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Hard Hitting Blues: Blues, Boxing, and Work

Carlo Rotella

Comparing bluesmen to boxers is a parlor game -- okay, a saloon pastime -- worth trying once or twice.

Albert King

Archie Moore

Comparing bluesmen to boxers is a parlor game -- okay, a saloon pastime -- worth trying once or twice. Albert King and Archie Moore, for instance, exemplify the fundamental truth that mastery of style -- whether it be stringbending or shoulder-feinting -- can trump the raw speed and power that impress most casual observers. Otis Rush, like Sonny Liston, may well be the most gifted of the all-timers, but he is similarly flawed by the toxic lode of bad feeling running deep inside that also helps make him so potent. Muddy Waters and Joe Louis have been assigned complementary leading parts in defining the meaning and consequences of the great northward migration of black southerners in the 20th century.

Are you with me so far? Let's try some more pairs. Buddy Guy and Muhammad Ali offer variations on a single theme: they both demonstrate the possibilities and limits of relying on crowd-pleasing frenetic inspiration, a strategically deployed genius for going off, to carry the day. How about Magic Slim and Larry Holmes? They raise classically sound technique and night-in-night-out professionalism to the level of definitive artistry. Or Son Seals and Evander Holyfield, cruiserweight bangers who, tempering heart and will with hard-won experience, succeed in turning themselves into heavyweights to be reckoned with. Or John Primer, the current Chicago scene's most accomplished new traditionalist, and the IBF's by-the-book reigning lightweight champion Paul Spadafora: Primer's no-nonsense songcraft and Spadafora's defense-first sensibility both evoke the priorities of earlier eras without tuning out more contemporary influences.

I should stop.

Junior Wells and Beau Jack: two little fellows with outsize power and a waning patience for finesse. Fenton Robinson and Philadelphia Jack O'Brien: gentlemen in the rough who wrap an endearingly mannered style of presentation around sophisticated technical chops.

Enough; I'll stop.

On the one hand, it's just a parlor game. You could do the same thing with shortstops and classical violinists, presidents and saints. On the other hand, the affinity between blues and boxing goes deeper than cocktail-assisted metaphorical fancy. It goes deeper, too, than a shared penchant for great stage names. We can follow that affinity into matters of skilled craft, social class, and a common relationship to work.

* * *

Start with the premise that working at an expertise in blues or boxing has traditionally offered people of limited means a chance to develop a gift. Whether dabbling or in earnest, men and women with a God-given, experience-enhanced talent -- for harmony or leverage, for entertaining an audience or inflicting pain -- can get into the blues or boxing trades without laying out much capital. That's because the institutions of both worlds have always been relatively accessible. Musical or athletic training may be demanding in many other ways, but it doesn't cost much cash up front to run in the early mornings and work out at a boxing gym in the evenings, or to get hold of a secondhand instrument (or, cheaper still, to sing around the house, at church, at school) and start looking in the neighborhood or in local clubs for people to play with.

Both blues and boxing also have a strong tradition of apprenticeship and self-instruction. In either discipline, almost any capable novice willing to come further than halfway to his or her elders can find, or steal, useful lessons. Almost anyone of moderate ability willing to put up with lousy paydays in order to be around masters of the craft will find opportunities to pick up experience and lore as a member of the supporting cast. Almost anyone willing to sustain a commitment to blues or boxing -- as participant or railbird -- can expect not be turned away. Both worlds are so ad hoc and individualistic, especially at their lower ends, that it's not really worth anybody's while to close the gate to a persistent hanger-around who does not make too many demands.

Hanging around can be the crucial first step in the process of turning an inchoate impulse, be it musical or fistic, into a skill. Individual inspiration takes shape as it is poured into the vessels provided by institutions (gyms, Golden Gloves tournaments, promoters' businesses; blues clubs, bands, record labels) and the house styles they sustain.

* * *

The similar accessibility of blues and boxing to people of limited means points to a common social grounding. The histories of both disciplines are wrapped intimately around the history of work, and of the working classes, in America.

In the case of blues, that identity goes back to the root, to the unfree labor of enslaved Africans and to the work songs that were one of the principal sources for the modern blues that appeared in the late 19th century; also to the timber camps and other work-based communities in which early blues took form. The historical rhythms of labor have shaped the development of blues in all sorts of ways -- from the cadences of manual labor and industrial machines that still pervade the blues soundscape to the work-related folk migrations that so deeply affected the mutation of blues styles. As a subject, also, work has been on the short list of major blues themes, on a par with bad news, ecstatic experience, place, travel, and sex. And, of course, playing the blues is itself a form of work in an industry connected to more general economic and social conditions.

In the particular case of Chicago blues (in favor of which, I freely admit, I have a bias), it is not exaggerating to say that the music was profoundly shaped by a shift to industrial labor in the black working class. The strongest pushes and pulls guiding black migration to the north included the mechanization of southern agriculture and the manufacturing booms associated with the world wars. These economic forces were essential to delivering a critical mass of southern blacks to Chicago by the 1950s, including the musicians, initial audience, and some of the business people who shaped the Chicago style. We can hear resonances of that story in the modulation of Delta blues into Chicago blues: we can hear southern agrarian traditions of music-making and meaning-making come to a reckoning with the machine-tool bite of the electric guitar and the gearing-up of rhythm sections to run more or less like clockwork.

