The First British ‘Blues Boom’…of 1923!

An invited blog post I wrote recently for the British Library on the arrival of blues music in 1920s Britain.

A large part of my research over the past few years has examined the British reception of the blues before the ‘blues boom’ of the early 1960s that kicks off most histories of the genre’s international spread. For my PhD, I’ve had to keep the time period of my research quite firm to avoid overstretching myself, meaning I have focused primarily on the postwar period. But recently I have had the chance to look a little further back, thanks to the generous support of the British Library’s Edison Fellowship scheme.

In the Autumn of 1923, ‘the blues’ seems to have suddenly invaded British popular music. While we tend to think of the genre arriving on sound recordings, the 1923 blues invasion was a multimedia phenomenon: the blues could be heard in concert, on the theatrical stage, on record, through sound recordings, and on the dance floor. This latter venue was particularly important, as the blues of 1923 signalled both a style of music and a style of dance.

By looking at one particular piece of music held in the Library’s collections, I reflect on what British audiences found most appealing about the blues, how they incorporated it into existing social dancing culture, and how reactions to the genre reflected contemporary ideas around music and race.

My guest post can be viewed here, on the British Library’s Sound and Vision blog.

Screaming Guitar and Howling Piano? (Part 1)

Muddy Waters’s 1958 UK tour is one of the landmark events in the history of blues in Britain. In this post, I offer a brief glimpse into a paper I’ll be giving on 16 July at Continental Drift: 50 Years of Jazz from Europe, at Edinburgh Napier University.

It’s been a long time without an update! My previous post was made all the way back in October, before I took up a research fellowship at the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. The fellowship was productive, stimulating, and incredibly immersive – so much so that I easily spent several months in the Library, six days a week…and still not find time to keep my blog updated.

Being back in the UK is a big change. It feels like I’ve skipped out the first half of 2016, and I still find myself realising that I’m doing something for the first time this year (first proper bacon sandwich, first hill walk, first Sunday roast, etc). So my ‘new year’s’ resolution will be to make sure that I keep this blog updated more often! Look out in the coming weeks/months for more posts on research I conducted in the USA, and the work I’m currently doing back on this side of the Atlantic.

Something I’m excited to be able to share is some recent research I’ve been doing on the first UK tour of Chicago blues musician Muddy Waters, who played a series of concerts across Britain with his regular pianist Otis Spann in Autumn 1958. I’ll be giving a presentation about this research on 16 July at Continental Drift: 50 Years of Jazz From Europe, a conference organised between Edinburgh Napier University and the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival. There’s a lot more on this to come over the Summer, but here is a brief promotional video I’ve made about my paper, and about why I think events like Continental Drift are so important:

 

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Capitol Hill Blues: Upcoming Research at the Library of Congress

I am delighted to announce that I have been awarded a four month research fellowship at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. I start there in January 2016, as part of the British Arts & Humanities Research Council’s International Placement Scheme. I’ll be based at the John W. Kluge Center, working with archives and experts at the Library’s American Folklife Center and Music Division.

During my research into blues in Britain, something that has become increasingly apparent to me is the degree to which blues appreciation and performance was bound up with two other musical worlds: jazz and folk. More specifically, blues, jazz and folk listening and performing often coalesced around the concept of ‘revivalism’. Enthusiasts sought to inscribe particular aspects of American music as the authentic ‘voice of the people’. Fearing that these genres would soon be engulfed by the savage tide of commercialism, performers, critics and listeners set out to document, preserve and promote the music they deemed to be culturally significant.

Although this ‘revivalist impulse’ appeared throughout jazz, blues and folk music between c.1930 and c.1960, both in the US and the UK, enthusiasts of these genres were by no means united in their motivations and activities, or even in their understanding of what ‘people’s music’ actually was.

Consequently, my research at the Library of Congress aims to explore three distinct moments in the history of musical revival. I will start my fellowship looking at how emerging jazz criticism and folklore studies in the 1930s intersected at Carnegie Hall, during John Hammond’s 1938-39 ‘From Spirituals to Swing’ concerts. Hammond relied in part on folkloric representations of the blues as a rural ‘folk’ music, which would otherwise suggest an antipathy towards ‘high art’ culture. Yet his concerts borrowed the trappings of western ‘art’ music, and asserted that the blues was a common thread that lay throughout African American music. In this way, the blues acquired early cultural significance through being associated both as part of – but also in opposition – to ‘official’ American culture.

