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Arts and Culture

Anthony Heilbut on MaryBeth Hamilton’s ‘In Search of the Blues’

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Posted on Mar 21, 2008
book cover

By Anthony Heilbut

Who says that taste is only personal and cannot be disputed? The cultural canon is always up for revision, and received wisdom has a shelf life. This is made clear in Marybeth Hamilton’s “In Search of the Blues,” an intriguing study of white scholarly attempts to discover and define the Real Blues. Like the figures in that children’s story, they kept taking a part for the whole, and most often discovered a distorted version of themselves. But they also convinced a lot of people that they were deeper and wiser than anyone else, and that if you disagreed you were a shallow if not a bad person.

    They probably did more good than harm. Although some of the early students were condescending, if not blatantly racist, all of them felt that black music was the most vital element of American culture. This required some arguing at a time when a critic like Gilbert Seldes could patronize “the negroes’ music” as both poignant and mindless—displaying “little evidence of the functioning of their intelligence”—and academics found the culture insufficiently steeped in “folklore,” a term that became increasingly nebulous in the age of mass communication. Yet the stunning detail that connects all of Hamilton’s subjects—from the plantation nostalgists of the late 1890s to the “Blues Mafia” of the 1960s—is that honoring the culture meant saving black people from themselves. The real deal was not now but back then in a mythical past when people were simpler and their expression more true.


book cover


In Search of the Blues


By Marybeth Hamilton


Perseus Books Group, 309 pages


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  This is one of the enduring themes of American culture, both white and African-American. One of the oldest spirituals laments that “the people don’t sing like they used to sing.” The difference lies in the explanation for this decline; gospel singers would say the people weren’t living right, folklorists would say it was the culture that had gone bad. As early as 1845, Frederick Douglass discovered the profoundest meaning in “tones loud, long, and deep. ... Every tone [a] testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains.” Fifteen years before the Civil War, he heard in the sorrow songs a musical code of emancipation. Over a hundred years later, Alan Lomax would write of the wordless moans of the black church, “For me, and I believe, for most southerners, the most magical of all musical sounds is the many-voiced humming of a lining hymn that arises during quiet moments in the black folk service.” Perhaps, indeed, this was the fabled song of the South, the echo of a musical paradise lost, even if that Eden was a product of slavery; as Hamilton notes, there was a masochistic glee in the way outsiders identified with the sorrow songs. But if everyone agreed that the origins were uniquely expressive—and that everything from field hollers to bebop could be traced back to the church sisters’ wordless moans—what happened next was up for interpretation. To use the current jargon, it became a question of conflicting narratives, usually told by outsiders. And always with the implication that they knew better than the actual participants.

A point would be reached when blue-eyed soul singers and white bluesmen would behave as if their own years of hard work and disappointment had made them the artistic peers of their idols. Everyone had a right to claim the blues. Also a right to determine what was “really real,” a church idiom for those whose faith had proved true, rather than ersatz. For blues fans, authenticity became another way of separating the wheat from the tares. Among the discarded items would be most black popular music, particularly the work of female artists. Even if blues fans might share Lomax’s admiration of the sisters on the mourners’ bench, when it came to blues, the word was “Don’t bring me no Bessie Smith,” a musicians’ slang for the great lady’s all-purpose epithet. They didn’t merely disdain the bullshit, they didn’t want the Bessie Smith either. How was it decided that the blues vocalist was ideally male, and the blues instrument ideally a guitar? It was both historically inaccurate and a constriction of harmonic and melodic possibilities, as any gospel singer who has had to choose between singing “by the gee-tar” and “singing by the piano” could tell you.

