May 21, 2013
Anthony Heilbut on MaryBeth Hamilton’s ‘In Search of the Blues’
Posted on Mar 21, 2008
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.
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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