Blues Guitar Adobe Stock

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

What if blacks had been more involved in telling the tale of the blues? What if the remnants of acoustic blues culture had been collected and classified by people with a keener insight into the lives and aspirations of its participants?

The Death of Rhythm and Blues
Nelson George
April 2003
In Search of the Blues
Marybeth Hamilton
January 2008
Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music
Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor
W. W. Norton
February 2007

You may think this music was created by poor, broke-down black men in the American South, partic,ularly the fertile cotton plantations and ramshackle surroundings known as the Mississippi Delta. You may perceive that these men lived in hard times framed by social and economic degradation, disconnected from urban modernity. You may believe these dire conditions invested the music with a mysterious poignancy, a sense of moral and artistic authenticity utterly lacking in the popular sounds of the day. You might even imagine a certain romance about this primitive early music as if by the very nature of its otherness, it’s somehow imbued with a purity and closeness to The Truth that all of us citified folks can’t even fathom.

You’d be wrong about a lot of that. But no worries, it’s not your fault.

See, while much of the best scholarship details the music’s multi-faceted evolution from Southern roots (not just Mississippi) to worldwide love, the popular notion of how the blues came to be is a lot less nuanced. In that realm, a certain creation myth took hold long ago. This myth was the story of a bluesman as an itinerant shaman, weaving some otherworldly spell from his weathered voice and sun-baked guitar. The problem is that it didn’t spring from the people who lived the music when it was made – not the audiences, not the critics, and certainly not the musicians. No, this notion came from people who thought the coolest thing about this stuff was that, a generation after its day, it was almost impossible to find.

These people were record collectors, most of them young men, most of them white, in the ’40s and ’50s. They set themselves busy discerning the lost traces of stark, acoustic music that bore only the faintest resemblance to the hot, electric sounds then emerging from big cities. To their ears, the music of the moment was shrill and derivative, and they rushed to embrace a music all but forgotten about, some strange sound that seemed to come from a time and space untainted by commercial regards – and, therefore in their minds, purer.

They scoured attics and junkbins and second-hand stores – 30-odd years before hip-hop DJs and beatmakers, they were the first cratediggers. They had two basic critieria: the spookier the singer the more profound the song, and the harder a copy to find the better. They ended up naming the style after the Mississippi territory where it seemed to them a large number of these musicians hailed from: the Delta blues.

But by putting a premium on the music’s scarcity and perceived mysticism, the collectors missed some key points. Yes, these men were poor, but it wasn’t their intention to stay that way if at all possible. Many of them could play much more than straight-up blues music. Times were changing around them, and getting ready to change a whole lot more. And there were other strains of blues and black pop music out there, which black audiences enjoyed just as much (if not more so).

But these details never made it into the creation myth of the blues. The two qualities of old blues music most cherished by the collectors – its high artistic pedigree and its low availability – shaped the image of the mysterious old bluesman from days of yore, never to sample life much beyond the plantation or the backwoods. By far, the most iconic figure of this type was an astonishing singer and guitarist whose music, indeed, would never have made it into the lexicon of American roots music had it not been for collectors. His story is so steeped in southern American gothic that if he didn’t actually exist, he would have had to be invented. In some respects, he was.

Robert Johnson’s recorded output consists of exactly 29 compositions, 12 of them recorded twice. He had three recording sessions, in Texas between 1936 and 1937. That’s it. His records didn’t sell too well, and not too many copies survived the years. He died under shady circumstances before he could break through to the big time. Years later, his work was championed by the blues collectors and their kindred spirits, the folk music revivalists of the 1960s. They were in thrall to Johnson’s dexterity and rhythm on the guitar, and haunting vocal imagery.

When Columbia finally reissued Johnson’s music on albums, they didn’t mince on the superlatives when it came time for album titles: King of the Delta Blues Singers (1961). Johnson’s music was so singular, and so powerfully affecting, that some took to it as the fount of all wisdom, the essential beginning point of blues music as we know it. That he supposedly became so good only by selling his soul to the Devil only made the story that much better.

Musicologist Elijah Wald pokes holes through that story in Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (Amistad, 2004). Wald explains Johnson’s genius not with mushy platitudes or hoary metaphors about trains and hellhounds, but with basic research and analysis. His digging reveals Johnson as an artist wholly of his time and place: a traveling musician in the ’30s rural South, possessed of incredible skill and magnetism, and a keen student of what others were doing, taking in everyone from previous acoustic bluesmen Lonnie Johnson and Son House to the urban sounds of Leroy Carr. But Wald ultimately places Johnson among his contemporaries as a “musician’s musician” whose sales and influence didn’t extend much beyond the Delta. The audience that elevated Johnson to the upper pantheon of musical titans was nowhere in evidence while he was alive, or at any point soon after his death.