  Demoting the women also meant a constriction of subject matter and emotional resonance. Hamilton dryly observes that “the world ... depicted would be pastoral and, with barely a woman in sight, singularly free from the disorganization so evident in the black urban world.” The highly subjective dismissal of women’s voices and themes from the blues pantheon is a rich topic for Hamilton. An American historian now living in London, the author of “When I’m Bad, I’m Better: Mae West, Sex, and American Entertainment,” she is clearly attracted to episodes of sexual transgression, of a sensuous world ignored by the blues scholars whom she frequently exposes as humorless prudes. She had initially prepared to write a biography of Little Richard. That would have been a very appealing topic, at least for me. Little Richard’s acknowledged inspiration, the source of his growls, falsetto whoop, full-tilt personality (and beehive coiffure) was the gospel singer Marion Williams, whose last albums I produced. But instead she was intrigued by the great claims made for country blues singers, e.g., Greil Marcus’ description of a Robert Johnson performance as “a two minute image of doom that has the power to make doom a fact” (and not a moment too soon) or musicologist Robert Palmer’s rhetorical question, “how much history can be transmitted by pressure on a guitar string?” (If there’s a Hall of Shame for such over-listening, many a noted critic would share pride of place.) Precisely because she didn’t share these critics’ enthusiasm—even when praising the work of Johnson or Charlie Patton she doesn’t sound as if she really means it—she was fascinated by the division in sensibilities. So instead of writing about a black gender bender, she wrote about a world in which blacks and women scarcely figure. While there are references to Langston Hughes (who wrote some weak gospel songs) and Sterling Brown (who wrote some great blues), her scholar fans are mostly white and male. Even so, the book’s most dramatic scene involves a diminutive professor of writing, Dorothy Scarborough, trying to photograph a mass baptism, the sole white person in the crowd. And with a couple of brief, disputatious appearances, Zora Neale Hurston almost steals the book.

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By John, April 8, 2010 at 10:41 am Link to this comment
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This book is an easy, yet very in depth read and one I would recommend to anyone interested in learning more about the Blues culture.

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By hnatali99, January 8, 2010 at 1:33 am Link to this comment

Great stuff. I really like your writing style.

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By jonmaverick, January 6, 2010 at 6:56 am Link to this comment

You wrote very interesting post i love your blog it contains very informative article i will share it with my friends.

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By (The Other) Anthony Bono, April 5, 2008 at 9:38 am Link to this comment
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Indeed, agreed.
In fact, whenever I get caught up in an argument about what is or isn’t “serious” culture, I always end up feeling creepy like a dog breeder arguing the merits of a Terrier’s hind quarters—present party excluded.  In the end it gets down-right pathological.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m heading for my back yard to play with my “Roadblock” action figure, which should no doubt further my understanding of the African American experience.

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By Stephen Smoliar, April 5, 2008 at 5:31 am Link to this comment

To be fair, pop culture is not the only source of such distorted identity.  “Serious” culture can have the same effect.  Since you raise Kubrick, consider the impact of Beethoven in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.  The real danger of mechanical reproduction is that, by overwhelming us with experiences (noun form), it erodes our ability to experience (verb form) them.  This is as true of Robert Johnson as it is of “the glorious Ludwig van!”

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By Anthony Bono, April 4, 2008 at 7:11 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Heh, I’m guilty on most counts (each at a different point in my life) of Ms. Hamilton’s good natured indictment of blues fanatics.  This seems to be the Faustian bargain an artist makes with his or her audience.  Being an entirely subjective and ridiculously emotional medium, it comes as NO surprise that each and every dueling/contradictory perspective would be attached to these guys.  If anything, it’s testament to their abilities as musicians, performers and storytellers (ever get into a conversation with a fellow fan of Stanley Kubrick?!). 

The real irony to me is the fact that we love this form of art because its charm lies in its ability to transcend analytical thought and goes straight to the heart (whatever that is). 

And the real danger of “art in the age of mechanical reproduction”  is how easy one can use a song or a movie or any tiny element within pop culture as one’s primary source of identity.  That’s no good.  It’s too simplistic and it always misrepresents its author.

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By krj44, March 30, 2008 at 2:04 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

that anyone that wants to learn about the blues get on hwy 61 coming out of memphis head south and hit every juke joint on your way south and listen to the blues live.keep a journal,study the people and have a great time.

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By Stephen Smoliar, March 28, 2008 at 11:25 am Link to this comment

Greg, I appreciate what you say but disagree;  if you like, we can take this “outside” to my own site at:

