Swans Commentary » swans.com July 28, 2008  



Delta Dreaming
Marybeth Hamilton's In Search Of The Blues: Black Voices, White Visions


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Hamilton, Marybeth: In Search Of The Blues: Black Voices, White Visions, Basic Books, NYC, 2008, ISBN-13: 9780465028580, ISBN-10: 0465028586, 309 pages.


(Swans - July 28, 2008)   Pablo Picasso said he admired research, but what mattered was to find something. Marybeth Hamilton doesn't search her way back through the mists of time, much less to Africa. What she's found is that white men and women invented the blues as we know them. They were connoisseurs who objected to what the black voice had become on the phenomenally successful race records, made for the Afro-American public in the early 20th century. Hamilton's subtitle, Black Voices, White Visions says it better. The music came from black mouths and hands, but fantasy-prone white enthusiasts decided what was good and what was bad. These cultural arbiters claimed their place thanks to their powers of discrimination. But like so many hobby-cranks or aficionados-in-a-fever they had a twisted agenda. They would have nothing but what two chroniclers called "almost archaeological purity," "rough, spontaneous, crude and unfinished" voices. They were unfazed that their taste wasn't shared by the black community itself, decidedly blasé about the primitive and thrilled like everybody else by the new easy mechanical means of reproducing music.

The reaction is familiar. First we first treat the "other" as "lesser," so inferior that we feel no guilt in taking advantage of him. When laws or enlightenment make this impossible, we substitute exotic for inferior, and push the "different" pedal down to the floor. That avoids simply admitting the "other" is equal. A current of 19th century thought held that women weren't equal to men; they were different, possibly superior. But this courtly view didn't hasten female suffrage or equality before the law.

The white seekers whose work Hamilton tells us about are all decent people. They saw themselves as generous, devoted to higher goals and ready to open their hearts, not always to black brothers, but to any Afro-American art they thought met their criteria. Howard Odum (1884-1954), who would become the South's premier sociologist, collected songs in the Mississippi Delta in 1907. (Hamilton doesn't credit W.C. Handy's claim to have discovered the blues in the Delta in 1903. For her the Delta as birthplace of the blues is unproven.) Odum quickly saw that spirituals, preserved by choirs and sheet music publishers, were not principally what blacks sang. His prudery didn't make his enquiry easy for him. He found everyday songs "openly descriptive of the grossest immorality." He was upset by dealing with frank informants face to face. Perhaps that's why he changed his field of research. When he returned to it at the end of the 1920s he established a distinction between "folk blues," which he heard in the Delta years before, and the "formal blues" sold on race records. He ended in nostalgia for those "folk blues" that were now safely in the distant past and enhanced by wishful thinking.

Dorothy Scarborough (1878-1935) adopted the persona of a Southern Lady. It's true that her grandfather had owned slaves and that she had grown up in the South. But she spent her working life as a novelist and writer in New York City. Her area of nostalgia was the pre-modern South and the black mammy that had nursed her. As a collector of black songs she kept to the feel-good smiling-darky category. She protected herself from Odum's problem with the "vicious and obscene" by learning about black music from white, elderly Southerners who had also listened to their mammies. However, the exuberance let loose by race records couldn't leave any New York resident unaffected. Scarborough found that increasingly "the most popular type of Negro song has been that peculiar, barbaric sort of melody called blues." The Herald Tribune spoke of a "Negro renaissance," and it was certainly not typified by the songs the Southern Lady's mammy sang. In the world of Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, and Paul Robeson her genteel condescension was anachronistic.

The need of these white seekers for black vocal purity went beyond disapproval of race records. The black writer Zora Neale Hurston wrote: "You see the Negro is not living his lore to the extent of the Indian. He is not on a reservation, being kept pure." A collector, Robert Gordon, said his aim in preserving black folk song was to help "the whites of the South to keep one bunch of Negroes from becoming utterly worthless and modern in the city coon sense." The enemy of the mythic perfect blues' voice was, in other words, modernity, urban life with its industry, commerce, and more difficult social control -- its freedom.

