[7 March 2008]
On a railroad platform in Tutwiler, Mississippi in 1895 or 1903 (the year is a point of contention), the songwriter W.C. Handy tried to sleep while awaiting his long-delayed train. However, he awoke to the strange sounds a black migrant dressed in rags coaxed out of his guitar with a knife blade while singing the enigmatic line: “Goin’ where the Southern cross the Dog”.
Thus was the blues discovered—a dark, brooding sound that seemed to emerge out of the landscape itself, or more appropriately a form of music that arose out of the confrontation between that landscape (slowly shifting from a plantation society to an increasingly urbanized environment) and a “free” but disenfranchised and dispossessed black underclass that despised the place it occupied but saw little hope of establishing a better position.
As a story of discovery and revelation it has served blues chroniclers well since it was first published in Handy’s memoirs but as a story of origins it fails miserably. Or rather, it succeeds precisely through its failure to articulate those origins. The blues, in this tale, was not formed; it was not a practice so much as it was a direct expression of the desperation and brave resistance of a people that were seen as somehow simultaneously alien and more truly human than other Americans. This hieratic sense of authenticity has suffused legends of the blues ever since.
But Handy’s is not the only story of the discovery of the blues. As Marybeth Hamilton’s remarkable new book In Search of the Blues demonstrates, even this legendary account is not really one story, but rather the confluence of many competing narratives that continuously probed history and culture in search of that profound mode of expression that beggars all description, the music that returns one to a purer state of humanity. This futile and foredoomed quest for a deeper and more authentic musical nature spurred on many collectors and writers and as Hamilton’s narrative unfurls we begin to see that the blues was never really there to be found.
There are as many “blues” as there are seekers after it and all of these seekers sift the musical material in the hopes of discovering that ever-elusive quality of authenticity. In this sense, it is perhaps more accurate to say that the blues as such was never “discovered” so much as it was invented—over and over again, all in the effort to promote some relatively circumscribed notion of the expression of the real.
In Search of the Blues does not present a history of musical styles and practices. It is not a narrative that traces lines of influence from one musician to another. Indeed, the actual musicians, with the important exception of Leadbelly, make hardly an appearance between the book’s covers. This is a different story of the blues; it is the story of those people (primarily white men and women) who were in search of something that they believed the blues or some other form of secular and “primitive” African-American music communicated in an undiluted manner.
The term “blues”, here, might even be somewhat misleading in that not all of the subjects of this study were interested in what we think of as the blues. Some sought plantation songs that would transport them to an idealized antebellum idyll while others hunted for the beginnings of New Orleans jazz. They were not interested in the same musical objects. Some sought rare recordings in part for the very materiality of the discs while others attempted to efface the presence of the mechanisms used to capture these sounds believing that machines left a modern stain on the pristine quality of these expressions of unfettered humanity.
What makes Hamilton’s investigation so rich and compelling is her astounding ability to bring such figures together with their disparate beliefs, methods, and aims while carefully revealing the shared impulses that underwrote their compulsions to collect, salvage, and (sometimes) preserve the objects of their musical desire. Hamilton clearly articulates their idiosyncrasies, gently probes their underlying convictions, and reveals each of her subjects in her or his own psychological environment. Hamilton is a seeker after other seekers and the details of their quests and the contradictions inherent in their motives are her primary concerns.
At the root of their need, it would seem, was an overriding obsession with authenticity. For Dorothy Scarborough, this authenticity could be found in the plantation songs that slaves had sung prior to emancipation. These songs evoked a Southern pastoral that she believed worthy of preservation. However, in her search for “Negro folk song” (a category that was, for her, far broader than the relatively well-documented spirituals), she did not seek out the assistance of the emancipated slaves.
Rather, she turned to Civil War veterans and white inhabitants of the plantations of the old South, plumbing their memories for the songs their “mammies” sang to them in the evenings, and the dances they witnessed the slaves performing. Her search for African-American song was, in essence, an attempt to return to a simpler, pre-modern moment in American history—an idealized South where the enslaved were happier than the emancipated because they were part of a racial symbiosis in which everyone had a place. This type of song, filtered necessarily through white consciousness, projected onto the past an American South that never existed, that never could have existed. Indeed, in her quest for “real Negro folk song”, she effaced African Americans as they were in preference for slaves as they never had been.
As a graduate student in social psychology, Howard Odum, the grandson of a disgraced Civil War veteran, looked to African-American song in order to gather “impartial testimony” with respect to the social and psychological conditions of the black race. He wanted to look beyond the sentimental obsession with spirituals to the wider spectrum of African-American music in order to uncover the true nature of the people. Music for Odum was the sounding out of a cultural mentality; it was hard evidence that pointed to underlying psychological formations. In this effort, Odum took a graphophone into the field to record the voices of the singers. Apparently, Odum’s recordings caught the blues in formation.