One can tell similar stories about boxing. During the period when manufacturing and boxing enjoyed greatest prominence in urban America -- between the late 19th century and the late 20th -- the shopfloor and the ring drew on the same talent pool, which was periodically refreshed by arriving immigrants or migrants. Waves of Irish, Jewish, Italian, black, and Hispanic fighters succeeded one another in entering and dominating the American fight world, just as they successively entered the neighborhoods of industrial cities. The boxing gym, like the factory (and the church, the saloon, the settlement house), was once a standard feature in the landscapes of urban villages inhabited by in-migrants who had come to the city to work with their hands.

The identity between boxing and work persists today, on and beneath the surface of the fights. In the labor-obsessed language of the boxing world, fighters work the body, outwork an opponent, impress judges with a good work rate, and display good work habits in the ring. This identity also persists in the bodies of fighters and the training regimens that produce them. Once upon a time, fighters got in shape by systematically hewing wood and drawing water, and some of the exercises they do today still betray origins in precise, repetitive labor.

Boxing and work intertwine as well in the biographies and backgrounds of the combatants, the deep structure of historical and social situation that remains largely invisible to us when we watch two combatants moving in the blank space of the ring. Sociologists have unsurprisingly observed from time to time that, as S. Kirson Weinberg and Henry Arond put it in their authoritative 1952 study, boxers "are recruited from among the youth of the lower socioeconomic levels. Their changing ethnic composition reflects the ethnic shifts in the urban lower socioeconomic levels." Until the parallel contraction of factory work and the fight network of gyms and clubs in the decades after World War II, most men who aspired to a career in boxing faced the classic choice between the ring and skilled manual labor. For a very good, lucky, or well-connected few, boxing might bring riches. For others it was a widely respected career path that, while youth and vigor allowed, both diverged from and shadowed the one on which a fighter's peers trudged, lunch pail in hand. For some it was a route toward a livelihood and away from crime or dissipation, for others the reverse. For the legion of part-time boxers it was something rewarding one could do -- for money, for recreation, for the satisfaction of doing it well or hurting somebody -- with a body hardened by regular, strenuous labor.

* * *

By now -- after decades of deindustrialization and the rise of the service and information economies, the slowing and reversal of south-to-north migration, and neighborhood-breaking redevelopment in the inner city -- the urban village has been primarily a historical artifact for at least a generation. Blues and boxing are no longer as institutionally established or as culturally prominent as they once were, especially in their traditional strongholds -- working-class neighborhoods in the inner city. They have been shoved to the margins since the mid-20th century by competitors -- by the progeny of rock and soul, by big-time team sports, by the favored cultural forms of a nation in which industrial and agricultural work no longer dominates national life as they once did.

But both disciplines continue to thrive as craft and as business, in part because they have recruited new cohorts of practitioners and audiences, and because they have secured new institutional footing in the social landscape. If there are no longer scores of active blues clubs in the old Black Metropolis, the South Side and West Side of Chicago, there are several downtown and on the North Side, the precincts of a largely white middle class that has almost nothing to do with industrial work. If an aspiring fighter can no longer count on walking to a local boxing gym housed in the loft space above a sweatshop or a union hall, he -- or she, these days -- might happen upon one in a strip-mall storefront between a video rental place and a beeper store. If there's practically no chance of seeing B.B. King or Evander Holyfield in action in the old neighborhood, you can catch both of them at a casino in Las Vegas or Atlantic City, or on an Indian reservation. The Trump Marina has yet to be celebrated in song as the home of the blues, and Ledyard, Connecticut, does not enjoy a longstanding reputation as a cradle of welterweights, but time may yet make the unfamiliar familiar.

This state of affairs gives some blues and boxing fans (especially those who convey their aesthetic preferences with labels like "gritty" and "kick-ass") a case of authenticity anxiety. Some argue, and not without reason, that both disciplines are in decline, gradually sliding from vitality to the zombie-like status of nostalgic spectacle. Others, pointing to frighteningly big heavyweights or astounding pay-per-view paydays or warp-speed guitar heroes or chains of pricey themed clubs, argue to the contrary that blues or boxing is enjoying a renaissance.

Since I'm suspicious of all stories of decline as well as all booster stories, I would say only that the deep-rooted connection of blues and boxing to the social landscape -- and especially to the history of work and working-class life -- helps make them attractive to all sorts of people. Part of the appeal lies precisely in the two disciplines' historical resonances, the old-school tang that always adheres to a boxing match or a blues song. Successive waves of practitioners and audiences most definitely leave their imprints, but the basic forms and not-so-surprisingly similar social situations of blues and boxing were hammered out a long time ago.

* * *

[Carlo Rotella ([email protected]) teaches American Studies and English at Boston College. His next book, Good with Their Hands: Boxers, Bluesmen, and Other Characters from the Rust Belt, will be published by the University of California Press this fall. An Education at the Fights will be published by Houghton Mifflin in 2003.]

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