The row of portraits becomes more complex and dramatic with John Lomax (1867-1948) and his son Alan (1915-2002). Born in Mississippi, Lomax senior lived in Texas. At Harvard he'd been discouraged from pursuing his interest in black songs and the subject remained a sideline till he lost his job in a bank in 1931. He then collaborated with the Library of Congress where an Archive of Folk Song had been set up. It's generally agreed that Lomax was a near genius in his field. Relentless in his pursuit of material, he had a special gift for inducing informants to sing and play. Academics were still pretending that America, having no peasantry, could have no folklore. Lomax, convinced of the contrary deemed the "down-and-out-classes" a particularly rich source.

The Library provided Lomax and his son Alan with improved recording equipment, and they put it to use on a long collecting trip through the South. Lomax thought that no place could be more like a reservation that kept "Indian" culture pure than a southern chain gang. He concentrated on prisons. In Louisiana, at Angola he listened to a 48-year-old guitarist sing. He was Huddie Ledbetter, known as Leadbelly. Lomax was stunned by the force of the man and his twanging guitar, but especially by the vast range of songs that he could deliver at will in an "unspoiled" base voice.

A year later Lomax returned and helped secure Leadbelly a pardon from the governor. The pair traveled to more southern jails with Leadbelly serving to warm up the prisoners, encouraging them to sing their songs. With the musician in the guise of chauffeur and manservant, the pair arrived in New York in 1934. Lomax saw his role as a hunter adventurer. Soon he seemed more like a lion tamer. He whisked Leadbelly out of the city where, having fun in Harlem, the singer showed signs of being infected with modernity. Kept under wraps in Connecticut, Leadbelly was allowed to have his lover Martha join him. Lomax held all the money, even the change earned by passing the hat. But when the March of Time filmed the singing convict and made him a celebrity, Leadbelly jumped his cage.

Since Leadbelly had twice been convicted of violent crimes, his appearances tended to be sensational in the manner of a freak show. Lomax called him "the most famous nigger in the world," and seemed oblivious to his own questionable position, control mania, and Southern Gentleman's racial paternalism. Leadbelly immediately absorbed Tin Pan Alley and every other musical influence going. Probably these were not so unfamiliar to him as Lomax had imagined. Hamilton writes:

What was being played out, as though Lomax had scripted it, was his deep-rooted belief in the vulnerability of the primitive artist, his conviction that mere exposure to commercial music would inevitably result in adulteration. (Page 93)

Lomax put Leadbelly and Martha on a bus for the South and settled himself to write his Leadbelly book. But the story would have a second act with its own freak shows. The musician would return to New York and be taken up by the Left. It's satisfying to think that Lomax got his comeuppance in 1937 when Richard Wright attacked his treatment of Leadbelly in The Daily Worker. However, the Party was soon parading Leadbelly as a proletarian tame bear. He was quoted as saying "I feel happy when I am with the boys of the Workers' Alliance." But when he sang at Camp Unity, a Communist Party summer retreat, his ballads of sex and murder shocked the comrades. They were after purity too. The next night the astute Leadbelly delivered "Bourgeois Blues" and threats of Party censorship were dropped.

Alan Lomax had in the meantime slipped parental control and become prominent in New York radical circles. In 1937 he replaced his father as Assistant Curator at the Archive of Folk Song. He had a new political view of what constituted folklore and enriched the Archive with material John Lomax would have judged to be the product of urban decadence.

It was Alan Lomax -- not particularly interested in jazz at the time -- who was instrumental in starting the New Orleans revival. In 1938 he recorded Jelly Roll Morton for the Library of Congress. Morton's reminiscing between singing and piano playing proved something of a sensation. His rediscovery had been in part due to three enthusiasts, Ramsey, Russell, and Smith. In 1939 they produced the Jazzmen, the first history of jazz by American writers. Once again white aficionados were bent on discovering undefiled black music. This time it was in turn-of-century New Orleans. The writers had a minor setback when one of their loquacious informants, the trumpet player Bunk Johnson, turned out to be a consummate liar. But he was not out of place in what was conceived of as a folk history. The idea was to collect factual material by interviewing anyone who had been connected with New Orleans in its musical heyday. The book was strongly influenced by the thinking of the Federal Writers Project.