Revivalists’ advocacy of jazz and blues as ‘people’s music’ often stemmed from leftwing sympathies, a position that has often been dismissed as simplistic and overly dogmatic. Yet the period I am researching witnessed one of the most politically cataclysmic events of the century, the Second World War. Examining the writings and broadcasts of folklorist Alan Lomax during and immediately after the war, I consider the extent to which Lomax was responding to contemporary events, repurposing notions of leftwing ‘solidarity’ in more populist terms. By promoting shared amateur traditions of music making across national and racial boundaries, Lomax increasingly eschewed Marxist-inspired critiques of race and class-based exploitation in favour of emphasising African American music’s conciliatory potential.

Another issue I frequently encounter during my research is the question of how music’s dissemination determines its reception. Many accounts of blues music in Britain focus on the arrival of American recordings, each wave of new music received on British shores as strange, unfamiliar and exciting. Yet the way music was disseminated was often more complex, problematising how our understandings of this process are often wedded to national, social and cultural boundaries. In particular, my research at the Library will focus on the way folklorists and jazz revivalists used radio as a ‘transnational space’ where these boundaries were often blurred. In doing so, they successfully negotiated the many simultaneities of revivalist understandings of the blues: African American yet international, historical yet contemporary, ‘art’ music yet ‘people’s music’.

Now I just have to work out how many harmonicas I can fit in my hand luggage…

New World Jukebox Blues Part 1: Messenger’s

{Click here to read some background on Lewis W. Jones’s List of Records on Machines in Clarksdale Amusement Places.}

To kick off this series, I’ve assembled a playlist based on Lewis Jones’s list of records on the jukebox at Messenger’s Café and Pool Room. Today, Messenger’s is more or less in the same spot it was in 1941, at 133 Fourth Street, which has since been renamed Martin Luther King Boulevard. Now managed by George Messenger, the venue is the oldest continually-operating business in Clarksdale, and is also the oldest African American-owned business in the city!

Google Streetview

Messenger’s today

And here is the playlist of the music Jones heard at Messenger’s:

You can also open this playlist using this link, and you can download a pdf of the jukebox list here.

Edit: Tragically, George Messenger’s wife, Myrtle Messenger, was killed earlier this year. I’m sure that many blues fans, both locally and further afield, will be thinking of the Messenger family at this difficult time.

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New World Jukebox Blues

In this series of blog posts, I explore the music and venues documented by the Library of Congress/Fisk University Coahoma County Study, 1941-42. Each post features an exclusive playlist, holding the records played on jukeboxes in the city of Clarksdale during September 1941.

Like many blues fans, I’ve long been fascinated by the Mississippi Delta, and the role it has played in blues history. Many legendary musicians lived and performed in the area, giving birth to a unique and evocative style, exemplified in the work of Muddy Waters, Son House, or Charley Patton – to name only a few.

Although these musicians are probably the most well-known ‘Delta blues’ performers, it would be a mistake to think that this was the only style listened to or performed in the region. In fact, scholars such as Elijah Wald, Marybeth Hamilton, and Paige McGinley have long called attention to the musical diversity of the area, particularly in urban centres such as the city of Clarksdale. During the first half of the twentieth century, Clarskdale had a vibrant African American cultural economy. It was a regular stop on the ‘tent show’ circuit for blues singers such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey in the 1910s and 20s, and by the early 1940s the city’s African American ‘New World’ district boasted (according to one survey): 51 food stores, 22 restaurants, 20 general stores, 8 radio and electrical appliance stores, 9 juke joints, 9 drug stores, and 10 churches (Adams 2005, 229-230).

These survey figures come from one of the most well-known blues research trips, the Library of Congress/Fisk University Coahoma County Study, 1941-42. Conducted by renowned folklorist Alan Lomax (Library of Congress), the musicologist John W. Work III (Fisk), and sociologists Samuel C. Adams (Fisk) and Lewis W. Jones (Fisk), the Coahoma County Study is famous for capturing some of the earliest recordings of Muddy Waters, Son House, and David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards – all iconic ‘Delta blues’ performers. Yet the wider aims of the project have been largely forgotten. On the trail of not only blues but also work songs, spirituals, toasts, children’s games, and popular song, the LoC/Fisk team sought to understand what was happening to ‘traditional’ African American culture in a region that was swiftly being colonised by mass ‘popular’ culture from northern cities, in particular Chicago and New York (Hamilton 2001).

As well as making field recordings, Lomax’s research team made surveys of musical tastes and listening practices amongst their informants, and in some of the businesses of the New World district. The survey I’m especially interested in is a list of the recordings that were held on the jukeboxes of five Clarksdale ‘amusement places’, compiled by Lewis W. Jones during September 1941. Although Lomax (1993, 38) would later refer to the jukebox as a ‘neon-lit, chrome-plated musical monster’, researchers like Jones appeared to have viewed it as a barometer of cultural change. His list provides a fascinating snapshot of what some of Clarksdale’s African American residents were listening to during this period.

