Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Place is the Thing

“In Search of the Blues,” Marybeth Hamilton, 2008

This professorial work by a former punk girl from LA sets out to debunk the idea of the ‘Delta Blues.’ In the process, she creates a good history of white attempts to understand the origins of the blues, while failing in her overall thesis. Just as the real ‘crossroads’ of the Robert Johnson song can only be guessed at (Highway 61 & 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, now a dreary intersection of gas stations, furniture stores and rib joints), so the origins of blues music is like a dark, cracked mirror.

W.C. Handy said in 1895 or 1903 he met a man playing guitar with a knife slide in the railroad depot in Tutwiler, MS, just south of Clarksdale. The man was singing an odd, plaintive music with the refrain, “Goin’ where the Southern cross the Dog." Handy maintains that this is the first time he heard ‘blues music.’ Handy himself later composed some of the first songs with blues in the title - “St. Louis Blues” and “Memphis Blues,” in the key of G, based on stomp tunes about levees and cane plantations he heard in Cleveland, Mississippi. The sheet music and 12-bar pattern of Memphis Blues was published by Handy in 1912. However, as Hamilton points out, the first commercial blues recording was “Crazy Blues,” by Mamie Smith, put out in 1920, which sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and was a national sensation. Hamilton doesn’t believe Handy’s story, and so invents her own.

Hamilton’s theory is that the “Delta Blues was not born in the bars and dance-halls of Mississippi.” The Delta Blues was ‘discovered’ or “invented by white men and women, as the culmination of a long-standing fascination with uncorrupted black singers…” As proof she says that in 1941 all the jukeboxes in Clarksdale carried black music you would have found in Chicago or New York, and no local singers. Of course, this only proves what was popular at the time, and what would promote business in a bar or club. Or even what was available. A scratchy song singing ‘hell-hound on my trail’ is not what people might want to listen to after a hot, exhausting day at work, even in 1941. Nor was the blues necessarily a music that had a mass black following for a long time. Like all music, other styles came in to replace it. Nor does a style have to be popular to be valid. However, as Hamilton herself admits, in the 1920s ‘race’ music, much of it blues, was everywhere.

A better guide to where the blues came from – i.e. ‘who’ invented it - is an annotated map of the Delta, and Mississippi itself. Who was born or lived in the Delta? White people? A few, and also Robert Johnson … and Willie Brown, James Cotton, Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup, Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon, David “Honeyboy’ Edwards, King Solomon Hill, John Lee Hooker, Mississippi John Hurt, Elmore James, BB King, Albert King, Big Daddy Kinsey, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Little Milton, Furry Lewis, Magic Sam, Charlie Musselwhite, Charlie Patton, Junior Parker, Pinetop Perkins, Jimmy Reed, Son House, Skip James, Otis Spann, Hubert Sumlin, Sunnyland Slim, Ike Turner, Muddy Waters, Bukka White, Big Joe Williams, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howling Wolf … and many others. Even WC Handy lived in Clarksdale for awhile.

Here is one map. Others are sold at the Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi:

I think Ms. Hamilton has gotten the word ‘invent’ and the word ‘discover’ – or actually “re-discover” - confused. Or even the word ‘promote.’ Music explosions are many times located in actual places – San Francisco/Haight-Ashbury birthed psychedelic music; Laurel Canyon in LA housed folk rock; NY/Greenwich Village promoted the folk revival and punk music; Seattle begat grunge; Detroit created Motown; Chicago produced the electric blues; Harlem made black renaissance music; Kansas City/Vine Street hosted dance jazz; New Orleans / Storyville / Basin Street launched Dixieland, a certain kind of blues and the original jazz; Nashville/lower Broadway saw country; Austin, Texas countered with outlaw country; Memphis/Beale Street generated rock & roll, Rhythm & Blues and rockabilly; Macon, Georgia played a role in southern rock, etc. The argument is not that no one outside of these areas is involved, but rather that the ‘heart’ of the music originates from a very real place, among a group of people that knew each other. Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lightin’ Hopkins, for instance, were from Texas, and Blind Willie McTell from Georgia – but that only emphasizes the main point.

