Monday, February 27, 2012

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“IN SEARCH OF THE BLUES – Black Voices, White Visions”  by Marybeth Hamilton (first published 2007)

When we look at a photograph taken in the nineteenth century, there is always the possibility that we will take it as being “innocent” – a direct representation of the past, with no strings attached. We might even say it is “authentic” – the past unvarnished and unmediated, and hence an objective historical document that cannot be disputed. But as the essays of Early New Zealand Photography illustrate amply, there is no “innocence” when it comes to representation. There is always an agenda, a viewpoint, a construction – not to mention the limitations and conventions imposed by the state of technology. Photographs were taken by their creators with various assumptions in mind. Photographs select, crop, frame, pose and interpret the things in front of the lens. They do not allow us to walk untrammelled though a door to the past. They mediate. While the things depicted may have had an objective reality, photographs of them are often what comes between us and the past rather than giving us free range in the past.

It is rather dampening and deflating to realize all this. We would so much like to believe that those images of the past which we can access deliver “authenticity” to us; that we are making contact with something real and tangible.  But we are often deluded if we believe this.

These reflections brought to my mind a sharp critique of the delusion of “authenticity” in a field quite different from early photography – the field of early jazz and blues music.

I confess that I – a white, middle-class intellectual – am a lover of this kind of music. For all the technical imperfections of primitive recording techniques, I get a great buzz out of listening to (CD re-pressings of) the bluesmen and jazzmen from the earlier decades of the 20th century. I love much of the jazz that followed that era – the Swing of the 1930s and the Bebop of the 1940s and the Cool and Progressive and Modern Jazz thereafter. But for touching the soul and lifting the spirit, nothing can match hearing Gertrude “Ma” Rainey lamenting the absence of her Trav’lling Man (“hear me talkin’ to ya”) or Bessie Smith delivering the tough, sardonic wail of Sing Sing Prison Blues or young Louis Armstrong performing Lord, You Made the Night Too Long with feeling, before soaring into a trumpet solo – all of them recorded in the 1920s. As well as enjoying the musicianship, I’m imagining that I’m hearing an “authentic” voice of early black urban culture, lamenting real sorrows in a real world of real feeling before the slickness of modern popular song-writing kicked in. They deliver their souls to me on a plate.

And then along comes Marybeth Hamilton’s little book and it (effectively and convincingly) shatters my delusion.

Hamilton’s subject is not, in fact, the urban blues performers whom I’ve just named, but the black country bluesmen from the 1900s to the 1930s.

Briefly, her theme is that the whole concept of “authenticity” in early black blues is really the invention of white enthusiasts, collectors and musicologists, projecting their own desires onto the recordings of black artists which they enjoyed.

She begins with a reflection on the music of the legendary Robert Johnson, who recorded just 29 tracks in a small Southern recording studio in the 1930s, before dying at a young age. Numerous (white) blues singers and rock stars claim to be inspired by him. Robert Johnson’s complete and collected recordings fit comfortably onto one CD (which sits in my collection and to which I have often listened). Hamilton quotes some of the extravagant things that have been said in interpretation of Johnson’s track Stones in My Passway as the authentic voice of black suffering. She then proceeds to listen to the song itself and concludes that (stereotypical and limited as its lyrics are) it simply cannot bear the weight of interpretations that have been loaded on it.

And she is right.

Listened to “cold”, and without the supposition that he is a figure of legend, Robert Johnson is an okay guitar player and an average blues wailer. No more than that. The legend has been built from his young death, lack of documentation about him (which allows legends to grow) and the two or three surviving photographs of him which show a young man posing with a guitar, with (in one of the photographs) a macho cigarette dangling from his lower lip. Exactly the pose that has been imitated on album covers by so many of his white admirers.

With documentation, Hamilton argues that the concept of “Delta Blues” (Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Skip James, Son House et al.) was invented in the 1950s and 1960s even if the recordings were made in the 1920s and 1930s.

She argues this thesis by following through the careers of specific white musicologists and record collectors. The song collectors Howard Odum and Dorothy Scarborough, in the 1910s and 1920s, were both white Southerners who collected songs in order to find the “authentic” and “uncorrupted” voice of blacks before they became urbanised and exposed to commercial music. In other words, they really hankered for the certainties of the old plantation, before blacks took their own place in modern society.

Something similar was true of the Texan blues enthusiast John Lomax who, in the 1930s, “discovered” – and probably exploited – the bluesman Huddie Ledbetter (“Lead Belly”). Ledbetter was then taken up by left-wingers (including John Lomax’s left-wing son Alan Lomax), who turned him into a symbol of the oppressed black proletariat and encouraged him to write contemporary protest songs. But they were shaping him to their ideological concept of what a black musician should be as much as  Howard Odum, Dorothy Scarborough and John Lomax did when they collected “authentic” songs. You are not hearing an “authentic” black voice when you hear a Lead Belly record. You are hearing a black performer who performed according to (white-controlled) commercial imperatives and whose material was often shaped by (white) advisors.

In the 1940s, when jazz was moving from Swing to Bebop, the white musicologists William Russell, Charles Edward Smith and Frederic Ramsay provoked the “Dixieland Revival” by promoting the earliest New Orleans jazz as an “authentic” urban folk music, “uncorrupted’ by later commercialisation. This phase, however, was not enough for one of them. Disillusioned by the gradual realization that “Dixieland” was itself an eminently commercial form of music, Frederic Ramsay set out to find something more “authentic” and hit on what he called “country blues”. Surely this, at last, represented the true soul of black folks before they were led astray by recording contracts! Finally, in the 1950s and 1960s the eccentric New York record-collector James McKune discovered the neglected  recordings of Robert Johnson and others, and the term “Delta Blues” was at last coined in the 1960s.

