June 20, 2013
Anthony Heilbut on MaryBeth Hamilton’s ‘In Search of the Blues’
Posted on Mar 21, 2008
Later when generations of white fans would study the blues veterans’ records and become virtuoso exponents of their technique, Muddy Waters would shrug and say they could outplay him but they couldn’t out-sing him. And, ever so often, coming up with the best note, hit exactly where and when, he’d outplay them too. This was made abundantly clear to me in the late 1960s when the Apollo Theater had a spectacular blues show featuring, among others, T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Big Mama Thornton. All of them sang and played harder than I’d ever seen them do, whether at folk clubs in Greenwich Village or Cambridge, Mass. Confronting an audience that took rhythm and improvisation for granted, and expected them to work for their pay, these great artists delivered a blues that was realer than real.
While it’s easy to mock the blinkered vision of Hamilton’s crew, its members reclaimed a history that might have gone unrecognized. Reading her study, I was struck by the similarities between the moldy figs of yesteryear and the obsessives of today. Once rock ‘n’ roll was celebrated precisely for its popularity. But now many rock critics would agree with James McKune that the public’s taste is to be deplored; a Pazz & Jop poll almost never meshes with the Hot 100. The multifications of style from emo to screamo carry us back to the days when blues lovers could locate the fulfillment of their chosen styles within a few miles of country road. No obsessed fan is guiltless. (As the author of the first book on gospel music, I had the chance to define the genre’s golden age as running from 1945 to 1960. Now I think I was off by 10 years in either direction.) Reading of the Blues Mafia, I remembered those days of the 1970s when rock fans, as a means of keeping things real, destroyed albums of disco, a keyboard-driven music identified with women and gay men. By that time, Nick Perls, the man who rediscovered Son House, had switched his allegiance from the real blues to disco.
Hamilton occasionally glances at the reactionary implications of her characters’ pursuits. It’s not a surprise that champions of the past often end up politically conservative. In his memoir, Bob Dylan asserts that his political hero, all during the freedom-marching ‘60s, was Barry Goldwater; and during his Pentecostal era (saved in a church founded by the former pianist of the blue-eyed soul duo the Righteous Brothers) he publicly excoriated homosexuals, Mr. Jones having gotten religion. One of the greatest fans of 1960s soul was Republican strategist Lee Atwater. Remember the image of him doing the soul split at a White House party, surrounded by a group of his aging idols, all his racist demagoguery placed temporarily on hold while he danced to the music. Hamilton includes a devastating quote from Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro” in which he praises the black man for “relinquishing the pleasures of the mind for the more obligatory pleasures of the body ... the infinite variations of joy, lust, languor, growl, cramp, pinch, scream and despair of his orgasm.” (Jelly Roll Morton was never so vulgar.) You might be able to hear this as Wilhelm Reich meets the blues. But it reminds me of Mailer’s many abominable remarks about women and gay men.
But cultural reaction runs in all directions. Hamilton quotes a smart observation of the blues scholar Charles Keil, “I can almost imagine some of these writers helping to set up a ‘reservation’ or Bantustan for old bluesmen.” This is a stunning if unwitting echo of something Zora Neale Hurston wrote her professor, Franz Boas, in 1927: The Negro “is not living his lore to the extent of the Indian. He is not on a reservation, being kept pure. His negroness is being rubbed off by close contact with white culture.” That attitude may explain why Hurston joined the John Birch Society in the 1950s. Still attacking Communists like Richard Wright (sic) and James Baldwin (double sic), she sided with the South’s biggest racists in their opposition to integration. Predicting Clarence Thomas’ attack on affirmative action, she felt it was patronizing to assume that blacks would benefit from mingling their already superior culture with the outside world. In her despair over a vanished golden age, she was something of a white blues boy herself.
Anthony Heilbut’s books include “The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times,” “Exiled in Paradise: German Refugee Artists and Intellectuals in America From the 1930s to the Present” and “Thomas Mann: Eros and Literature.” Albums he produced, by singers such as Mahalia Jackson and Marion Williams, have won the Grammy Award and Grand Prix du Disque and have been included in the Library of Congress’ National Registry.
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