June 17, 2013
Ed Ward on Ted Gioia’s ‘Delta Blues’
Posted on Nov 7, 2008
By Ed Ward
Do we really need another book about Mississippi Delta blues? Hasn’t this topic been covered adequately by now? True, there is the towering figure of Robert Johnson, whose disproportionate influence on white postwar popular music continues to dominate the mass image of this music, and whose legacy and legend still churn up reams of commentary (most notably a new biography, “Crossroads,” by Tom Graves, and a story in the current issue of Vanity Fair that tells of the possible discovery of a new photograph of this elusive figure), but the rest of the story—or, I should say, the mythology—of the Delta blues had, I thought, long ago been folded into the larger mosaic of the story of rural African-American acoustic music.
Young, middle-class white listeners’ rediscovery of the rural musics recorded in America’s pre-Depression recording boom started in the late 1950s, fueled by record collectors who were annoyed by jazz fans’ domination of the era’s discography and by ambitious young folklorists eager to document any survivals of these musics while their practitioners were still alive. Much of this can be laid to the catalytic influence of the three double-LP boxes of Folkways Records’ “Anthology of American Folk Music,” issued in 1952 and curated by a weird little man named Harry Smith. For Smith, the anthology was as much a space-clearing move, whereby he’d donate his collection of 78s to Moses Asch’s Folkways Records in return for being allowed to pick the tracks for the resulting collection, as it was a labor of love—which, make no mistake, it was.
The thing is, the title was wildly misleading. There was as much self-consciously composed music on the anthology as there was actual traditional music, which was hardly surprising: Many of the people who recorded wanted to be stars, and several of the ones who appear on the anthology, most notably the Carter Family, which survived in one form or another until just recently, but also the Stoneman Family, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Grand Ole Opry star Uncle Dave Macon, became stars. It’s also not an accident that with the exception of Jefferson, all were white: So-called hillbilly music had a much greater chance of mass exposure than did any of the “race” musics except jazz.
But everybody on Smith’s anthology wound up becoming stars simply by their inclusion. By 1960, it had become almost a religious document: People would gather at other people’s homes to listen to it, learn the music on it and speculate about what they’d heard. I was one of them, thanks to my local public library. A couple of my junior-high friends had lefty parents who encouraged their interest in folk music, we went to New York to see Pete Seeger, and I was hooked: time to investigate this folk-music stuff. There was a small bin in the library’s records marked “Folk,” and in it were the three black boxes purporting to be an anthology. Instant education! How was a 13-year-old white suburban kid to know that this wasn’t a canon—especially when, in New York, Boston, Chicago and California, older people, especially performers, were treating it as such?
The anthology led to the reissuing of other collections of 78s, these a bit more carefully selected. Columbia Records discovered that it (probably) owned the Robert Johnson recordings, and put out a cautious selection from its vaults. (For some reason, Johnson doesn’t appear on Smith’s anthology.) Record collectors realized that their treasures were out of copyright and they released legal bootlegs. And while respectful revivalists like the New Lost City Ramblers learned the “hillbilly” repertoire, others listened to the one-man (and it was pretty much all men), one-guitar (and it was almost always a guitar) country blues and wrestled with a couple of problems. One was practical: How in the hell did they do that? The other was moral: Can/should a white man sing the blues?
I was attracted to all of it, but the blues was a particular mystery. I’d grown up with black harmony singing on rock ’n’ roll radio, but how you got from Furry Lewis to the Flamingos was utterly imponderable. My dad had some 78s with the word blues in the title, but they were by this guy Louis Armstrong, and that didn’t help. The public library was buying some of the Origin Jazz Library blues reissue titles, and the more I listened, the more mysterious it all got.
Fortunately, some of those older folkies were also intrigued, and they started heading south looking for some of these old guys—and found them. Robert Johnson was long dead, of course, but there were others, and soon they were sitting in front of high-fidelity microphones in sophisticated studios, as well as in rooms full of respectful fans 50 years younger than they were. A few of them made small fortunes which sustained them in their last few years.
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