Forgotten Delta Blues

In 1941 a joint research team from the Library of Congress and Fisk University arrived in Coahoma County, Mississippi, to document musical culture within the local African American community. Until recently, the significance of this study has been presented from the perspective of its most famous researcher, Library of Congress folklorist Alan Lomax. Lomax understood the blues as an African American folk music, a visceral response to the grinding poverty and oppression of the Deep South. Lomax (1993, p. xi) saw it as his scholarly responsibility to preserve this subaltern music for posterity. Writing in his 1993 memoir, Land Where The Blues Began, Lomax reflected:

‘…never before had the black people [sic], kept almost incommunicado in the Deep South, had a chance to tell their story in their own way (Lomax, 1993, p. xi).’

Although this approach may appear empowering, recent scholarship has questioned its primacy in blues history. At the heart of many historical accounts of African American music is a imagined notion of an uncorrupted folk voice, constructed as distinct from an imagined mainstream (i.e. ‘white’) cultural perspective (Radano, 2003, pp. 1-48). In this way, Lomax and other folklorists saw the Mississippi Delta as an exceptional environment for folk expression, and were largely blind to musical culture that engaged with commercial and urban influences (Hamilton, 2001, p. 20). For Lomax, listening to the jukebox – a ‘neon-lit, chrome-plated musical monster’ – was destroying the uniquely raw and emotional folk music he sought to preserve (Lomax, 1993, p. 38).

Yet the project’s researchers from Fisk University, whose work was not published until 2005, took a different view (Gordon and Nemerov, 2005, 1-26). Rather than assuming that something vital to African American culture was risking extinction, Fisk sociologist Samuel C. Adams (1947) sought ‘to determine the areas of Negro folk life that are subject to the forces of civilization or the culture of the city.’ Adams’s study observed that the majority of African American ‘expressive culture’ in the town of Clarksdale now relied on urban mechanisms of diffusion, such as newspapers, radio, or films; jukeboxes had largely replaced live performance. Indeed, Adams concluded that Clarksdale’s inhabitants were overwhelmingly proud of urban influences on their cultural activities (Adams, 1947, pp. 270-273).

Adams’s observations can be seen in the context of a progressive reimagining of African American culture as a collective and nationwide identity after 1940, as identified by Green (2009). Borrowing Raymond Williams’s (1989) concept of a ‘transmitting metropolis’, Green (2009, pp. 6-8) argues that African American expressive culture were shaped by cultural products of northern cities such as Chicago and New York. At stake, then, are two understandings of the relationship between musical culture and the place of its consumption. Historians and folklorists have long understood the blues to be uniquely a product of Clarksdale and the Mississippi Delta region, a ‘place’ defined by a vision of African American musical authenticity. However, compelling research by Adams, Green, and others, suggests that musical culture functioned as a vehicle for a collective identity that transcended boundaries of place (Whitely, 2005, pp. 2-3).

The Fisk team’s research data takes broadly two forms. The first is a series of maps and written descriptions of the ‘Negro business district’, referred to by its inhabitants as the ‘New World’ district (Adams, 1947, pp. 229-231). These documents detail buildings, businesses, and entertainment spaces observed during the study, such as grocery stores, churches, restaurants, cafés, and ‘juke joints’. Adams notes the presence of music in these spaces on several occasions: he reports that, on Issaquena Avenue, jukeboxes could be heard in the street, and on Fourth Street members of the public gathered at Messenger’s Pool Hall and the Dipsie Doodle (‘a café and beer tavern’), to listen and dance to jukebox records. The second body of evidence is a document compiled by Fisk researcher Lewis Jones, entitled ‘List of Records on Machines in Clarksdale Amusement Places.’ This documents music available on jukeboxes in five ‘juke joints’ (including the Dipsie Doodle and Messenger’s) in September 1941.

What is most striking about Jones’s jukebox listings is the almost entire absence of what we might term ‘Delta blues’: the rural, unpolished sound of a male singer-guitarist, such as Robert Johnson. Instead, it appears that Clarksdale’s jukeboxes were awash with the latest urban sounds from New York and Chicago. Across the five lists, the performers with the most records are Louis Jordan and Lil Green, followed closely by Count Basie, Artie Shaw, and Fats Waller.

In what ways, then, might Lewis Jones’s findings cause us to rethink musical style in 1940s Mississippi? Conventional accounts of stylistic development tell us that the blues changed from a primarily acoustic and rural music to an urbane, ‘electric’ style in tandem with wartime and postwar black migration from the southern states to industrial cities in the north. Yet Clarksdale’s jukeboxes – only months before the attack on Pearl Harbor – were pulsing with the sounds of the big city.

