Retelling the History of Black Music: Everything You Know About the Blues Is Wrong

Further on up the road, by the mid-’30s the black music landscape had emerged from the throes of the Depression and was spreading its wings. A radio listener could take in everything from Duke Ellington and Count Basie blowing down the house, to the Wings Over Jordan quartet and others of the first wave of gospel stars, to the day’s reigning blues stars, like Sonny Boy Wliiiamson. All that, as well as proto-jump blues from now-obscure acts like the Harlem Hamfats, appealed to record buyers far more than Johnson’s emerging synthesis of the acoustic blues continuum (Johnson was, as it turns out, the last player of note whose career fell entirely within that continuum). Besides, that style and sound was in its last days anyway.

Black life was increasingly a predominantly urban story in the ‘30s, with the Great Migration seeing millions of blacks leave the impoverished South for work in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and other urban centers. Black pop music was transformed by this massive shift. By the end of WWII, black pop was exploding in numerous directions: the urbane crooning of Nat King Cole, the brassy proclamations of Dinah Washington, the good-time boogie of Louis Jordan, the biting licks of guitar hero T-Bone Walker, and a thousand flowers blooming in between the cracks. Even the burgeoning electric blues of Muddy Waters et al coming out of Chicago, with its deep roots in the acoustic tradition, left Johnson’s achievements way, way back in the rear-view mirror. By the late ’40s, the heyday of acoustic blues had passed nearly 20 years earlier, and black audiences had no inclination whatsoever to revisit those days.

Author: Nelson George
Book: The Death of Rhythm and Blues
US publication date: 2003-08
Publisher: Penguin
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 0142004081
Length: 256
Price: $16.00

Author: Marybeth Hamilton
Book: In Search of the Blues
US publication date: 2008-01
Publisher: Basic Books
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9780465028580
Length: 309
Price: $24.95

In fact, Wald maintains, black audiences never did want constant reminders of the harshness of rural, plantation-era life. The hot sounds from New York City and Chicago gave hard-up southern blacks something else to hear and enjoy besides the soundtrack of their daily struggles. Blacks who had ventured from the South bought acoustic blues records as reminders of the folks back home, but in time they felt the same impulse away from the past and towards the new.

Thus did Robert Johnson’s legendary 41 sides find themselves rendered into obscurity soon after they were issued (a condition helped along by Johnson’s early demise in 1938; Wald acknowledges that we can only wonder what would have happened to Johnson’s music had he lived even a few years longer). In one of the grander ironies of race in American life, it was a group of idealistic, passionate white guys who brought new and lasting attention to not only Johnson, but also the broader black musical heritage he represents. For that, we should be thankful. But we might also consider why they bothered in the first place.


In The Death of Rhythm and Blues (Pantheon, 1988), Nelson George posits the difference between the attitudes of black and white listeners towards black music of the past rather starkly: “The black audience’s consumerism and restlessness burns out and abandons musical styles, whereas white Americans, in the European tradition of supporting forms and styles for the sake of tradition, seem to hold styles dear long after they have ceased to evolve…Blacks create and move on. Whites document and then recycle.”

That’s an over-simplification of a very complicated dance – it doesn’t leave room to examine, for example, how hip-hop sampling straddles both of those extremes at once – but there’s more than a kernel of truth to it. But while the blacks-creating part is well-told and acknowledged, the whites-documenting end of George’s equation has been less fully understood.

Marybeth Hamilton embarks upon that discussion in In Search of the Blues: Black Voices, White Visions (published in the UK last year by Jonathan Cape, in the USA this year by Random House). It begins with Hamilton on a quest familiar to fans and students of the blues: rooting around the Mississippi backwoods, looking for any strand, remnant or relic that could connect her to the world that created Robert Johnson (so many music lovers have gone down that road that blues-related tourism contributes to the modern-day Delta economy). What ended up capturing her curiosity was not Johnson’s music but the cultural explorers who came before, specifically that breed which sought to classify the unclassifiable, to understand and explain a mysterious Black Musical Other, to layer an order and structure upon a way of life and art no one outside the Other’s milieu would naturally comprehend.

In his book, Wald explores the notion of the white “blues cult”, a community of traditional jazz fans (think Dixieland, not bebop), folk music fans, blues record collectors and the early Beats. Those subgroups dovetailed in the ‘40s and ‘50s, sharing a distaste for the pop music industry and the creeping commercialization of culture they felt it represented. They cherished untainted authenticity in their art (in the case of the Beats, add a dash of rebelliousness), and they thought they’d located it in the all-but-forgotten music of the acoustic bluesmen. Hamilton’s work centers on the collectors: first, those who made field recordings of blacks performing blues songs, then those who sought to acquire long-forgotten commercial recordings.

She tracks the impulse back to 1907, when sociologist Howard Odom became the first to record any of the nascent blues idiom (alas, those seminal field recordings – which would now have incalculable historical value – disappeared). But here emerges a recurring theme for Hamilton: the collector/documentarian not primarily interested in the music itself on its own terms. Odom, for example, saw the music less as art in and of itself than as a window onto the black psyche; what he discovered contrasted so sharply with his genteel Southern upbringing that he turned away from music-related research for nearly 20 years.

Down the road a piece, Hamilton unpacks the complicated, multi-dimensional culture clash (black/white, learned/uneducated, rural/urban, political/apolitical, and so on) between the Lomax family and the performer they took under their wings, Huddie Ledbetter. John Lomax, unquestionably, contributed untold volumes towards our understanding of American music through his numerous field recordings throughout the ’30s. Hamilton argues that Lomax went to the field partly to escape the artifice of commercial recordings, and partly to wrestle with personal demons; both of those tracks set him on his quest to tap into the “primitive purity” (his words) of untutored black performers.

He was especially keen to record songs from prisoners, thinking that by dint of their mass media-free incarceration, their songs would be less likely to reflect any taint of the modern sound, and more like those “distinctive old-time Negro melodies.” When Lomax discovered Ledbetter, already better known as Leadbelly, and his seemingly endless memory of songs in the Louisiana State Penitentiary in 1934, it might have seemed that he’d found his Holy Grail.

After Ledbetter was released from prison and became Lomax’s protégé, Hamilton says, their relationship became fraught with issues over politics, art, money and image (not the last time such friction would rise between a black artist and a white benefactor). Those issues continued as Lomax’s son Alan, a burgeoning field archivist himself, entered into his own professional relationship with Ledbetter (and others as well, to be recounted in this series’ next installment). One takeaway from Hamilton’s review of those dynamics is that while recordings are fixed documents that provide unchanging content at every exposure, the human beings who actually made those documents are a lot trickier to grasp.