Tuesday, May 06, 2008

In Search of the Blues
by Marybeth Hamilton

Read a blurb somewhere on this tome that promised it had a different take on the origin of the blues than has been proffered so far, so had to check it out.

'Tis true. As with a lot of history, much of the story of the blues as we know it thus far is more about what the various historians want the blues to be rather than how they were received and consumed at the time. As I've aged, one of the biggest sources of amusement and dismay is how history has been distorted and shaped to fulfill someone's agenda. (For example, Ann Coulter's revisionistic take on McCarthyism. "No, really, the oppression and government terrorization of Americans who don't have the correct politics is a good thing! It's American!")

Here's the scoop: Black people really didn't like the blues (the one-guitar, one-singer type) nearly as much as they liked swing and jazz, back in the day. Yes, they bought those kinds of blues records, but lively, big-band stuff was more to their taste. It was white "historians" who put any importance on the single performer/folk sub-form, believing it to be more pure and authentic then a black jazz band, which they presumed (and were being racist by doing so) was merely mimicking of white musicians and groups.

More interesting (to moi, anyway), blacks were the first group to take to recorded music in droves.

Two excerpts:

The earliest that survives dates from August 1920, when OKeh Records released "Crazy Blues" by Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds. It was, by any measure, a landmark: the first commercial blues recording issued by an African American singer. Though sold in black areas almost exclusively and steeply priced at one dollar (by contrast, admission to the movies cost ten cents), "Crazy Blues" stunned virtually everyone by selling hundreds of thousands of copies, seventy-five thousand in its first month of release. Its success revealed the scale of a musical market that the recording industry had long refused to believe existed. That African Americans would buy phonograph records in disproportionate numbers became startlingly audible in those last weeks of summer: people said that you could hear Mamie Smith's recording playing in every black neighborhood in the United States.
- pp. 7-8.


All the more startling, then, was the sheer zeal with which America's black population embraced those recordings. Their response made a sharp contrast to the reaction of the white middle class. Though by 1900 the phonograph had become a familiar object in the middle-class parlor, to most such consumers it was little more than a diverting novelty. Playing mass-produced recordings on a machine seemed a poor substitute for hearing music live in concert halls or for displaying one's virtuoso at home on the piano.
- pp. 14

The upshot is that a lot of the recordings of one-guy-and-a-guitar type blues was done by self-appointed anthropologists who went out into the field to record "pure" black music, such as field hollers, spirituals, and single-performer blues. Meanwhile, back at the farm/apt./house, the folks were rockin' out to the latest jazz band hits.

What a surprise, eh?

If, like me, you enjoy thick, steaming slabs of musical history for the sheer hell of it, by all means thumb through a copy of In Search of the Blues. If you are not so much into it, I've provided what are probably the most interesting factoids from the book as most of the book concerns itself with identifying the exact starting point of the single-performer blues, and thus have saved you that valuable time. You're welcome.

TLD: One limitation I've noticed of the written word is the facility to describe the feeling and affect of music on a person. By that I DO NOT mean the ability to review and/or criticize music, or talk about it in a scholarly or fan-boy fashion. No, I mean when someone in fiction (or the odd non-fiction) tries to evoke how a person feels while listing to a particular song. Even Stephen King's attempt at it in the latest Duma Key fell flat. (If Uncle Steve can't do it ...) It seems to be in the same sense-category of describing the taste of something. Could you convincingly describe the taste of, say, cranberries to someone so they'd have an idea what it tastes like? Well, a depiction of someone listening to a song is seemingly as unreachable. Prove me wrong.


Whisky Prajer said...

Re: TLD -- so Kerouac doesn't turn your crank? He's not everybody's drag of tea, but I do like how he goes apey when there's a saxophonist in the room. I also like this guy. There's something about white guys and jazz, eh?

Yahmdallah said...

I was never able to get past the first few pages of "On the Road." However, I did pick it up in my 30s, so I was probably too old and jaded to get into all the hipster jive and romance.

yahmdallah said...

Oh, and since I said "prove me wrong" I have to read him/it now. I'll report back.