--have inspired generations of young guitarists around the world to play just like them.

Well, duh. But the living music played by the original artists for the original core audience is dead. The core audience is dead. Save for the people in Missisiippi who go to jukes, what jukes are left, and listen to various varieties of Southern Soul music, that is, music in the style of Southern Soul Music of the Stax Volt, Hi Records, Muscle Shoals sort and call that music blues. But structurally, generically, that music is not blues. Not the blues of HCarley Patton, SKip James, Robert Johnson or Son House. It is not played by people like young Muddy Waters of Stovall Plantation for an audience of share cropping field hands.

I prefer to think of such recreation as living history, a spiritual hat tip to the memory of brilliant artists who managed to flourish against all odds.

A bunch of white kids playing in the style of Bo Carter, Robert Johson, Skip James, Blind Blake may be a spiritual hat tip or may be representative of something more complex. It is not a bunch of people playing a living music. You can not step into the same river twice. It's a different river and we are different men and women than the folks who bought the 78s. The people, who, a few decades later, began to collect these 78s secod hand, assigned values and structures to the mass of the recordings they had, discussed it among themselves, traded stories they had heard or made up and voila" May I introduce the Delta blues. None of the musicians who recorded 78 records ever thought of themselves as Delta musicians but the record collectors did and because the record collectors did, so do we.

And, too, because they preserved so many records, as in the case of American Primitive II, a collection of the rarest songs by the most obscure artists, we truly are in their debt. So, once again, no one directed any blues musicians to play with a bottleneck. To suggest that anyone did is pitiful straw manners.

As is the suggestion that the invention of the blues as Marybeth Hamilton spoke of it had anything to any deconstructive literary theory. That was in the version of the article you wrote in your head.

But I do tend to agree with her overall thesis that our collective tastes were formed by the choices made by record collectors in what record they preserved, which artist they found deepest, that all these choices became what we understood as blues.

Treating the evolution of the blues from the Delta as deconstructive lit crit ignores the messy reality of the fact that the Worm Ouroboros of 20th Century American Music has been fed with other peoples' recordings.

I repeat: No one in the works linked or discussed treated the evolution of the blues as deconstructive lit crit. No one. People listened to records and thought them worthy or unworthy. No one made music in a vacuum. One could easily bring up another oversimplification about how southern musicians, black and white, all played the pop music of the day, hillbillies played blues and bluesmen sang blue yodels. All that is discussed in asides in Sullivan's essay. But to elevate that one fact to be the paramount and most necessary reason the blues became what it became, well, that's crazy talk. Sullivan, Hamilton, Wald all treat the subject as complex and worthy of discussion. They didn't breeze in spouting cliches about a music born of noble suffering. (Now there is a statment inventing the blues. Whatever blues was, it was not a music of misery born from the suffering of a brutally oppressed minority. Oh, you say you didn't really say that, you feel you are being creatively misunderstood ? Get in line, I was here first.)

One may concede that Mr. Morganfield probably never considered himself a "Delta Bluesman."

The nobility of that logically necessary concession is touching.

But he was--and remained all his life--a blues man from the Delta.

And your point is ? It really is hard to tell what, exactly. .

He was and remained all his life and blues man from the Delta. Yet I would contend that 'blues man' is a social costruct as much as Delta bluesman is a social construct and bothcategory names were invented by record collectors. White people did not invent the music--well, duh--they invented the way we understand the music, invented it in an attempt to explain what they thought was great about it. They thought it was great music but there was no way to make that argument using the terminlogy of classical Western high art orchestral music. So, they collectively constructed a concept of Delta blues to explain why it was great and deep music. o deconstr5uction needed.

As fior blues being an authentic and powerful music created for themselves by an unjustly oppressed people in order to transcend the misery of the Jim Crow South, on one hand, well, duh.

As for Muddy Waters never considering himself to be a Delta bluesman but you can't deny he came from the Delta, your point is exactly what ? That he came from the Delta so the music he played was Delta Blues. Hamilton's would be, in part, that a bunch of people collected records and noted similarities in style among people who came from certain areas, discussed the similarities and differences among musicians from an area, created a system that rated some musicians above others and designated certain songs as masterpieces, hence creating a genre afer the fact. There is something to that argument in my mind.

