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.Oh, and for what it's worth, the title Unknown Bards comes from the James Weldon Johnson poem O Black and Unknown Bards.
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.
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