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…