Thursday, September 2, 2010

Where Do The Blues Come From?

I'd like to give a big thanks to everyone for their kind words regarding the Jelly Roll Morton posts. Unfortunately, I do not have the PDF file that accompanies the set. If anyone buys the actual product or receives the expensive thing for a birthday gift, feel free to scan the PDF file. There are some things that one feels inclined to purchase despite having downloaded the audio in its entirety, and this is one of them.

I want to give a special thanks to Olde Edo for the exhaustive track listings that he provided us. I'm just curious if any of the songs were improperly labeled, Olde.

I'd like to take this time to urge you all to take a look at Elijah Wald's Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues. It's a fantastic book that takes a much-needed second look at what the word Blues actually means. The entire book revolves around how African Americans' taste in Blues and what they perceived to be Blues during the golden age of recording is totally different from how whites subsequently defined the music. The majority of black Blues fans and musicians seemed to view Blues not as a primal cry expressing great sorrow, but as a modern popular music that was deeply associated with escaping conditions in the South and the promise of moving to cities like Chicago and St. Louis and driving nice cars. Wald also says- get this- that there's no more of a reason to think that Ma Rainey and the Classic Blues singers' music came from guys like Garfield Akers, Son House, Texas Alexander, etc., than there is to think that the countrified Blues players borrowed heavily from the Blues queens because their performances and subsequent records were received so well. Mr. Wald also states that what we hear on the records of the masters from the '20s and '30s is an incomplete picture of their repertoire. He says that record companies demanded 12-bar Blues songs from black musicians who were equally adept at playing waltzes, Pop songs, Hillbilly, Polish folk songs, etc. Wald even makes a claim that it's quite possible that the 12-bar Blues developed in New Orleans, a gigantic port city which exerted a great influence upon every place from Florida to St. Louis. Perhaps Mr. Morton would be happy to hear me say this. On another note, we have a book called Devil at the Confluence which asserts that Blues developed in St. Louis and not in Mississippi, and we have information from Youtube phenom Little Brother Blues that Curley Weaver's daughter said her grandfather was playing "No No Blues" in the 1880s! This would lead us to Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From, a book I'm strongly looking forward to reading.

So, what are your thoughts on this?


dcat said...

First of all, thanks for the great blog and the wonderful efforts you put into sharing the music.
Here's something odd on your topic of where do the blues come from. There was some interview with Van Morrison from the '80s or '90s in which he stated that the blues originated in Ireland! He was completely serious about it too.

Hard Luck Child said...

Thank you very much, Dcat. Irish music certainly influenced Old-Timey/Hillbilly, but the Blues comment is absurd, unless we're broadly defining Blues as any type of melancholy music that features honest lyrics and is without slick production. I guess every folk music from all over the world would be Blues according to Van Morrison?

Record Fiend said...


Wald's book is a pretty good one, but I don't think that he's dealing with any issues that haven't already been addressed by an earlier generation of serious blues scholars such as Stephen Calt, Dick Spottswood, Gayle Dean Wardlow, and Paul Oliver, to name but a few. Whites in the music industry have always shaped what the musicians recorded, thus giving the listener an inaccurate (at worst) or incomplete (at best) picture of the artist's actual repertory. Even in the notes to the Robert Johnson box set, for example, Steve LaVere relates how the bluesman's songbook included insipid pop numbers such as "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" and "Yes Sir, That's My Baby," which, of course, were never recorded.

Wald's views on exchanges between classic female blues singers and their rural guitar-playing male counterparts is questionable. I can think of two instances off the top of my head in which rural male blues singers borrowed material from the female vaudevillians: Charlie Patton's "Tom Rushen Blues" was based on Ma Rainey's "Booze an' Blues," and William Harris' "Keep Your Man Out of Birmingham" was based on Priscilla Stewart's "Jefferson County Blues" (which Bo Weavil Jackson covered as well). The classic female blues singers don't show as much of an influence from rural bluesmen because they peaked in popularity in the early to mid 1920s, whereas the male country blues singers peaked in popularity in the late 1920s. Because female blues singers were much more likely to be recorded earlier in the decade, there weren't enough male blues singers who had recorded 78s before 1927 or so to influence the blues queens' repertories.

Where the blues were first sung is a question that will never be answered unless somebody invents a time machine. My own belief is that there was no "Big Bang" for the blues. Instead, it probably developed simultaneously in several different areas of the South. That's why we have different regional styles. At this point, Stephen Calt's theory of early 19th-century gospel music being the most important predecessor in the development of the blues (as presented in "I'd Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues") still seems the most plausible to me.

I think that the biggest problem with blues scholarship is the fact that the most popular authors in the field are guys like Peter Guralnick ("Searching for Robert Johnson") and Robert Palmer ("Deep Blues"), who tend to over-romanticize things. While I think that both men are (or were, in Palmer's case) good writers, they seem to place more emphasis on style at the expense of substance. As enjoyable as their books are to read, they also contain numerous mistakes and inaccuracies. Over-romanticizing, of course, can lead to the perpetuation of bullshit myths like Robert Johnson selling his soul at the crossroads and the supposed connections between bluesmen, African griots, and modern-day gangster rappers.

In short, people need to stop trying to interpret the blues to fit their own agendas and instead stick with the facts and enjoy the music at face value.


ClearPlan said...

Did you get the Jelly Roll Morton PDF? I've got the box and could send the PDF on as a thanks for all yur work if you haven't already got it.


Hard Luck Child said...

Colin, I don't have the PDF. Please send it along. Thanks so much!

RF, I was under the impression that the first generation of Blues historians viewed the guys we love as Bluesmen who sang non-Blues stuff for their white audiences. I guess I was wrong. I haven't read any books by Spottswood. I don't think I've seen them on Amazon either. What do you recommend?

Record Fiend said...


I think that it all depends on the music/blues historians we're talking about. Those with a folk music background of course tended to view blues as a type of folk music, so long as it was "pure" and passed on from person to person instead of through commercial proliferation. Blues historians who started out as record collectors, however, seemed to be less likely to have such strict rules as to what constituted authenticity and whatnot. The record collectors were a lot more open-minded and willing to accept the music on its own terms. Folkies, on the other hand, had major problems with artists who displayed the ability to adapt to the times. Thus, Lightnin' Hopkins and John Lee Hooker had to put down their electric guitars in favor of acoustic models when playing for the coffeehouse crowd. Read the PDF of my master's thesis that I sent to you awhile back. I deal with this subject in greater detail in one of its chapters.

Dick Spottswood's bibliography consists mostly of discographies and other reference books, although there are exceptions. "Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919," which he co-wrote with Tim Brooks, is highly recommended. Spottswood is not just a blues authority, but knows damn near everything about music recorded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries - hillbilly, jazz, ethnic, you name it. He has also written several excellent articles for publications like "78 Quarterly" and "Bluegrass Unlimited." He also wrote the section on vaudeville and classic female blues singers in the Lawrence Cohn-edited "Nothing but the Blues." And then there's Spottswood's radio show...