The viewpoint of the Jazzmen's authors was a step forward in two ways. First of all, they saw urban life as positive for blacks. Secondly, they dropped what they called the Van Vechtian line. (Carl Van Vechten was a writer who treated blacks as anthropological curiosities.) They saw environment, not nature, as what distinguished the race. Ramsey, Russell, and Smith attributed the quality of New Orleans jazz to its underworld. The barrelhouses and honkytonks of Storyville were the indispensable element. This particular myth made New Orleans a timeless Eden. It was when the musicians left town that their music was corrupted. Hamilton quotes Eric Hobsbawm: "New Orleans became a multiple myth and symbol: anti-commercial, anti-racist, proletarian populist, New Deal radical, or anti-respectable and anti-parental, depending on taste." But the revival, lumping jazz and blues together, hadn't clarified the origin of the latter.

For Hamilton one man was the seed that grew into the bean stock of the Delta story. James McKune (1910-1971) was a recluse who started to collect blues records in 1943 from his room in a Brooklyn YMCA. Intense, marked by austerity and fanatical standards, he soon gathered admiring acolytes around him that called themselves the Blues Mafia. The only country blues recordings that McKune recognized as authentic were those that overpowered him. A scarred Paramount side by Charley Patton had done that. He also admitted to his pantheon Robert Johnson, Son House, and Skip James. An admirer of McKune, Marshall Stearns, spoke of his taste for what was "archaic in the best sense...gnarled, rough-hewn and eminently non-commercial." Hamilton says McKune identified "real Negro blues" by "its inimitable vocal: searing, primitive, yet wholly artless." It was "unvarnished sound...heated, primal emotion."

McKune's aesthetic excluded everything but that voice. Savoring its quality and "transcendent, mystical power" was all that interested him. The cult of New Orleans jazz had to go as well as decades of black music on race records. He stood not only against commerce and entertainment but against anything sociological in the blues. If there was protest, he said, it was only in the piano or guitar, not in the primitive lyrics.

This apolitical stance produced a collision of critics that would accompany the revival of the blues. From the 1930s onward, the American Left had acclaimed black music as class protest. In 1959 Samuel Charters published The Country Blues. Aligned with the New Left, a civil rights and antiwar activist, Charters aimed to reveal black music's "awareness of the real sources of power in the society, the consciousness of social inequalities."

Charters based his study on popularity and which records the black audience had actually bought in the 1930s. This naturally pushed out of the picture the rarities the Blues Mafia prized. McKune was furious to find Charley Patton and Robert Johnson barely mentioned. In 1961, The Origins Jazz Library, an anthology of the great obscure singers, moved opinion in the other direction. So did a Library of Congress LP of 1962, Negro Blues and Hollers. We think of the 1960s as socially and politically engaged but the incipient blues revival took a definite turn away from politics. Charters soon agreed that the blues hadn't "simply mirrored the protest of the moment." Eventually that stalwart of the Left, Alan Lomax, would no longer see the blues as focusing on social conflict. The new consensus was consecrated by dropping the phrase Country Blues in favor of Delta Blues. "Soon," says Hamilton, "the idea that the Delta was the original home of the blues, that it generated a uniquely pure form of black music, came to seem incontestable."

McKune in his Brooklyn YMCA room, absorbed in a few scratchy records, had changed the map and made the whole blues phenomenon flow from the several obscure singers that moved him. Hamilton can't agree but is bemused by the myth and how it was created. What she has done is show us the extent to which white men have fantasized over the doings of black men. We can understand singer guitarist Lonnie Johnston. When an ethnomusicologist approached him for an interview, he lashed out: "Are you another one of those guys who wants to put crutches under my ass?"

This fascinating enquiry into the blues as a field for the imagination to romp in raises a larger question. Can authenticity have any meaning in the popular arts of a post-industrial democracy in the third millennium? It would seem not. Consider for a moment the career of Bob Dylan. It was crowned by his book Chronicles and Martin Scorsese's film No Direction Home. They documented the complete and brilliant fabricating of the artist and his art. Then the film I'm Not Here told the story in other terms, as if to reassure us that we had understood: the only purity involved was pure invention. Significantly, no one seriously objected. It meant that the search for untainted origins can be left to a coterie with a need for something to distinguish itself. The rest of us can get on with enjoying what's on offer.


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Published July 28, 2008