Fall 1999 Volume XXIX, No. 1
Copland's Hope for American Music
by Howard Pollack
by Martha Mockus
Demythologizing the Blues
by David Evans
New Music Notes
by Carol J. Oja
Behind the Beat
with Mark Tucker
Rethinking Race in 19th-Century Blackface Minstrelsy
by Maya Gibson
Amy Beach: Passionate Victorian
by Laurie Blunsom
Demythologizing the Blues
by David Evans
The following is a condensed version of the Phillips Barry Lecture delivered by David Evans at the Annual Meeting of the American Folklore Society in Memphis, TN, 22 October 1999.
Blues music has enjoyed a tremendous resurgence in popularity over the past decade. Once the sole domain of its southern African American creators, blues has crossed racial, regional, and international boundaries so successfully that today it stands as a major genre of world popular music alongside jazz, rock, rap, country, and gospel. This recent expanded interest in blues can be traced back to the folk revival of the 1960s when an appreciation for blues was nurtured in American and European intellectual circles. This initial blues revival in turn was made possible by the early efforts of the commercial recording industry and by the pioneering collecting projects of folk song scholars like John and Alan Lomax, Howard Odum, Harry Oster, Zora Neale Hurston, and John W. Work.
All this interest on the part of scholars, popular writers, collectors, and blues fans has fostered a number of blues “myths” among the general public and occasionally within academic discourse. Like many popular myths and stereotypes, these blues myths are based on some degree of fact, truth, or observable reality. Under close scrutiny, however, they fall short as general explanations or interpretations of the blues. They function as easy and reassuring explanations of the blues for those who are newcomers to the genre, for those who have an ideological ax to grind and want to use blues as a weapon in their battle plan, and for those who are uncomfortable with some aspect of the blues or its purveyors.
Blues myths can be divided into two broad categories: myths of origin and evolution, and myths of ideology and meaning. Myths of origin try to place the beginnings of the blues in some earlier time, place, or social situation. One such myth that used to be widely held, especially in the early days of research into jazz history, was that blues arose in the era of slavery. This notion seems to be based almost entirely on the seemingly logical assumption that the slaves must have had the blues. But this view confuses blues as a melancholy feeling with blues as a genre of musical expression, a genre that includes a range of feelings from sadness to happiness, from pessimism to optimism. The historical record reveals that the earliest actual evidence for a musical genre recognizable as the blues comes from a period around the beginning of the twentieth century. If the blues genre had originated in the slavery period, surely we would have some descriptions of it from that period, as we do for other genres of music, or if it had been a secret underground music of the slaves, it surely would have emerged into plain sight immediately after Emancipation, as indeed the spirituals did.
Not content with a “slave origins” theory, some writers have sought to trace the blues to Africa. While there are indeed many African musical traits in the blues, as described in Gerhard Kubik’s Africa and the Blues (1999), there is no evidence in Africa of a fully developed, blues-like genre that contains personal expression of feeling and a form close to twelve bars and three lines in an AAB arrangement. Paul Oliver, in his influential Savannah Syncopators (1970), identifies the Savannah region of West Africa as an important source for stylistic elements of the blues, noting that a significant percentage of the United States slave population was taken from this area that includes Mauretania, Senegal, The Gambia, Guinée, Mali, and northern parts of Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Nigeria. Oliver also documents the existence of an occupational caste of entertainers known as griots who demonstrate many characteristics similar to those commonly associated with blues performers–a preference for stringed instruments, a repertoire including songs of praise, derision, and social commentary, an itinerant lifestyle, and a rather marginal social status with an aura of disrepute. Oliver is certainly onto something here, but his findings have unfortunately been overly simplified and distorted by others to the point of absurdity, so that we now hear of “blues griots.” This myth suggests that the blues performer is a direct cultural descendent of the African griot, his six-string guitar and stage outfit being a replacement for the twenty-one-string kora and flowing robes of a Mandinka bard. But blues artists do not constitute a caste, and few, until recently, learned their craft directly from a parent or even a member of their parent’s generation. The creators of the first blues would, by the turn of the twentieth century, have had no first-hand knowledge of Africa, and were hardly in a position to perpetuate an African caste in America where they were under constant assault from Jim Crow laws and night riders. Moreover, griot repertoires contain many historical epics set in a past heroic age, while blues are almost always set in the present or recent past. Blues music and blues singers, while embodying many African characteristics, must be viewed first in their immediate American musical and social setting.
