In Search Of The Blues, by Marybeth Hamilton

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In Search Of The Blues, by Marybeth Hamilton

Post  pinhedz on Mon Jul 02, 2012 4:49 am

The Revelator revealed this:


IN SEARCH OF THE BLUES
By Marybeth Hamilton.
Illustrated. 309 pp. Basic Books. $24.95.


By DAVE MARSH
Published: February 24, 2008

“In Search of the Blues” is not about the blues, or the people who made the blues. It’s about people who made the dark side of blues music into what popular mythology calls “the Delta blues.” Those people aren’t singers or players but folk song scholars and record collectors.

So Marybeth Hamilton believes. She organizes her book around the personal stories of five people or groups of people. The first three — Howard Odum, Dorothy Scarborough, and John and Alan Lomax — are scholars. The last two groups — Frederic Ramsey, Charles Edward Smith and William Russell, followed by James McKune and the acolytes called the Blues Mafia — are collectors. Most of the scholars are older. The collectors are more obsessed.

Hamilton’s position is that these scholars and collectors — all of them white, all of them educated, all of them middle-class — are the people who determined our understanding of the Delta blues (a k a country blues). That is, the musical similarities and differences among Charley Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson, Big Joe Williams, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf — all of them black, none of them educated, all of them poor — can be excluded from such a discussion, except in the way they affected the thinking of the scholars and collectors. “Here our view of the singer is obscured by the presence of the narrator,” Hamilton writes. But as she tells the story, the singer is obliterated.

Hamilton, who teaches American history at Birkbeck College, University of London, and is the author of a book about Mae West, ignores the lineage of heavy beats and a common pool of lyrical imagery. She does not even bother to state and then dismiss the notion that there is something in the content of the music that led to its image as profound and unsettling. Instead, she describes the blues as an idea that developed as the result of a search for a pure aesthetic expressed by primitive African-Americans untainted by the modern world. The seekers, some in the service of white supremacy, some operating under the banner of Popular Front proletarianism, some in the thrall of art for art’s sake, hoped to locate the one true voice of the Negro in the deepest, darkest South.

The map of this multigenerational pursuit doesn’t show Highways 61, 55 and 49; it’s a more mythic path revealed only to a studious elite. The Delta blues survive not because of the talent and emotional depth of the music makers, but because of the image of them that was constructed by the scholars and collectors.

In that light, let’s tell a familiar story: Eric Clapton was spurred to an obsession by a bootleg tape of Robert Johnson, on which he thought he heard an amazingly creative guitarist with a haunting voice and strikingly original ways of framing blues imagery. But the sounds were merely the foundation on which a concept had been established by the Blues Mafia and its predecessors.

Hamilton’s neatest trick, perhaps, is simply to write out of the story any alternate routes to what Clapton and others wound up experiencing. She does this not only by displaying an aversion to any extended discussion of music and musicians, but also by omitting incidents that portray a different trajectory.

Consider Robert Johnson. He became famous in the North because he was the missing performer at the 1938 Spirituals to Swing concert, missing because he had died. Hamilton does not mention Spirituals to Swing, although she does several times mention the show’s promoter, John Hammond.

Hamilton writes that Hammond, like the blues fanatics Ramsey and Smith, believed that “a distinctly black, defiantly proletarian art form” needed to be nurtured “in an era when ... jazz had been tamed, sweetened and commodified, with white performers like Benny Goodman and Paul Whiteman praised as its consummate practitioners.”

Not only did the real John Hammond feature Benny Goodman’s band in Spirituals to Swing, the whole purpose of the night’s program was to show that jazz had grown from solid roots in Negro culture, that its modern incarnations were vital in part because they came directly from those roots, and that its power spoke to and could be interpreted by all kinds of people, not just black ones.

That’s the best competing argument of how the blues aesthetic has been transmitted: through the evolution of a specific culture — segregated from the American mainstream not by choice but by law and custom — that time and again, from spirituals to hip-hop, goes off like a bomb when it’s been more widely exposed.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of “In Search of the Blues” is that virtually no black voice is heard. (The page-and-a-half exception is a characteristically vituperative letter written by Zora Neale Hurston to John Lomax.) John Work III is not a figure in this tale, even though as a second-generation black musicologist, he was Alan Lomax’s partner and guide in a project to record blues in the Delta in the early 1940s. Lomax never credited Work, but recent research has established him as at least Lomax’s equal in the study. Hamilton gives him but two passing mentions, neither of which even alludes to Lomax’s dishonesty.

At least Work is mentioned. Some important black writers, including Clyde Woods and Amiri Baraka, are not recognized at all. Those writers are not concerned with purity and primitivism in the blues — unsurprisingly, since they know the demeaning light in which such terms cast black culture.

“In Search of the Blues” is at best frustrating and sometimes infuriating. It may seem to come out of left field, but it’s actually one of the clearest examples of the revival of interest in writing about folk music spurred by the “Old, Weird America” chapter in Greil Marcus’s “Invisible Republic.” Marcus told the story of the collector Harry Smith in a book mostly concerned with music. Smith got all the attention. His “Anthology of American Folk Music” (1952) has now been succeeded, in various forms, by what amounts to a continuing Harry Smith Project. “In Search of the Blues” brings the process to its culmination by making the music invisible and all but irrelevant.

Hamilton spends pages on John Lomax’s twitchings as he tried to avoid making his white-supremacist ideas congruent with the conditions endured by black prisoners in the South. Here Hamilton takes sides, using a few quotations from the writer and song collector John Henry Faulk to dismiss the significance of Lomax’s racial attitudes. Later, she terms Lomax’s lie that he never saw a black chain gang “muted ... criticism.”

To the perspective of Leadbelly, Lomax’s discovery and near chattel, she devotes one paragraph.

The book’s final two pages describe James McKune’s descent into living on skid row among “junkies, hookers and derelicts,” without ever mentioning mental illness as a possible cause. In conclusion, Hamilton compares McKune’s demise — murdered in a hotel room by what the police assumed must have been a sex partner — with the death of Robert Johnson, reputedly poisoned by a jealous husband. But she is apparently thinking not just of their similar manner of death but of what she believes was a similar manner of life, each of them an “alienated drifter, scorning the pull of the marketplace, uncorrupted to the very end.”

A writer who finds a bohemian version of a fairy-tale ending in such circumstances is a rare thing, and for good reason."

***

pinhedz
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