Jones’s lists provided only song titles and performer names, but I’ve spent a while digging around to find out exactly which recordings these were. And over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting Spotify playlists of the recordings that could be heard at each venue.

So grab a beer, kick back, and click here to listen to the sounds of the first venue in this series: Messenger’s Café and Pool Room…

References

Samuel C. Adams, ‘Changing Negro Life in the Delta’, in Gordon and Nemerov (eds.) Lost Delta Found: Rediscovering the Fisk University-Library of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941-1942 (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2005), 226-291.

Marybeth Hamilton, ‘The Blues, the Folk, and African-American History’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society (2001), 17-35.

Alan Lomax, Land Where the Blues Began (New York: The New Press, 1993).

Lewis W. Jones’s lists are held at the Library of Congress, in the American Folklife Center’s Alan Lomax Collection (AFC 1941/002, folder 31). They have also been published in Elijah Wald, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (New York: Amistad, 2004), and Gordon and Nemerov (eds.), Lost Delta Found, 311-314.

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Blues on Film: Errol Linton

Tonight I’m off to hear Brixton-based blues musician Errol Linton at the Green Note in Camden. Linton has been singing and playing harmonica all around London for over twenty years. I even have vague, childhood memories of hearing him busking in Oxford Circus tube station!

Linton was featured in a two-part BBC documentary in 1993 entitled ‘Two Generations of the Blues’. The first part focuses on Linton, including in-depth discussion and some really evocative performance footage. The second part examines Big Bill Broonzy’s 1951 visit to the UK.

Check out ‘Blues South of the River’, below:

The blues community’s silence on Ferguson.

Blues audiences the world over recognise the genre’s origins in the oppression of African Americans under slavery and segregation. But when it comes to racial tensions in the present day, blues blogs, websites, and facebook groups are surprisingly silent.

The time difference between the US and the UK being what it is, I went to bed last night with that all too familiar heaviness; the feeling you get when you know you will wake up to bad news. My radio, set for 6am, punctured the morning gloom with the words I that had been hoping not to hear for several weeks now – that a Grand Jury has failed to indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson for shooting unarmed African American teenager Michael Brown, Jr. (1996-2014). Brown, who was eighteen years old, was shot six times, including twice in the head, on 9th August.

As I logged on to social media this morning, my various news feeds loaded up the various topics, groups and voices that reflect my three main internet reading habits: a healthy dose of populist left-wing writing; a number of prominent African American and black British cultural and political commentators; and numerous blogs and groups devoted to the blues.

What struck me, however, was that the first and second groups – the left-wing writers, and my snapshot of ‘black Twitter’ – were talking about roughly the same thing: Ferguson. My blues groups, on the other hand, chugged away as usual, blithely unaware of recent developments. One account tweeted a well-known blues lyric, another reviewed a recent CD, another posted a series of grainy photos to mark the anniversary of a bluesman’s birth.

So why don’t the talking points, posts, likes, shares, and retweets of the blues groups I follow not match up more with those who discuss African American culture and politics in the present day? Why is the blues community so silent on Ferguson – or, for that matter, on the recent deaths of Jonathan Ferrell (1989-2013), Tamir Rice (2002-2014), or Aiyana Jones (2002-2010) at the hands of the police?

I should make clear at this point that I do not wish to question the legality or the outcome of the Ferguson grand jury. As President Obama has pointed out, we have to hope that the grand jury assessed the evidence presented to them in a fair and just manner, and that the evidence itself was a fair and reliable account of the event. Nor am I interested in getting into a discussion about the precise events that took place; there are so many conflicting accounts, and many people more qualified than I am to assess their legal implications.

What I am concerned about is how victims such as Michael Brown have been presented in the media, and the atmosphere of suspicion and fear that causes armed law enforcement to make the terrible and irreversible decision to end someone’s life. I am concerned that the blues community makes few connections between modern day depictions of African American society and culture, and those of the past that we celebrate in the blues.

Very soon after Michael Brown’s shooting, many media outlets started to question the young man’s integrity. Some commentators suggested that Brown may have had marijuana in his bloodstream, and evidence emerged showing Brown taking some cigarettes from a local store in the hour prior to his death.

Again, I do not seek to cast doubt on these claims – although it is worth stating that neither theft nor narcotics use are punishable by death under US law. Instead, I want to compare them to some of the common depictions of blues musicians that are regularly celebrated by the music’s fans.