Another African blues myth holds that the devil who sometimes appears in blues lyrics or in legends about blues singers selling their souls to Satan at the crossroads is not really the devil of Christianity (viewed as the white man’s religion) but is actually a disguised form of an African trickster deity such as the Dahomean Legba or the Yoruba Eshu. The blues artist now becomes a reinterpreted initiate or even a priest in a cult of such a trickster deity. This view has been advocated by Julio Finn in The Bluesman (1986) and Jon Michael Spencer in Blues and Evil (1993), and to a lesser degree by Samuel A. Floyd, Jr., in The Power of Black Music (1995). Like the griot myth, this crossroads myth connects the blues to a fully functioning historical African society while adorning the blues artist with a priestly robe. There are, however, several serious problems with this crossroads myth. The devil imagery found in the blues is thoroughly familiar from western folklore, and nowhere do blues singers ever mention Legba or any other African deity in their songs or other lore. The actual African music connected with cults of Legba and similar trickster deities sounds nothing like the blues, but rather features polyrhythmic percussion and choral call-and-response singing.
Moving from myths of blues origin to those of blues evolution we encounter a school of thought holding that some sort of pure “folk” or “country” blues became corrupted by popular, commercial, and urban influences. The first to express this view were folklorists in the 1920s, such as Howard Odum, Guy Johnson, and Newman White, who had done most of their blues collecting before the advent of commercial blues recording. They warned that the imitation of inferior commercial recordings by folk blues singers would lead to the rapid demise of the blues genre. These predictions proved false, but the myth of corruption persisted with writers like Rudi Blesh and Samuel Charters. The latter, in his influential book The Country Blues (1959), consistently found urban Chicago blues of the 1930s and early 1940s, as well as most modern electric blues, to be “cheap” and “derivative” in comparison to authentic rural blues. In addition, these scholars were bothered by the explicit sexual content found in many commercial blues recordings. But close comparison of field and commercial recordings reveals that like artistic merit, explicit sexual references are found across the folk/popular spectrum.
Another emerging myth of blues history is a Delta to Chicago to London narrative. This myth holds that the blues was born in the plantations of the Mississippi Delta, migrated to Chicago where it became electrified in the 1940s and 1950s, and eventually immigrated to London where it shaped the bluesy rock sound of groups like the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds. This story of blues evolution, which posits a direct line of development from Delta pioneer Charley Patton to Son House to Robert Johnson to Muddy Waters to Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton, is most clearly expressed in Robert Palmer’s Deep Blues (1981). Although the Delta and Chicago were enormously important blues centers and this line of historical development is indeed one of the big stories of the blues, it is not the only way the story can and should be told. For example, the Delta to Chicago myth ignores the contributions of W. C. Handy and other composers to the mass popularity of the blues early in the twentieth century. It further disregards the early activities of great women vaudeville blues singers like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Mamie Smith. And it discounts other significant centers such as Texas and Memphis where artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone Walker, and B. B. King contributed substantially to the stylistic development of the blues.
Ideological myths of the blues generally result from a search for meaning in the blues and are based on study of the lyrics of blues songs or the lives of blues singers. Like myths of origin and evolution, these ideological myths often have a degree of truth to them but suffer from over-generalization and the selective use of evidence to fit a preconceived theory. Proponents of such myths might take heed of the insightful observations made by Sterling Brown in his 1930 study of blues poetics: “Stoicism is here as well as self-pity, for instance; rich humor as well as melancholy. There are so many blues that any preconception might be proved about Negro folk life, as well as its opposite.”