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By Andrew Taylor, March 28, 2008 at 1:09 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It is unfortunate that in the course of discussing blues music people like this writer often label the white fans and beneficiaries of the music to be ignorant, naive or incapable appropriators.  Many of these people are afficionados at least as sophisticated as the writer of this article, consuming every book, article and album related to jazz and blues.  They may not have the cultural or generational context to play, fully absorb, or continue to evolve the music, but they sure put in the effort.  I think good bluesmen such as James Cotton (black harp player/singer with all the credentials and ability) appreciate having sidemen and fans who know their songs and like them, whatever their own cultural background.  Louis Armstrong, my hero regardless of minstrel-rooted stylings, responded to Uncle Tom criticism by expressing appreciation for his white audiences.  He pointed out that he hadn’t changed, it wasn’t his fault that black people stopped coming to his concerts, and he loved his audience unequivocally.  Whatever the compromises and inequities, then or now, an artist needs an audience (customers) in order to continue working.  They are people, not cultural artifacts, and they are often strong people who own themselves.  I do think white patronage had artistic drawbacks for people like Muddy Waters (who seemed to play differently for white audiences), but at least he made a good living resting on past laurels.  So there’s some old-man-no-longer-a-threat dynamic going on - there’s also a your-work-is-magnificent dynamic.  This article is guilty of focusing on the critics over the musicians, reflecting the book it reviews.  By the way - Ma Rainey among others was a better blues singer than Bessie Smith, and they both had stronger vaudeville roots than blues roots.  Few would claim W.C. Handy was a bluesman or that he invented the blues - he notated and standardized it for his mostly un-swinging bands.  And for white audiences!
America’s cultural heritage is a minefield and progress is slow, see the Obama speech.  By the way (this is Truthdig) - as a white man, I didn’t blink an eye at anything Reverend White said, and agreed with most of it.

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By Greg Todd, March 26, 2008 at 7:38 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Some people in academia have way too much time on their hands - or we have reached a point where doctoral theses need to be crammed into increasingly marginal and irrelevant, if ‘distinct’, spaces.

I suggest this entire area of academia—critics criticizing critics - be depth-charged, funding cut off, so people can get back to studying science or history and LISTENING to the blues, from Bessie Smith (if you like) to Robert Johnson to Washboard Sam to Sonny Boy W. and Little Walter…

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By Stephen Smoliar, March 25, 2008 at 1:26 pm Link to this comment

The old Russian might spin in his Venetian grave;  but I need to invoke Stravinsky over one terminological nit, which is the distinction between HEARING and LISTENING.  These are his words:  “Others let the ears be present and they don’t make an effort to understand. To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also.”

Aside from that nit, I think that Sam is right on message;  but there is a certain irony in the extent to which his message is tightly coupled to Peircian semiotics.  Consider the three layers of representation that support acts of listening:

There is the GROUND layer of an underlying TEXT.  This can be just about anything, from “The Star-Spangled Banner” through “Jesus Wants me for a Sunbeam” to “That’s When I’ll Come Back to You.”  For the most part it serves for little other than hanging a name on the performance.

PERFORMANCE is the next layer, the ACTIONS you decide to take in rendering that text.  (This does not fit Peirce as well as the other two, because Peirce was more occupied with objects than with actions.  However, appealing to his framework with verbs instead of nouns is not a big stretch.)

LISTENING is the final layer, which Peirce called the layer of INTERPRETANTS.  In Dewey’s language it is the ACT OF EXPERIENCING the performance.  Dewey explained this better in terms of poetry.  However, his words are still useful:  “A new poem is created by every one who reads poetically—not that its raw material is original for, after all, we live in the same old world, but that every individual brings with him, when he exercises his individuality, a way of seeing and feeling that in its interaction with old material creates something new, something previously not existing in experience.”  In other words listening without synthesizing is just hearing.  Quack.

My guess is that Hamilton missed out on most of this.  One reason may have been that, like just about all of us, she was stuck with doing her best to listen (giving her the benefit of the doubt) to recordings.  A recording is rarely anything other than a REPRODUCTION of a performance, rather than a REAL performance (which gets us into Walter Benjamin territory).  A good listener may come up with good hypotheses about how Louis Armstrong performed on the basis of the recordings now available (particularly the early ones);  but those hypotheses can be neither affirmed nor refuted.  At best they allow us to have conversations about those three Peircian layers (which can provide helpful preparation for experiencing one of those “real” performances).

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By SamSnedegar, March 25, 2008 at 11:40 am Link to this comment

as has been said of many other forms of art, blues can be identified by hearing it, not by claims from the players.

I can tell you what it is not: it is not an awful screeching noise made by overamped guitars which sounds for all the world like a sick jackass braying, nor is it a sliding, noteless search for a tone and a key by a singer who sounds more like a horse whinnying than anything else.

On guitar, Tiny Grimes knows it; Roy Clark, for all his talent with stringed instruments couldn’t play it on a bet. Charlie Christian knew exactly what it was and gave us the simplest notes played in the bluest blues imaginable. Louis Armstrong, like Christian, knew it intimately; Lester Young hadn’t a clue. Everything Ray Charles did was based on it until he and hundreds of others began to parody and destroy the form in a rain of ersatz blues that was better than Welk, but not really blues either. Sinatra and Tony Bennett knew it well, both probably learning from Mabel Mercer, and poor Como and Damone would never understand it.