He later compared lyrics and melodies he recorded starting in 1907 with commercial recordings of the 1920s and discovered numerous similarities and variations. This is tantalizing evidence that unfortunately is lost to history; Odum, interested almost exclusively in lyrics, destroyed his recordings. This frustrating turn of events even prompts Hamilton to lament the loss of “the sound of the music in its natural state”. This, it seems to me, is a rare lapse of judgment on Hamilton’s part. The most effective element of her analysis throughout this book is that there was no “natural state” for this or any other music. Rather, the blues was always already a cultural product manipulated by its own reception; as Handy’s legend reveals, the very condition of its possibility depends upon the unbridgeable distance it maintains from its observers and thus it can occupy no unobserved, “natural” state.
The desire to unearth African-American music in its purest form led John Lomax to take a recording machine to various prisons in the South in the belief that African Americans who had been incarcerated for a substantial amount of time would be less likely to have become “corrupted” by commercial musical trends. The journey Lomax undertook with his son Alan introduced him to the musical phenomenon Leadbelly.
The story of Lomax’s encounter with Leadbelly and their subsequent relationship constitutes the most substantial chapter of Hamilton’s study. Throughout the account we witness Lomax’s self-defeating attempts to maintain the purity of Leadbelly’s musical production while introducing him to the audiences of the northern states. His effort to keep Leadbelly in a quasi-fossilized state, isolated from the musical changes wrought by modernity, reveals far more than Lomax’s basic racial prejudice. In a strange Rousseauian manner, Lomax conceived of the “primitive”, pre-modern black man (embodied in a fragile manner by Leadbelly) as racially inferior and yet more truly human—closer, that is, to humanity in its uncorrupted state.
Paradoxically, this view of Leadbelly represented the blues singer as both innocently pure in his emotional expression and yet dangerously violent in his social demeanor. Leadbelly, for Lomax, had to be preserved but such preservation required surveillance and control. Hamilton ably navigates the line between pointing out the morally repugnant assumptions underlying Lomax’s view and demonstrating a cautious understanding of the social conditions under which such assumptions were almost inevitable for a man in Lomax’s position.
The figure that occupies the dark center of the book, however, is a little-known record collector named James McKune who compiled an enviable collection of 78s recorded by early blues masters that he kept neatly arranged under his bed at the YMCA in Brooklyn. McKune, in his fanatical obsession with tracing the “real Negro blues” that preceded its commercial decline, slowly attracted numerous acolytes. It was indeed his followers who pioneered the formation of the country blues legend and inaugurated the blues revival.
McKune himself, however, remains a shadowy character. So little is known about him that we later find out that our first introduction to McKune was actually the product of the Hamilton’s imagination (a rather disingenuous move in an otherwise scrupulous narrative). Unlike the other seekers after African-American song, McKune valued the material traces of their efforts. He adored the 78s themselves—their color, their feel, the scratches they suffered over the course of their existence. These were relics of something lost, something unattainable. McKune posited himself as a mystic able to see into the shrouded past to reveal the traces of genuine emotion and a more profound musicality that was impossible to sustain.
As such, McKune becomes an obscure object of desire within Hamilton’s narrative. He is the elusive seeker of an elusive sound, a collector of mysteries who remains an enigma himself. His obsessive passion together with his mysterious death (he was murdered, his body discovered bound, gagged, and naked in a welfare hotel) places him in a situation similar to the one occupied by the inscrutable source of that passion. His motives and the “reality” of his nature are as lost to us as is the “reality” of the blues. Just like the blues, perhaps, he had no reality of his own. He is merely the sum total of the stories told by those who sought him out and those who, like Hamilton, continue trying to come to terms with his quest.
Although she never puts it in such terms, Hamilton treats McKune as the most authentic of her searchers after authenticity. Because our understanding of him is necessarily so incomplete, we tend to project our own desires and anxieties onto McKune while preserving the proper distance by reminding ourselves of his entirely marginal nature: he was an alcoholic, a closeted homosexual, a loner, a collector of things everyone else disregarded, and, in the end, homeless and quite possibly insane. The authentic, it would seem, is always that which is just out of reach.
Hamilton’s book is a must-read for anyone interested in the blues, the social conditions of its “discovery”, and questions concerning music and authenticity. Her narrative is engaging and informative, her understanding acute and persuasive. For all of the answers it provides, the book’s most important achievement resides within the questions that it raises.