Escaping the Delta is less a Johnson biography than a primer on blues music between the two World Wars. Wald argues that the broader musical landscape was far more varied than the record collectors’ fixation on rural bluesmen would lead one to believe. First, those early bluesmen likely had more varied repertoires than they were allowed to record, as label A&R men discouraged selections from the black stringband end of things (see the Carolina Chocolate Drops discussion in “Retelling the History of Black Music: Adventures in Retro-ism“) or anything that leaned too “pop” (meaning tunes familiar to non-blues audiences).

Those repertoires were varied because, Wald says, that’s how the players got paid. Those early bluesmen drew upon a variety of influences, including whoever was on the charts at the time. Folks who either owned a radio or knew someone who did heard broadcasts from all across the country of everything from downhome blues to uptown schmaltz. Also, jukeboxes were introduced in the ‘30s, bringing the latest records into juke joints and other hang-out spots. Between those two avenues, everyone knew what the hit songs were, and any guitar player hoping to pick up some cash at a gig had better know what the dancers liked.

Wald maintains that there’s absolutely no reason to assume that the early bluesmen were content to suffer for their art. There was already plenty of suffering to go around, thanks to Jim Crow. They made records hoping, in fact, to ease that suffering a little. Having a record out helped many a player make a bigger name for himself, which could increase their asking price for live gigs. If that record got a following a couple of towns away, that helped increase the musician’s circuit of possible gigs. Nobody expected to get rich off records alone, but the smarter and more successful recording artists weren’t making records solely for their health.

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.

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.

Later collectors would find this out for themselves in the ’50s and early ’60s, when they and the fans turned on by the music they’d unearthed trekked down South en masse to find whichever of those artists were still around. This led to an improbable second whack at making money from music for many of them, during the folk and blues revivals of the early ‘60s (a precursor, if you will, to long-gone rock bands mounting reunion tours to cash in on the hits once more). Yuval Taylor, in his chapter “Nobody’s Dirty Business” in Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music (with Hugh Barker; W.W. Norton, 2007), touches on the cross-cultural mashups that happened when long-forgotten figures like Son House, Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt received 15 additional minutes of fame. James was surly and dismissive of his new-found white audience, and House was a drunk, but Hurt seemed to thrive in the new limelight (despite that technically he wasn’t a blues player, but because he was a black man from the South with a guitar, that’s how he was classified, both in his late-‘20s recording career and during the revival years).

Curiously, Hamilton gives short shrift to perhaps the most renowned blues collector of all. In 1952, Harry Smith assembled from his deep collection the Anthology of American Folk Music (Folkways): 84 selections of acoustic blues and country music, all recorded between 1927 and 1932, and all long since forgotten about. His work had – and still has – influence far beyond its sales figures. It launched unprecedented white curiosity into older black pop culture, proved the common bonds between black and white acoustic music styles, and served as a totem pole for many of the future folk revivalists (including some guy in Hibbing, Minnesota who would go on to become Bob Dylan).

Hamilton instead turns her lens on Smith’s predecessor in the collecting game, a guy whose collection was limited by the amount of records he could store under his YMCA bed. James McKune was the collector’s collector, walking around with a list of records he sought, organized not by artist but by label and catalog number. Not only Smith, but also author Samuel Charters (The Country Blues, 1959), archivist Pete Whelen (who produced some of the first reissue albums of acoustic blues music as part of the Origins Jazz Library series), and other influential figures in the collecting community were heavily influenced by McKune’s example. Together, their work set the tone for how generations to come would understand the development of the blues.

They also created a new business line. The collectors helped give birth to the reissue trade, which has served the record industry well for 50 years and counting. The passionate championing by collectors of old blues legends, and the new audiences for those old black guys that sprouted up out of nowhere in the days of innocuous white teen pop, convinced record companies that a sizeable-enough coin could be newly minted from out-of-style music they already owned in their catalogues.

Nowadays, we treasure reissue packages with comprehensive programming and thorough, expert liner notes laying out the music’s chronology and explaining its historical significance. Early compilations of songs from the collectors’ personal stashes were the first such efforts. Although money wasn’t their foremost concern, the blues collectors ended up proving a business case for preserving older music. Our awareness of our entire American musical heritage, not to mention that of the rest of the world, wouldn’t be possible – at least, not without a lot of digging around — had not the collectors proved that there was a market of consumers who would buy good music no matter when it was made.