Here’s a funny thing about blues: Sandi Patty put more blues into the Star Spangled Banner than Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix ever put into anything; anyone can learn to make noise with an amped guitar, but not everyone can then use that guitar for playing blues.

You know better what is NOT blues than what is, and what is not is most of the crap that musicians offer and call the blues. It’s not a black thing or a white thing; it is what it is, and Jimmie Rodgers, an early country singer, had it down better than Nat Cole—-who was a fine musician, but didn’t do blues well at all.

Can I tell you what is and isn’t blues? I can when I hear it, and so can you. Porgy and Bess is filled up with it, but 99% of the singers you will hear doing that opera won’t “get” it, and will never be able to follow George Gershwin down that road. Benny Goodman knew all about it; maybe he learned it from Teddy and Charlie and Hamp, but maybe he taught THEM some of it too…..

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By Bill Blackolive, March 25, 2008 at 8:51 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I have little time these days and a hell of a time sometimes trying to place comments at truthdig.  I must wonder, being I am all my life shaking some people when I have not even decided to do so, maybe there are some twisted engineers at good Sheer’s site. Meantime, yay for Cynthia McKinney.

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By Wayne Trujillo, March 23, 2008 at 5:58 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Aesthetics often drown out the cultural and social implications; seldom are they heard by the general population. Case in point: most would define the difference between gospel and blues music as something as simple as heaven and hell. But both idioms reside in purgatory more than a biblical promise or punishment. Bliss and blues both occupy a place within the African-American community right here on earth.  We all know that pain and depression bring out the best in the blues. But what brought the blues into the church? Mahalia Jackson, Marion Williams and Brother Joe May are the spiritual antithesis of the blues—deals with the devil, jukejoints and bars. But their recorded testimonies rival the best that the blues have to offer. Scholars and acolytes might praise the African-American artists of past years—both blues and gospel—but with few exceptions, the greatest musicians are relegated to obscurity. For me, the enjoyment of their artistry isn’t just the brilliance of their music, their unflagging attitude and glorious vocals, but discovering the physical, social and cultural environment that nurtured and shaped that artistry. Whether in this latest essay or in his must-read history of gospel music, The Gospel Sound, Anthony Heilbut reveals the people,  spirit and circumstance that comprise black blues and gospel music as much as any piano, percussion, guitar or vocal.

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By blues1, March 21, 2008 at 6:00 pm Link to this comment

I play blues. I started trying to perform in the late 60’s. I have listened to as much as possible. I play blues. It is 2008. If you hear me, you will agree. If you do not play blues, you will not know what to say or write about it. All scholars are wrong about the blues, unless they play it.

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By Stephen Smoliar, March 21, 2008 at 12:34 pm Link to this comment

However all those theorists of different stripes may philosophize, I continue to hold to the precept that ANY MUSIC only EXISTS when it is performed.  Preferably, the performance is “there on the spot;”  but, if properly executed, a good “live” recording may serve as an adequate substitute.  The corollary of this proposition is that musical understanding can only be revealed when musicians come together to play.  When those encounters are “cross-cultural” (as when the ethnomusicologists tried to perform with his/her “informant,” to keep the language as neutral as possible) the results can run the gamut from inspiring to embarrassing.

To move from the abstract to the concrete, consider the rehearsal footage from the documentary CHUCK BERRY:  HAIL! HAIL! ROCK ‘N’ ROLL.  Specifically, consider the “frank and open” recording of Berry’s frustration with Keith Richard, who just CANNOT play an opening lick the right way.  It is easy enough to write this off to Richard’s drug-addled brain;  but I would call that, as my health teacher used to say, a “predisposing cause.”  The REAL problem was that, at a very fundamental level, Richard could not HEAR what Berry was playing;  and, because he could not hear it, he could not reproduce it.  When he listened to Berry, he automatically translated it into how he (Richard) would play it, thus totally losing touch with what Berry wanted (and almost getting beaten to a pulp by Berry for his ignorance).

This “Keith Richard effect” is the bane of any ethnography.  It is why there is so much insistence on having SOME kind of faithfully recorded document, because, as Clifford Geertz knew full well, you cannot perceive ANYTHING without INTERPRETING your sensory impressions;  and it is almost impossible to come up with an interpretation that does not obscure at least some of the signal with noise.  Hamilton makes a lot of good assertions of her own;  but, ultimately, she is probably too hard on the inevitable human frailties of those who hung their reputations on their perceptions.  At the end of the day, those perceptions can never be anything other that a really weak hook!

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