The Mississippi Delta – so-named because it was created by regular flooding of the river north of Vicksburg into the flat plains east, extending nearly all the way north to Memphis – was just such a ‘place.’ And the place IS the thing. That ‘place’ was filled with what we northerners call ‘farms’ – but which are still called plantations. After the Civil War, these very large plantations were farmed either by sharecropping or by direct, paid stoop labor, not much different than in slavery days. This is the proletarian roots of the delta blues – a material basis which many modern blues fans ignore. Many bluesmen worked on plantations, or became singers to escape plantations. After all, what is more alluring – working all day under a hot sun doing back-breaking work – or drinking, traveling, singing, playing guitar and having sex? Not a difficult choice if you can sing and play.

Black theoreticians have always focused on the blues, so there was no need for white people to invent it, or even discover it. Frederick Douglass discussed slave songs long ago. WEB Dubois wrote “Souls of Black Folk” in 1903, and talked about ‘sorrow songs’ - work songs and field hollers; LeRoi Jones wrote “Blues People” in the 60s - and who can forget Cornel West, the ‘bluesman / jazzman’ PHD of our own time?

The real story here is the re-discovery of the blues by white people, which culminated in the 1960s. Hamilton bases her history on chapters about certain key individuals or groups of individuals who attempted to dig up the blues, or specifically the “Delta Blues,” and it makes fascinating reading. As is predictable, any study of black people in a reactionary and racist nation is bound to have political ramifications. Art is never isolated from politics.

Proper academic Howard Odum set out from Faulkner’s Oxford, MS in 1907 to catalog ‘the social and mental traits of the Negro,’ in a world not far removed from the Civil War. Odum rejected spirituals as the actual music of black people, given the Christian origin of the music. Instead, he attempted to record using a ‘grapho-phone’ invented by Alexander G Bell, which recorded on wax cylinders. In the process, he came upon traveling singers with songs made up of a three lines, two repeated, using slides of different types, and the word ‘blues.’ His recordings were not saved, but he remembered the lines, and compared them to blues songs of 1925, making a number of almost exact comparisons between his written and remembered lyrics. Odum later gave up the study of black music, as he could not handle close association with the itinerant players and their ‘rotten’ themes and activities.

Hamilton spends time discussing the effect of ‘recording’ on music, and also the intervention of white investigators. Zora Neale Thurston observed that spontaneous music and singing in a community were drowned out by the appearance of the 78 rpm record and later, radio. Folk culture was damaged by contact with these machines and people – at least to some folk analysts like Thurston. Others maintained that folks culture continues under different conditions, which was the position of the left at that time.

The next major white investigator of black folk music was Dorothy Scarborough. She, I think, is the model for the academic in Appalachia searching for ‘old time’ music, profiled in the film “Songcatcher.” As the grand-daughter of slave-owners in Louisiana, she remembered fondly the songs, lullabies, spirituals, and work music of the black people she grew up around. Scarborough decided in 1921 to begin an academic search for ‘uncorrupted’ black folk music prior to recordings. Her method was to contact almost exclusively other white people who’d had plantation experiences, and thus acquired many of her lyrics and songs from them - instead of talking directly to black folks. Occasionally an ex-slave who reminded her of the ‘old Negro’s’ she remembered did sing to her. Like Odum, she also used a version of the wax recorder. This all became the book, “On the Trail of Negro Folk Songs.” In it, Scarborough attempted to bring back the songs of the ‘old time Negroes’ and, indirectly, the ‘good times’ on the plantation. Scarborough called the blues ‘barbaric,’ ‘jerky’ and like a ‘cripple dancing.’ It is no wonder that she gave up the study of black music, and switched over to Appalachian folk songs, after her sympathetic take on ‘old’ Negroes butted up against the actual ‘new’ Negroes of the 1930s.

And now we come to the most famous white ‘song hunter(s)’ of all – John and his son, Alan Lomax. John Lomax first recorded cowboy tunes in Texas, then turned his attention to black song – and specifically those found in prisons, ostensibly because they were isolated places. Lomax got a job with the Library of Congress to record and he did just that, using bulky equipment invented by the Library technicians installed in their car trunk. With it, Lomax meant to take ‘sound photographs.’ In the classic story, Lomax and his young son Alan went to Angola prison farm in Louisiana in 1933, and asked to record the inmates. After fruitless recordings of mediocre material, a ‘trusty’ was introduced to them – a killer, Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly. Lomax recorded Leadbelly and was astounded at the quality of his voice, and the tunes he had written, or remembered – some of them blues, some of them more like straight folk songs. Leadbelly was paroled because of his singing, and later worked for Lomax as a guide. At one point, Leadbelly told Lomax he was tired of visiting ‘correctional’ institutions, and so Lomax took him to New York.