I do know what another opinion of mine is: an authentic and powerful music created by an unjustly oppressed people is a folkmusic cliche, received opinion, smacking of 1930s leftist notions of folk musicas being the people's music, which was a pure form of music untainted by the capitalist commerce of the record companies, the sort of music Odum and Lomax went looking for. Yet, as noted more than once in the articles linked, the commercial capitalist record companies did a far better job of recording the revenants, the phantoms, the pre-blues, the one of a kind, the truly unusal, because the owners of race record companies had no idea of what was popular among blacks, what their preferences were, what moved them. The record company executives had no idea. And, as a result, they recorded thousands of records of obscure persons and regional styles we might not ever have otherwsie heard of. Sullivan makes such a point over and over.

And lastly, as noted above in a clarification, while I agree witn Marybeth Hamilton that much of the consensual social reality, the common understanding of what blues is, and especially delta blues, was created by the people who did the most to preserve it--the record collectors, who did so in a near total rejection of the taint of modern culture they shared, I agreed with what Sullivan said:
Marybeth Hamilton, in her not unsympathetic autopsy of James McKune’s mania, comes dangerously close to suggesting that McKune was the first person to hear Skip James as we hear him, as a profound artist. But Skip James was the first person to hear Skip James that way. The anonymous African-American people described in Wald’s book, sitting on the floor of a house in Tennessee and weeping while Robert Johnson sang “Come On in My Kitchen”— they were the first people to hear the country blues that way. White men “rediscovered” the blues, fine. We’re talking about the complications of that at last. Let’s not go crazy and say they invented it, or accidentally credit their “visions” with too much power. That would be counterproductive, a final insult even.
You come in to refute the concept you invented--that white people created the music as it happened and its history, somehow, when what Hamilton is talking about is how the canon of what is good and bad, what is high or low art in the genre called blues, that that was a complex social construct created by a small group of record collectors that people later listening received without question about from where the concepts came. People like you, for instance. You seem to be arguing that blues is a music of suffering transmuted into art. I think that a hoary cliche ilike that is 9s an example of a white perosn receiving an opinion about the blues as the music of cultural suffering and political struggle. While I feel that all connected to the word blues is an endlessly fascinating complex subject that can not be reduced to oversimplifications about records and railroads. You may have a point but in your sweepig refutations of straw man arguments you put into the mute mouths of folks by which you evidently did not read a word written, it seemed more about making yourself right by making me wrong.


Whiple you insinuate that I don't have a clue about the blues in the context of any historical facts of the south. As can be easily demonstrated by examining my history here.

The blues--a subject where white people have been making other white people wrong since 1927. And you would claim it was not invented by white people. Now that is ironic.
posted by y2karl at 4:53 AM on August 8, 2009 [3 favorites]


Smackdown accomplished.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:10 AM on August 8, 2009


Actually, I wouldn't say so. Pride entered the equation and hurt pride at that. The creative misunderstanding iand high handed dismissals are on all sides, and, for a fact, rdone is quite right about the importance of recordings. And railroadsdo figure in there somewhere. But just how important is a matter of opinion and there I suppose we differ. Or do not, in real life. But online, it is so easy to put words in the mouth or fingers, to be more exact, of another and then refutorize that poor soul at our ease and convenience.

For me, Sullivan is ambivalent about Hamilton, thinks she takes it a bit too far but, all the same, finds the story of McKune fascinating. He was a great influence on the tastes of the collectors and scholars that followed him, he was a mentor to people like Dick Spottswood and Joe Bussard. And lived a squalid life that ended up on the street. Control normals did not become obsessive 78 collectors, that seems a safe to say. They are quirky bunch, that is for sure--I am told that Gayle Dean Wardlow lives with his mother and keeps his Patton 78s under his bed, in a room stuffed with boxes full of 78s. And they had a profound influence on our collective musical tastes, an influence far beyond their power and number--that is what I took away from Hamilton's article and Sullivan's review, in part, of her book.