I hope to write more on this subject in due course, but for now, follow my twitter account for regular links to recordings found on Clarksdale’s jukeboxes, under the hashtag #forgottendeltablues.

 

Works Cited

Adams, S., [1947]. Changing Negro Life in the Delta. In: Gordon, R. and Nemerov, B. eds., 2005. Lost Delta Found: Rediscovering The Fisk University-Library of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941-1942. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, pp. 226-291.

Green, A., 2009. Selling The Race: Culture, Community, and Black Chicago, 1940-1955. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Hamilton, M., 2001. The Blues, the Folk, and African-American history. Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, pp. 17-35.

Lomax, A., 1993. Land Where The Blues Began. New York, NY: The New Press.

Radano, R., 2003. Lying Up A Nation: Race and Black Music. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Whiteley, S., Bennett, A. and Hawkins, S. eds., 2005. Music, Space and Place: Popular Music and Cultural Identity. Farnham: Ashgate.

Williams, R., 1989. Metropolitan Perceptions and the Emergence of Modernism. In: Miles, M., 2000. The City Cultures Reader, pp.58-66. London: Routledge.

 

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Blues on Record

One of the most important aspects of understanding the early appreciation and reception of the blues in Britain is having an idea of what recordings were available, and when. Tomorrow I’m off to the British Library to look at discographies and record catalogues from the 1940s-60s, to get a better sense of which UK record labels were issuing American recordings, as well as which ones were releasing the earliest blues performances by British ensembles.

For most of this period, tours by American jazz and dance band musicians were heavily restricted. Getting a handle on the dissemination of recorded blues becomes particularly important in this situation. If recordings were the only way for jazz and blues enthusiasts to hear American blues, then this has important consequences for what – and who – contemporary listeners heard as representative of the style. It also has a bearing on listeners, and particularly critics, might have constructed a historical narrative of the genre’s development. This was brought home to me when I realised that, even by 1960, the only Robert Johnson records present in Britain were likely to have been original American releases from the 1930s, and would have been residing in the hands of only a few collectors, who had made contact with fellow enthusiasts in the US.*

Crucially, this raises the serious question as to whether a blues fan of the 1950s might have even been looking for a Robert Johnson record in the first place. One of the few studies of early blues appreciation in Britain, Roberta Schwartz’s How Britain Got the Blues, relies heavily on the standard stylistic narrative of ‘classic’, ‘country’, ‘Delta’, ‘Chicago’. Consequently, Schwartz’s study simply traces the arrival of this American-centric chronology on British shores: jazz-focused ‘rhythm clubs’ of the 1930s became aware of female ‘classic’ blues singers, gradually finding their way to ‘country’ and ‘Delta’ bluesmen, and by the 1950s a small number of collectors and enthusiasts were beginning to explore the contemporary sounds of Muddy Waters.

But what if the gradual, inconsistent trickle of American blues recordings in Britain had actually developed alternative understandings of what the blues was, and how it had developed? Given the centrality of a figure like Robert Johnson in standard blues narratives, it is tantalising to consider how a 1950s British fan of the blues – perhaps having never heard a Robert Johnson recording – would have described the music and it’s various stages of evolution.

So far, a cursory search of internet-based discographies points to a significant body of ‘classic’ blues – that is, female singers, pianos, and a New Orleans-style backing ensemble – throughout the period I’m studying. Interestingly, the vast majority of self-styled ‘British blues’ singers, including Ottilie Patterson, Beryl Bryden and Neva Raphaello, as well as their backing ensembles, performed in this style. Equally prevalent, and also so far unstudied, are the number of boogie-woogie recordings appearing in British catalogues.

Both ‘classic’ blues and boogie-woogie sit at the crossroads between the conventional definitions of blues and jazz as genres. Indeed, musicians who played and sang ‘classic’ blues and boogie-woogie were also at home with contemporary ‘jazz’ repertoire.

The true extent of the presence of these types of blues in British record lists has not yet been studied, but is a tantalising window into alternative understandings of the genre’s musical development. Once I can gain a sense of which recordings were released, and when, then I can begin to explore the reception of this music in the contemporary critical press.

* Paul Oliver’s book Blues Fell This Morning (1960) contains a ‘Discography of Quoted Blues’ drawn on throughout the book. Of the 350 songs listed, only four are by Johnson, and are listed only under their American Vocalion record numbers. In addition, Oliver also indicates that these all form part of his personal record collection.

 

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.