While their labors of love (none of them got rich for this, and McKune and Smith died in obscurity) have added much to our common cultural awareness, they also skew towards some uncomfortable biases. One, as Wald points out, the musicians weren’t necessarily unaffected by market forces. They weren’t aspiring to anyone’s notions of “primitive purity”, Big Bill Broonzy highly resented being expected to perform for white audiences in bib overalls, instead of the suit and tie he wore for black audiences, in order to conform to the prevailing notion of how a black man playing old blues music on an acoustic guitar must look.

Further, the collectors’ narrow focus excludes large swatches of the era’s blues spectrum. Indeed, no library of American music is complete without Smith’s Anthology – not just for the songs but also for his obsessive, knowledgeable annotation of them (and also the numerous essays in the Smithsonian 1997 CD reissue package). But it by no means encompasses the full range of music that black people were actually listening to during the years covered by the set. There’s none of the bawdy “hokum” songs that were all the rage following Tampa Red and Georgia Tom’s “Tight Like That”, or none of the gospel from the pen of Tom’s alter ego, Thomas A. Dorsey. Nor are there any selections of boogie-woogie piano, which also took a foothold in the marketplace around this time. The Anthology, like the work of the other collectors, is devoted to the rural end of things, but that’s not necessarily where black audiences spent the lion’s share of their entertainment time and money.

And that leads to a central, unspoken dynamic in the moment of the collectors. It is no knock against their heroic work in rescuing the black acoustic blues legacy from the passage of time to observe that for the most part, blacks were not part of the movement. For better or worse, the rediscovery of the acoustic blues tradition was pretty much a lily-white affair, except for the performers who were busy being rediscovered. Much of that can be attributed to George’s “blacks-create-whites-recycle” dichotomy.

When the folk revival, took hold in the early ‘60s, even the early electric masters of Waters’ generation were seeing younger, harder forms of blues and blues-based music coming up on the horizon, from axe-slinging guitarists like Buddy Guy and Otis Rush to Bobby “Blue” Bland and the first stirrings of southern soul; young black audiences would follow those rising stars and consign Waters and his contemporaries to the bad ol’ days. As the Civil Rights Movement gathered steam down South and urban unease festered up North, and with doors to greater economic and social opportunity opening up just a little for the very first time, blacks were in no mind to look backward at all, let alone fondly (although the folk revival dovetailed with white involvement in the Freedom Rides and other Movement activity).

Young white audiences, on the other hand, didn’t come to the older black music with such pre-conceptions or deeply formed relationships to black pop, or black life in general. In their minds, Johnson and his forebears didn’t represent an era to be left behind, but instead a grand, stoic nobility magically unfrozen from time. That may have been an overly romantic and slightly condescending notion (one could make a case for the rediscovered bluesmen as the first “Magical Negroes”, those near-saintly characters played in movies by blacks, treasured for their supposed mysterious powers to remind us of our better angels, and not assumed to have any earthly, flesh-and-blood qualities, needs or wants), but without their devotion to the music, its final remaining physical traces – and a last chance to hear directly from its creators – would most likely have been gone forever.

The collectors were the primary drivers in the restoring of attention and due respect to a vital element of the black American – and every American’s – cultural birthright. It’s just that blacks chose – then and now – to honor that birthright by continuing to create new culture from that bedrock. They didn’t need to know a Son House side from a Charley Patton side, and didn’t much care about the minutiae that obsessed the collectors. They certainly weren’t interested in reviving an older style forever linked to a past they wanted to escape even when it was the present.

The only problem with all that is that it left the first writings of the popular history of the acoustic blues era to people whose connection to it was second-hand, at best. Their work was fueled in many ways by sincere devotion and respect, but Hamilton concludes it was also ripe with the imposition of a patronizing narrative of blues musicians as old, rustic unsophisticates needing to be rescued and re-packaged in all their old, unsophisticated rusticness, “an eroticism of African American despair.” Moreover, it didn’t consider any of the broader cultural and social dynamics that informed the music, its creators, and its audience.

Of course, we know better now. Numerous blues experts, music scholars and cultural critics, black and white alike, have done their homework in full, telling the story of the blues with far more knowledge and understanding, and proper emphasis on the culture’s artists and audiences. But the image of the old black guy strumming a guitar and moaning a sad, sad tale endures as incomplete shorthand for a specific place and time, thanks in significant measure to the white collectors of the blues, whether or not they planned it that way.

That begs this musical question: what if blacks had been more involved in telling the tale of the blues? What if the remnants of acoustic blues culture had been collected and classified by people with a keener insight into the lives and aspirations of its participants? Recently released recordings suggest that such documentation by black researchers did in fact take place, and shed light on areas not accounted for in the story handed down through time.