Welcome to my blog, All Thirteen Keys. I’m a first-year PhD student in music at King’s College, London and, over the course of the next few years, I’m hoping to use these pages to write – relatively informally – on various topics that may or may not be related to my academic research.
My current research focuses on the blues in Britain between 1945 and 1960. Although the story of British blues usually begins with early rock bands of the 1960s, such as the Rolling Stones, there was already an emerging blues ‘scene’ in Britain during the 1950s. The musicians and critics involved in this scene were primarily involved in the contemporary ‘traditional’ (i.e. New Orleans style) jazz revival, and they understood the blues to be a specific performance style within jazz, best represented by female vocal performers of the 1920s and 30s such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. This is a marked difference to later understandings of the blues, which tend to situate it as a genre in its own right, with a parallel history of development. In these later narratives, the iconic blues musician is male, and often a guitarist. At the same time, during period I’m looking at critical writings on the blues began to focus on blues lyrics, rather than discussing more ‘musical’ elements such as timbre and texture. Therefore, I want to explore how preferred repertoire and performance style changed over time, and why.
Here, two predominant narratives about British blues and the 1950s in general come into play. First, the subsequent emphasis placed on the blues by 1960s rock musicians has meant that the blues is often interpreted in terms that emphasise ‘rock’ aesthetics. It’s not hard to picture in our heads the solitary bluesman, guitar in hand, wandering down a dusty track road somewhere in the south. This misunderstood individual makes his own path in life, his music the only route to understanding his inner feelings. It’s not hard to hear the themes of personal freedom and counterculture advocated in the 1960s coming through in an account like this. Yet, by emphasising 1960s cultural attitudes in blues, the 1950s is inevitably set up as a foil for the decade that follows; a drab time of conservatism and inflexibility, described by Stones guitarist Keith Richards as ‘all in black and white.’ I want to fully explore what the blues meant in this immediate post-war context. Given that the majority of 1950s British blues performers were middle-class, and over the age of twenty-one, these were hardly the anti-establishment teenagers that the likes of the Stones or the Beatles personified a decade later. Instead, the blues seems to have been cultivated both as entertainment and also as an accessible folk music, drawing on the post-war British folk revival’s commitment to cultivating popular music making. Furthermore, as an important component of jazz many jazz critics regarded the blues as an object of necessary study, placing an emphasis on its performers artistry and skill, rather than the raw, spontaneous and often wayward performances idolised by 1960s blues fans such as those by Son House, John Lee Hooker, or Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Second, the idea of ‘British’ blues has often been regarded as an oxymoron. The blues is usually understood as a music born of African American suffering and oppression. While this is undisputable to an extent, it is also important to recognise the implications of this interpretation, some of which can swiftly become problematic when looking at how non-African American musicians perform the blues. Some scholars have sought to identify in the blues a musical essence that is somehow inextricably black (whether African, or African American), thus distancing other culture’s understandings of the blues from an imagined ‘true’ understanding. As Ronald Radano has argued, this position has had the benefit of claiming a cultural heritage for African Americans in the face of historic denial of African American cultural worth. Yet, at the same time, Radano points out that consistently identifying the blues as ‘black’ can also entrench the ‘colour-coding’ of sounds, which can swiftly become ingrained as markers of cultural difference. Part of my research, then, is to explore how British blues musicians felt about the issue of playing music that was, to their ears, inescapably ‘black.’ Many were anxious about creating the right sounds, and singing the right songs, so as to not stray too far into exposing themselves as inauthentic imitators of a culture they were unable to fully comprehend.
Yet I also want to explore how British blues musicians were able to legitimise their blues performances. Here, an alternative approach is required, that of understanding the genre as a ‘transitional’ culture. It is important to identify, as jazz scholar E Taylor Atkins has, that the social changes that gave rise to jazz and blues in the United States are by no means restricted to one country. Instead, urbanisation, and the international movement of goods, rituals and people are global in scope. This formulation seeks to juxtapose contemporary understandings of ownership, borrowing and authenticity with the actual exchange and flow of cultural objects. For instance, British folklorists were able to justify the blues as a ‘worldwide’ vernacular music by pointing out the origins of blues songs such as ‘St. James Infirmary’ in the English ballad ‘The Unfortunate Lass.’
On one level, then, this blog is an exercise in improving my ability to write quickly, fluently, and maybe even in a way that is accessible and enjoyable to read. I’m hoping to cut down the number of times I have to visit thesaurus.com, and get better at translating things that I think sound like a good ideas in my head into actual words on a page. Given the sheer amount of contemporary criticism that is still available from the period I’m studying, my aim is to regularly post short summaries and critiques of this material. Many of these articles, books and pamphlets are relatively obscure; they’re usually mentioned briefly in passing in later scholarship, but rarely do they benefit from being the main focus of a critique. Yet, when returning to these primary sources during the course of my masters’ dissertation, I found several instances where I felt that a later scholar had misinterpreted an influential piece of contemporary writing. This didn’t necessarily make the source in question any less influential, but it did highlight how much more work needs to be done on really understanding the interpretive positions taken by earlier critics and fledgling blues scholars. Instead of being seen simply as a precursor to later understandings of the blues, these contemporary writings reflect understandings that have since been abandoned or reshaped. By exploring them further, we can begin to uncover the nuances and contradictions in British blues performance and criticism.
I’ll also hopefully be writing about various other things that interest me, both blues related and non-blues related. Watch this space!
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