One thing Marybeth Hamilton makes touchingly clear. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was the very rarity of copies of the old “country blues” recordings, the very fact that not many people (black or white) actually wanted to listen to them and that there had been no demand for them to be re-pressed, that made them attractive to the small group of white enthusiasts. That these scratchy old discs could be found only in second-hand and junk stores was part of what made them attractive to the likes of McKune. There was the thrill of the hunt for them, the sense of having found undiscovered treasure, and especially the sense that – even though one was only collecting records – one was actually a lonesome rebel against the commercial mainstream. Once the legend of the “Delta blues” was born, the old recordings began to be re-pressed and mass-circulated in LPs (the vinyl equivalent of a CD collection). And suddenly the likes of McKune lost interest in them. If they had become the property of a mass audience, then they were no longer an elite, rebel taste. They too were now “commercial’ and no longer “authentic”.

In this sad and instructive story of cultural misapprehension, Hamilton pursues some major lines of argument. One is that white collectors and enthusiasts often overlooked the fact that people whom they perceived as “authentic” black folk musicians were already recording in an environment of commercialism, even in the 1920s and 1930s. What Robert Johnson,  Skip James, Son House and others recorded were songs that were already influenced by vaudeville, show tunes and other recordings that that they had heard. So how “authentic” were they anyway?

Another major point is that, as a close scrutiny of record sales shows, even by the 1920s quite rural black communities shunned those very performers whom the white aficionados later mythologised. Rural blacks themselves much preferred to listen to the urban (and quite cheerfully commercial) jazz of King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Clarence Williams and Louis Armstrong. They were already uninterested in solitary wailers to solitary guitars. So how “folk” is a folk music if the folks ain’t listening to it? And how much can it be said to represent “authentically” their concerns?

Hamilton also notes that the concept of the lone, inspired, rambling black bluesman of the Delta fitted neatly into the post-Second World War white “beat” generation of males’ self-mythologization as alienated loners. The legend of “authentic” Delta bluesmen, travelling, making pacts with the Devil at the crossroads, opening their mouths and letting their real unmediated feelings out, was just the ticket for white “beats” whose main concern was running away from domestic commitment.

Finally, and most heartfelt as a woman writer, Hamilton notes that the whole myth of the “authentic” Delta bluesmen overlooked the fact that the first black artists to really record the blues in the 1920s were all women – Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith etc. But the white male collectors who invented the “Delta blues” myth simply overlooked them or dismissed them as “commercial”. Besides, women didn’t fit into the desired image of the male loner rambling to roads with guitar in hand.

I finished reading this book with no diminished respect for the old (1920s) jazz music that I still love. I am perfectly happy that Marybeth Hamilton punctured some of my illusions about how such music was produced. I feel a sententious aesthetic truism coming on. Just as we should judge a book by how it is written, and not by what we know of the writer, so should we judge music by what it is, and not by legends that surround it. Stripped of legend, much so-called “Delta blues” is trite, repetitive, musically unimaginative and limited even if (like most other musical genres) it sometimes expresses real feeling.

And if Robert Johnson came to my door, guitar in hand, I’d listen with pleasure to one or two of his numbers before giving him a whiskey and sending him on his way.

Then I’d punch a button and listen to some more early Louis Armstrong.


  1. During the Depression of the 1930s under Roosevelt’s New Deal scheme financial and other aid was given to artists and musicians and helped bring many to prominence. The assistance helped the careers of some black musicians who were hitherto known only by a limited number in their black community and lead to recordings and greater career success by such guitar-playing blues singers as Huddy Ledbetter and Big Bill Broonzy. The 1937 and 1938 Carnegie Hall “From Ragtime to Swing” concerts also introduced to exclusively white audiences black rural blues singers as T-Bone Walker and Sonny Terry.
    Broonzy even alludes to the federal assistance scheme in his song “WPA Blues”. White promoters and selectors did not control the content although the black poet Langston Hughes was sometimes enrolled to ‘clean up’ certain blues for recording. The black magazine “Ebony” later commented sardonically of one such recording that “it sounded as if it was written by a white man.”
    However during one ‘federal assisted’ recording, “Working Man Blues” Sleepy John Estes did manage to inject a bitter and sarcastic tone into the lines “The Gov’mints given a little schoolin’ round/Boy, I think that’s very nice.”
    I agree that by the time of the Delta and rural blues recordings, the blues were already known to wider audiences, but the later trecordings did bring forward good musicians and singers.

  2. Thanks for posting: I was never particularly moved by anything I heard from Robert Johnson guitar or vocal-wise, having (like many others I suspect) been lured as an early twenty-something by the superlatives Eric Clapton had thrown around. Your suggestion at his music being something of a rite of passage (like smoking and often about as authentic) rings true. I tried, and at the time I couldn't bear to listen at all. What was wrong with me?
    These days (twenty years later) a little still goes a long way. He can't hold a candle to the rawness I've since discovered in the playing of Bukka White (whose music inspired me to notice whether I wanted to or not), nor the way Blind Willie (Dark Was the Night) Johnson's voice takes my breath away. While I'm not sure how much more- or less- authentic either were, they sure sound it.