Anthony Heilbut on MaryBeth Hamilton’s ‘In Search of the Blues’
Posted on Mar 21, 2008
Hamilton is steeped in academic methods and terminology: Walter Benjamin’s endlessly cited “work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction” makes an inevitable appearance. But she also enjoys dramatizing imagined encounters between scholars and their sources, or—more daringly—the eureka moments when some fan plays some record and figures everything out.
Her first group of researchers bemoaned what has happened to “our Negroes” and their culture. They despised all the jazzy trappings of urban life but were not completely hopeless: “There will be the folk blues,” Howard Odom wrote in the late l920s, “as long as there are Negro toilers and adventurers whose naivete has not been worn off by what the white man calls culture.” (This sounds like Norman Mailer’s evocation of the White Negro, or—distressingly—like some hip-hoppers’ dismissal of “white folks’ education.”) By the early 1930s Dorothy Scarborough had introduced a more literary take; her shrewdest observation was that the 12-bar blues resembled an O. Henry story, with the third line subverting what came before. She was both a Southern belle and a member of Greenwich Village’s literary scene; writer Carson McCullers was a student. (McCullers’ nursemaid in “Member of the Wedding” would become an iconic figure in 1940s literature, along with Eudora Welty’s neo-Fats Waller, “Powerhouse”; this suggests that Southern women made particularly judicious use of their folkloric research.) In her fiction and scholarship Scarborough was also infatuated with the spirit world, with ghosts and “haints.” Rural superstitions fascinated her. But, as one friend noted, she was totally baffled upon entering the office of W.C. Handy, the so-called Father of the Blues, and finding it an outpost of Tin Pan Alley.
The only blues researchers to become national figures were John Lomax and his son Alan. In a famous March of Time newsreel, John Lomax, a ne’er-do-well (born on “the upper crust of po’ white trash”) dabbler in folklore, is shown interviewing ex-con Huddie Ledbetter about his good fortune in singing himself out of jail. Nothing about the scene was real; it was staged for the camera with Leadbelly and his friends dressed in striped uniforms. Hamilton laments the “excruciating depiction of Leadbelly as a hapless, hopeless, mindlessly criminal darky, a part that Lomax seems to have set out for him and in which the singer seems to collude.” The initial response was more positive. Leadbelly was a brilliantly talented singer and guitarist, a walking repository of American popular music from blues and reels to hymns and ballroom waltzes. Lomax was convinced that secular tunes were more uniquely black, free of any debt to white spirituals or the white man’s Bible. But they had to be self-contained productions, uncontaminated by popular music or jazz—in other words, hermetically sealed from the worldly influences of radio and, especially, phonograph records. (Like many subsequent critics, Lomax distrusted versatility. His implicit command to Leadbelly was “You’re a colored singer, sing colored.”)
Huddie Ledbetter was visually gripping, an austere, dark-skinned man, who sang and played with a fearful intensity, and drifted with remarkable ease from baritone to high tenor, exhibiting the open-throated tessitura of the best gospel singers. YouTube carries a clip of him singing “Take This Hammer” (to the tune of the white hymn “Where He Leads Me”), his back as straight as his guitar is wide.
Initially Lomax did well by Leadbelly and himself; the two appeared at a Philadelphia meeting of the Modern Language Association where Leadbelly, identified as “a Negro minstrel from Louisiana,” convinced the academics that black music was folklore too. (Alan Lomax shared his father’s respect for the academy’s imprimatur. Many years later he would devise a system, “cantometrics,” that preposterously imagined a kind of Chomskyian structuralism of musical utterances.) Leadbelly was soon a popular star too, mostly in the Greenwich Village folk circuit, black audiences finding his ways too amateur and “country.” Lomax was horrified as his darky became “only an ordinary, low ordinary, Harlem nigger.” The relation ended when Leadbelly came around with the reasonable request, “I wants my money,” and seemed to threaten him with a knife. But their brief union had made both men famous. In the words of Aretha Franklin, who was zooming who?
Besides falling out with Leadbelly, Lomax found himself publicly condemned by Richard Wright, then a committed leftist, who accused him of “one of the most amazing cultural swindles in American history.” (Ultimately this would become a question of copyrights, and of folklorists claiming authorship or co-authorship of songs that, most often, their informants hadn’t composed either.) Banished by Lomax, Leadbelly became a star of the Communist front—another instance of who’s zooming who—though the leftists were embarrassed by some of his more ribald songs. At this point something astonishing occurred. Zora Neale Hurston, the great folklorist, nursed ideas of cultural nationalism that bordered on the reactionary. For many reasons, personal as much as political, she hated the left, most particularly some of its black literary heroes, and none more than Wright. In the dramatic high point of Hamilton’s book, she reports how Hurston wrote John Lomax, both endorsing his right-wing politics and hatred of the (in his words) “largely Jewish” left, and spying on his son Alan’s flirtations with the Reds, and most particularly with Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, an Irish-American academic who would some years later marry a trade union leader. In Hurston’s view, the left had cast a double spell on Alan, sexual and political. The image of the gifted but tetched Hurston conspiring with the frankly racist Lomax against his son is worthy of a three-act play.
Alan Lomax contested his father on theoretical grounds as well. To his great credit he realized that recordings had not destroyed folklore but amplified it. He had noticed, as would many subsequent folklorists, that singers and musicians who gave dry, lifeless performances when recorded by the Library of Congress would snap to attention before the microphones of a Decca or Okeh. While folklorists lamented the loss of a special, spur-of-the moment, improvisatory charm—a forecast of the idea that “mechanical reproduction” changed everything—the artists themselves took it all in stride. They understood that recordings were, in current parlance, merely a “delivery system,” an advertisement for what they could do, and promised to do better after their recordings made them famous. Particularly in gospel and jazz, there was a compact between artists and fans that the recording merely initiated an experience that would be completed when the artists appeared in person. Whether single or album or MP3 file, the music remained a calling card, an advertisement for the self. Cantometrics notwithstanding, Alan Lomax’s great contribution may be his promotion of commercial records.
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