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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