Leadbelly performed for many audiences in New York. However, Lomax considered Leadbelly to be a low criminal, and refused to give him the money he’d earned at shows or as an assistant. He tried to restrict his movements in the city, racist bad-mouthed him, and at some point, Leadbelly had enough and left. This incident brought a parting of the ways between Lomax and his son, Alan, who started his own career of recording, but increasingly tied himself to the Marxist movement of the time. Alan was instrumental in the 1941-1942 recording of the Library of Congress disc, “Negro Blues and Hollers” – recorded in the Mississippi Delta. Lomax Sr. almost never found fault with Jim Crow, or the massive amount of black people in prisons in the South. And this ideological problem, which affected Odum and Scarborough as well, finally came home to roost. Lomax was supported by Thurston, the most conservative of the black cultural figures of the time. But Richard Wright, who grew up on a plantation just east of Natchez, MS, attacked Lomax in the pages of the “New Masses” as a patronizing racist. Leadbelly eventually came back to New York and became part of the left-wing folk revival, playing with Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and others. Not surprisingly, Lomax Sr. also hated Woody’s voice and songs.

The next group of white people to investigate the blues were a group of New York record collectors interested in jazz – Frederic Ramsey, Charles E Smith and William Russell. Smith was a Marxist, Ramsey an owner of a record exchange, and Russell a patrician. They discovered the “Father of Jazz’ – Jelly Roll Morton – attending a run-down bar in Washington, D.C., and afterward collaborated on the book, “Jazzmen” for the Federal Writers Project in 1939. That book was a response to the positive hysteria over Bix Beiderbecke, a white jazzman from Iowa - a book that insinuated that white people were the best jazz players. In response, in "Jazzmen," the trio detailed the history of Basin Street and Storyville, an all-black neighborhood of flophouses, whore-houses and bars in New Orleans, next to the French Quarter. And how jazz … and perhaps blues … were invented there by black men - Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver and especially, King “Buddy Bolden,” a cornet/trumpet player. Bolden was credited with starting the first jazz band in New Orleans. Oliver and Morton recorded in the 1920s, but they had played the city prior to that. One somewhat unreliable source from Bolden's band had them playing in 1895-1896, which seems to most far too early. Bolden had a song called “King Bolden’s Blues,” which is also translated as the “Funky Butt.” (A blues/jazz bar with that name is still on Basin Street, I might add.) The trio got this history down, partly through Morton’s talk recordings with the Library of Congress. Morton used the terms ‘blues’ and ‘jazz’ interchangeably, and recited lyrics that were straight out of a blues song. As Hamilton notes, most blues purists do not think that jazz is related, but there was, at some point, a relationship, before the branches … branched.

The last white individual is the so-called inventor of the Delta Blues, according to Hamilton. He was … a fanatic 78 rpm record collector from New York named – drum roll – James McKune. McKune was an alcoholic homosexual, who died in New York in 1971 nude, in an alley. Between 1944 and 1950s he became the leading blues music collector in the country, leader of a group of New York collectors called the Blues Mafia, keeping only the best and most rare music – 300 discs - under his bed in boxes at the Williamsburg YMCA. McKune discovered and promoted the earliest rural blues singers like Charlie Patton, Son House, Skip James and Robert Johnson to his group, and, according to Hamilton, set the stage for the ‘birth’ of the Delta Blues as a taste-maker. His promotion was purely aesthetic, not political, as befits conservative American culture.

However, it seems accurate to point out that Patton, Johnson, House and James were the earliest and also highest quality / unique singers, players and composers, and, as such, had a legitimate claim to borning the tradition. The fact that they were black, were from the Delta, and nearly all dead does not mean McKune sucked them out of his thumb. McKune recognized them. Hamilton does not mention a word about the British lads who brought blues out of these shadows to a mass white audience – John Mayall, Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Keith Richard and Robert Plant. Together with American’s like John Hammond & John Fahey; locals like John Koerner, Dave Ray & Tony Glover; and blues bands like Paul Butterfield and Canned Heat – you could even claim, like Hamilton – that they too ‘invented’ the Delta Blues.

For her next book, Hamilton should center on the invention of rock & roll. The story, I’ve been told, was that Ike Turner, a black man, wrote the first rock song, “Rocket 88” in the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale, Mississippi. But then, there was probably some white tastemaker – like Sam Phillips - who really invented that song.

And I bought it at Square Books, an independent bookstore in Oxford, Mississippi
Red Frog, May 31, 2011

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