One of the earliest ideological myths was that of blues as social protest. Although blues, as a highly personal form of expression, would seem to be an ideal vehicle for expressing protest, this myth quickly founders from the relative dearth of blues material expressing overt protest. Personal dissatisfaction with all sorts of situations can be found in abundance, but blues rarely serves as an expression of collective solidarity or aims at changing the system. During the years that the blues appealed most strongly to black Americans, many of the institutions that would have been worth changing were so entrenched and immutable that blues singers preferred to sing about things over which they had some degree of personal control or alternatives for action. In a sense, the entire existence of blues constitutes a massive but subtle form of social protest, since blues challenges many of the basic tenets of American society and constantly exposes hypocrisy, but there is only a small amount of specific protest in its lyrics. Nevertheless, the hope that blues could expand to become a significant vehicle for protest led ideologically minded fans to encourage a few bluesmen like Leadbelly and Joshua White to create and perform a good number of such songs, while other artists like J. B. Lenoir seem to have gone in this direction on their own.
Somewhat related to the protest myth is what could be called the myth of black essentialism and the blues. A number of black commentators on the blues, beginning with Amiri Baraka in his book Blues People (1963), have expressed the idea that blues is intimately tied up with a collective black experience and is a rich source for understanding that experience. This idea had not escaped white researchers as well. As early as 1911 sociologist Howard Odum found blues lyrics to be a key to understanding “the southern Negroes.” Paul Oliver’s 1959 study of blues lyrics and black culture was appropriately titled The Meaning of the Blues. One could hardly argue against the idea that blues has much to teach all of us about black American life, or at least about certain segments of it. However, blues has never appealed to nor represented the opinions and experiences of all segments of black society, any more than country music or alternative rock have represented the sentiments of all segments of white American society. The black middle class has historically preferred more sophisticated types of music such as jazz and soul, while many black churchgoers have condemned blues as the “Devil’s music.”
Further ideological myths portray blues as mere entertainment or as chaos. The myth of blues as entertainment is expressed most notably by Stephen Calt in various album notes and his extended studies of the lives of Mississippi bluesmen Charley Patton and Skip James. Nobody would deny that blues entertains its audience and operates within a mass media entertainment industry, but a focus on entertainment as the primary function of the blues downplays or ignores its functions as spiritual, philosophical, political, and artistic expression, as well as the ritualistic quality of blues performance in many traditional contexts. This infatuation with blues as entertainment demeans and trivializes the music while separating it from any African American historical, social, and creative setting.
The myth of blues as chaos is a more recent product and has not yet been fully articulated, but one can detect it in some of the album notes of Robert Palmer and in the approach to production of the Fat Possum record company of Oxford, Mississippi. Focusing on the riff-driven styles of Mississippi artists such as R. L. Burnside and the late Junior Kimbrough, Palmer and Fat Possum have often emphasized sloppy production, unrehearsed jamming, and cameo appearances by famous white rock musicians screaming and playing loud guitar solos over the music of these artists in drunken orgies of sound. This approach has not surprisingly found favor among the fans of these alternative rock stars, who are now beginning to view Mississippi blues as the “roots” of their music. One can grant that the music and lives of these artists might appear chaotic in comparison to the more regulated middle-class experience that proponents of this myth are evidently fleeing, but the latter are confusing dissatisfaction, experimentation, and improvisation in the blues with chaos and anarchy. The open-ended quality of this type of blues is not an indication that it was thrown together haphazardly with no formal structural qualities.
Ultimately the “chaos” myth puts the blues up for grabs, reducing it to a mere collection of found objects. It should not be surprising that the latest step in Fat Possum’s production program has been to take samples from R. L. Burnside’s blues and subject them to the studio remix process under the guise of making the blues relevant to the contemporary young audience. In other words, they have now supplied the structure and form that the blues apparently formerly lacked.
The preceding discussion may appear unduly pessimistic about the state of blues writing, but I do not want to leave with this impression. There is a great deal of impressive scholarship being produced in the 1990s, and certainly more thorough writing about blues with greater subtlety and analytical depth will help combat the uncritical acceptance of the myths outlined above. As scholars of American music we are particularly well positioned to join in this effort to demythologize the blues—first, by encouraging quality research and writing on the subject, and second, by correcting our students’ misconceptions about this venerable tradition.
—Memphis State University