June 20, 2013
Anthony Heilbut on MaryBeth Hamilton’s ‘In Search of the Blues’
Posted on Mar 21, 2008
Confronting both Lomaxes was Lawrence Gellert, a New York leftist who in 1936 published “Negro Songs of Protest.” Gellert, who was married to a black woman, felt that the Lomaxes had ignored a vital tradition of protest and impiety. Time Magazine (in an article perhaps written by James Agee, who was free-lancing for the publication at the time) quoted such antinomian lyrics as “Stop foolin’ wid pray, When black-face is lifted, Lord turnin’ away.” Gellert, a figure barely treated by Hamilton, was similarly audacious in using the politically incorrect language of the people; his fellow Communists were horrified by his abundant usage of obscenities and the N-word.
Hamilton does raise the question of obscenity when considering another group of critics, among them Frederic Ramsey Jr., Charles Edward Smith (a very perceptive writer) and the composer William Russell. They helped usher into print the memoir of Jelly Roll Morton, self-proclaimed “Originator of Jazz and Stomps” and “World’s Greatest Hit Tune Writer.” Some on the left—particularly Eric Hobsbawm, the great historian, who occasionally moonlighted as the jazz critic Francis Newton, a name that Hobsbawm chose to honor the very rare Communist musician, Frankie Newton—regarded New Orleans as “a multiple myth and symbol: anti-commercial, anti-racist, proletarian, populist.” But others exhibited the peculiar prudery of the far left. They were discomfited by the frankly sexual nature of Jelly Roll’s persona, his very name, his citation of Buddy Bolden’s “Funky Butt,” his casual observation that his only musical superior on the keyboard was Tony Jackson, a “sissy-man,” and, above all, his hilariously blue lyrics. Among the first blues he heard being sung by a woman were the lines “I got a husband and I got a kid man too / My husband can’t do what my kid man can do.” The Wife of Bath couldn’t have put it better, but Jelly Roll’s new audience was mortified. Even coarser by their standards, and buried for years in the vaults of the Library of Congress, was “Winin’ Boy Blues,” with its boastful line “I fucked her till her pussy stank.” (A recent Internet hit, “Smell Yo Dick” by Riskay, a female rapper, could serve as a riposte to Jelly Roll, a hundred years late.)
This was more real than the white blues boys had bargained for. As Hamilton shows, after being accused of vulgarizing the culture, they were sideswiped by McCarthyism. Dodging attacks on their left-wing sympathies and corrupt morals, they retreated to studying the music of the rural South. The product was a series of Folkways anthologies, filled with music undisturbed by a radical thought or sexual impulse. But this attempt to capture a factitious purity was doomed from the start. It has always been emblemized for me by a Folkways recording of a group of country girls singing a song about heaven. The annotators could be forgiven for not recognizing that it was a note-for-note copy of a popular gospel record by the Davis Sisters of Philadelphia. But how could they have transcribed “I’ll lay down this old sword and shield” as “I’ll lay down this old sewing machine”? And, even more risibly, describe this absurd lyric as “deeply moving”?
Hamilton’s last crew includes a group of men who dubbed themselves the Blues Mafia. Curiously in a world overridden with sexism, two gay men were the dominant figures. In 1964 Blues Mafioso Nick Perls, the son of an émigré art dealer, discovered the great country blues singer Son House, alive if not quite well, in, of all places, Rochester, N.Y. Within Perls’ affinity group, the dominant sensibility—apparently as much by physical as intellectual bullying—was James McKune, who is probably Hamilton’s favorite fan. An impoverished alcoholic who would die the victim of a sexual episode gone horribly wrong, McKune was the Mafioso with the most refined sensibility. While other collectors trafficked in irrelevancies like discolored record labels or scratchy-sounding reprints, McKune’s collection was comparatively small but exquisitely chosen. His focus was exclusively aesthetic. Politics didn’t signify: “After you’ve listened to the real Negro blues for a long time,” he wrote, “you know at once that the protest of the blues is ... in the accompanying piano or guitar.” Listening as closely as he could, McKune determined that the ensemble of voice and instrument was most seamless in the country blues of Son House, Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson and Skip James. Patton particularly stirred him: “only the greatest religious singers have ever [affected] me similarly.” It should be noted that some of Patton’s best records were religious, and that the work of Robert Johnson or Josh White, arguably the most talented blues guitarist, is shot through with traces of religious imagery and vocal devices like growling and wordless moans that are brazenly churchy. (Elijah Wald has written superb biographies of both Johnson and White, making clear their broad musical perspectives.) In other words, even the best of blues listeners circumscribed the music’s range and durability.
To Hamilton’s surprise, McKune abandoned his obsession. Others would pick it up. Arguments of a Jesuitical precision would follow, denominations as vague as deep blues, country blues, Piedmont blues, Mississippi blues, und so weiter. Of course when everyone had been listening to the same records and had their eyes on the same prize, such distinctions would strike the actual practitioners, the blues singers, as bizarre. (Some academics entertained the French idea that something wasn’t real until it was actually named.) When asked whether his music was really folklore, Big Bill Broonzy replied that he hadn’t seen any dogs or mules sing it. In one of the most curious developments, blues singers, who had never been stars when they were young and strong, developed a whole new public when they were old and weak. Hamilton notes many disappointing encounters between the veterans and their youthful acolytes. The message seemed to be they pretend to pay us and we pretend to sing.
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