Stories of blues musicians’ substance abuse are ubiquitous. They appear in many songs, from Big Bill Broonzy’s ‘When I Been Drinking’ to Muddy Waters’s ‘Champagne and Reefer’, and in musicians’ biographies. Robert Johnson is famously thought to have died from drinking poisoned whiskey given, continuing to drink more and more despite the protestations of his friends.

Likewise, bluesmen’s petty crimes are often treated as a simple fact of life, sometimes even necessary to their success. Harmonica player Junior Wells often recalled how he acquired his first instrument, in a story eerily reminiscent of Brown’s. After saving his pennies as a teenager, Wells found himself short on the price of a Hohner Marine Band. Exasperated, he threw what pennies he had on the counter, and took the harmonica. Brought up before the judge a few days later, Wells admitted to stealing, because he ‘just had to have that harp‘.

Can you play that thing, boy?‘ questioned the judge.

Wells blew a few choruses. When he was finished, the judge tossed the shop owner 50 cents, and shouted ‘case dismissed!

Blues history also valourises the apparently aggressive and dangerous nature of the African American entertainment scene. Many blues musicians were renowned ‘hotheads’; there is a memorable scene in the 2008 film Cadillac Records, where harmonica player Little Walter calmly shoots an imposter taking advantage of the success of his song ‘My Babe’.

Which one of you motherf*ckers is Little Walter?‘ demands Walter.

I am, fool!‘ retorts one.

Walter turns, pulling a revolver from his waistband, and fires. The imposter drops to the ground. Returning to the car, Walter coolly draws on his cigarette.

Blues fans tolerate – even celebrate – their heroes’ excessive, immoral and criminal tendencies. Broonzy’s drinking songs match the singer’s own enjoyment of liquor. We reminisce over Muddy Waters’s womanising. We chuckle at the overzealous store clerk who took a young Junior Wells to court over a 50 cent debt. We present Walter’s aggressive streak as integral to his image and to his uncompromising, innovative harmonica style.

And yet Michael Brown, who appears to have dabbled in rap music, was a ‘thug’. Newspapers adorned their front pages with photos of the teenager in a hoodie, ignoring many of the more childlike photographs available. This tactic is commonplace and has prompted the social media campaign #iftheygunnedmedown, where young black men and women highlight the multiple personas presented in their social media photo albums.

They wouldn’t show the smiling girl who graduated abroad at one of the best schools in the country. The media would portray me as a hard and mean-looking girl who was asking for it.’ states one contributor.

‘They wouldn’t honor the life I had lived, but rather justify the reason I was dead.’

As blues fans, the stories we tell about our favourite musicians often justify their misdemeanors and misfortunes. Robert Johnson ‘couldn’t help himself’; Junior Wells ‘just had to have that harp’. Little Walter’s own, violent death is seen to be symptomatic of a mean-talking fast-shooting aggressive life, lived at double speed.

But it would be incorrect to say that these depictions of our favourite blues musicians are simply voyeuristic fantasies. Blues audiences know their history. We know that the reason why Junior Wells worked a dead end job for a whole week and yet only made $1.50 was because African American workers were routinely paid less than their white counterparts, or had their earnings docked to pay for the equipment they used. We understand when we read the story of how Bessie Smith died after being denied treatment at the local ‘whites only’ hospital following a car accident (although this story is now thought to be apocryphal). We know that the emotional intensity of the blues was a response to the oppression of its performers by their white oppressors.

And yet we tell jokes about ‘proper blues deaths’: ‘If it occurs in a fleabag hotel or in a shotgun shack, it’s a blues death. Other blues deaths: being stabbed in the back by a jealous lover…You cannot die a blues death during a tennis match or while getting a liposuction treatment…Persons with names like Sierra, Sequoia or Chauncey will not be permitted to sing the blues no matter how many men they shoot in Memphis‘.

Of course, it’s a joke. But it’s a joke that happily ignores the many instances where blues and jazz musicians have suffered at the hands of police brutality. It ignores the fact that Junior Wells might have come off a lot worse had he stolen his first harmonica from a shop in twenty-first century Ferguson.

I am not saying that the blues community is responsible for, or complicit in, the many vindictive slurs against Michael Brown’s character. Neither am I saying that Brown was a saint, but then neither were any of our favourite blues musicians. I simply have one question: why is the blues community – for all that it does to recognise the historical achievements of its idols – not more vocal in condemning the many aspects of American racism that are still alive and well today? The silence is deafening.

#BlackLivesMatter

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