Sullivan's sentence quoted above, that [t]he noble ambition not to be the kind of people who unwittingly fetishize and exoticize black or poor-white folk poverty has allowed us to remain the kind of people who don’t stop to wonder whether the serious treatment of certain folk forms as essentially high- or higher-art forms might have originated with the folk themselves, was his response to Hamilton when she took it too far in his estimation.

I would agree and said so above. But I think Hamilton and Wald are on to something. We project the contents of our unconcious, collective and personal, upon the exotic other and end up describing our dreams and nightmares.

I actually know s msn in real life who thinkd that what has destoyed the blues and black culture is that black people in South are no field hands and no longer live in an agrarian lmileu. I am not kidding. That is so wacky to me--he manages to ignore the resurrection of slavery in the form of vagrancy laws and conscript labor described in Slavery By Another Name. ignores the terror of lynchings and the demise of Reconstruction and one could get quite quite harsh on his case for some of the things he has said. But then again, when he released and re-rereleased CDs of music he recorded in the process of befriending survivng pre-war blues singers he met in the South, no one ever cut the musicians or their heirs as sweet a deal on percentages, royalties and residuals. He may be a crank but he's a hell of a nice guy underneath it all and has been scrupulously fair to the muscians her recorded.

So we who know him roll our eyes when he begins to get on his high horse, tell him not to go there and head him off at the verbal past. And yet we all respect and admire and appreciate him for the kindnesses to he showed to the singers he met, inteviewed and recorded. I doubt that Furry Lewis, Booker White or Henry Townsend ever got as sweet a deal from any other record company who recorded them. I am well aware of the ironies involved for a white boy to be lost in the blues and am fascinated, attracted, repelled and all over the map over all the considerations that arise. Rdone and I may have gotten our foolish pride on but, upon reflection, and off our high horses, I doubt we are that much in disagreement on the whole topic. That is, when we get over the false pride, the creative misunderstandings and the putting of words into one another's other mouth and fingers.

Or so I should hope.
posted by y2karl at 5:24 PM on August 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


Blacks Whites and Blues is a very good book I read many years ago which does an excellent job of describing how blacks and whites worked together, trading off styles over the decades to form what would be called the blues. The whole "who stole what from whom" line of arguments are neatly punctured. Check it out.
posted by telstar at 3:29 AM on August 12, 2009


I read the first three of that Studio Vista series when they came out, which was--yikes! Forty years ago, if my memory serves me well, and it most assuredly does not. It seemed like someone's master's or doctoral thesis as they all seemed to be in that Studio Vista series and seemed good at the time. I don't remember the neatly punctured list of who stole what from who part, though, but as I recall being so dicey, I can't say. And puncturing anything from back tehn would seem like shooting fish in a barrel to us all now.

I had Savannah Syncopators and Recording the Blues and of the three, Recording the Blues has held up the best in my recollection--and Savanna Syncopators the least. And then there was a fourth, when they published John Fahey's doctoral thesis on Charley Patton. Which I never got to read as Bob Legault borrowed it and never returned it. I imagine it was somewhere in his Collyer Brothers meet the Vivian Girls hoarder's-apartment-on-steroids.

God, the books I read when I was young that I can not recall at all. I read Herman Hesse's Demian, for instance, and I can not remember a lick of that. Ditto Labyrinths, the Master and Margarita and Hopscotch. Oh, my brain....

They put out David Evan's book on Tommy Johnson later on in that series, too.. Now that's the most interesting of all to me now. as least, insofar as subjects go.

But at least we can read a page or two of or, at least, about the first three, thanks to Google books copy of Yonder Comes The Blues.

Hmm, Blacks, Whites and Blues was probably the first time I heard of Frank Hutchinson, when I read that book. Oh, man, I loves me some Frank Hutchinson.
posted by y2karl at 1:42 PM on August 12, 2009


« Older Crappy and/or Awesome Taxidermy....  |  The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam i... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments