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

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).

Display Artist: Hugh Barker, Yuval Taylor
Author: Hugh Barker
Author: Yuval Taylor
Book: Faking It
Subtitle: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music
US publication date: 2007-02
Publisher: W. W. Norton
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9780393060782
Length: 304
Price: $25.95

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.

Next up: Retelling the History of Black Music: Blues and the Mississippi Delta, in Transition