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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

(Page 2)

  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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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 (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
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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
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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:

http://therehearsalstudio.blogspot.com/2008/03/vindicated-by-john-dewey.html

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By Andrew Taylor, March 28, 2008 at 1:09 am Link to this comment
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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.”

http://therehearsalstudio.blogspot.com/2007/08/death-of-communication.html

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
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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
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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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