‘On a kind of vacation’: Reexamining African American blues musicians’ visits to Britain, 1950-58

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In this blog post, I examine how American blues musicians’ visits to Britain have been written about. I argue that these accounts primarily serve to endorse our existing understandings of the musicians in question. This approach often does not take into account the concerns of contemporary British audiences, and reveals an underlying misunderstanding of the contemporary British blues and jazz scene.

 

Throughout the 1950s, British union and governmental labour restrictions on visiting American musicians began to relax. After nearly two decades, British musicians and enthusiasts no longer needed to rely solely on their record collections, finally able to witness African American blues performers live and in person. Many musicians key to the development of the blues in general – let alone the development of the blues in Britain – visited in this decade, including: Josh White (1950, 1951) Big Bill Broonzy (1951, and several years thereafter), Lonnie Johnson (1952), Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1957), Jimmy Rushing (1957, 1958), Muddy Waters and Otis Spann (1958), and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee (1958).

These visits were undoubtedly important in bringing the blues to a wider audience, and studying them gives us a glimpse into how British enthusiasts developed their understandings of the style. Jazz critic Dave Gelly, for example, recalls hearing Broonzy at the age of fourteen, describing his singing as ‘candid and genuinely passionate…delivered with a sincerity that disarmed all criticism.’ At the same time, many musicians were not so well received: Lonnie Johnson’s first concert was, in the words of Stanley Dance, ‘[ruined by his] ambitions as a ballad singer.’ Likewise, one reviewer for the Manchester Evening News reported of Muddy Waters: ‘Although his singing is authentic and he uses his voice as an instrument for conveying melancholy and dissatisfaction, I cannot class him as a true blues artist…most of his songs seemed to me to owe too much to the rhythm and blues style.’[1]

It’s quite something to read about blues legends such as Waters being received negatively, especially given their canonised status in the history of the blues as we know it today. Broonzy’s success in Britain relied on his ability to meet the expectations that he was a genuine folk blues singer from the Deep South. This elicited much evangelism on the subject of Broonzy’s unwaveringly authentic and non-commercial qualities in the British press, including a somewhat overzealous article by French critic Hugues Panassié, who surmised that Broonzy ‘came to Europe on a kind of vacation…his work for the time being is to open his heart and soul to us over here.’ It was a good move on Broonzy’s part – then working as a cleaner on a Chicago college campus – reigniting his performing career for another seven years. Importantly, Waters’s reception forced his devotees into a new understanding of the blues: that, as a ‘folk’ musician, Waters could still be true to the spirit of the blues by singing in a more modern and urbane style, because it reflected his changed circumstances and success. As Waters himself admitted in a contemporary interview, thumbing through his wallet: ‘There’s no way in the world I can feel the same blues the way I used to…How can I have that kind of blues with this in my pocket?’ British critics read Waters’s changing style as evidence of ‘folk’ music’s role as a tonic for the ills of society; if Waters had made it from Mississippi sharecropper to Chicago superstar, it was because he had stayed true to the spirit of the blues, always singing about his (changing) experiences rather than selling out.

Yet it is also important to dig a little deeper into how these musicians’ reception has been studied and written about since. Reception narratives of these musicians often tie into larger narratives about the birth of the blues in Britain, as well as biographical narratives about the musicians in question. For example, accounts of audiences’ displeasure at the volume and style of Waters’s first appearances are often used to connect him to the in-your-face rebelliousness of 1960s rock that Waters’s music would later inspire. Biographer Robert Gordon reproduces one critics reaction, now thought to be apocryphal: ‘Muddy fiddled with the knobs [of his guitar], and struck a fierce chord…I realised this was the established order of things. As he reached for the volume knobs again, I fled from the hall.’

Although British audiences hearing Waters in person for the first time in 1958 were clearly taken aback by some aspects of his performance, it’s important not to attribute this, as Gordon does, to a sense that British audiences were ‘not ready’ for Waters’s music. This encourages a view of Waters as a visionary musician ‘ahead of his time’, which, although a great compliment, is not a helpful approach to take if we want to properly understand blues musicians’ initial reception. For musicians – or artists, writers, or any other type of creative person – can only be a product of their times, even if they do seek to innovate beyond these constraints.

Indeed, visiting musicians were often unsure of what British audiences would want to play. Unused to coming into contact with throngs of appreciative white audiences – let alone playing for them – is bound to have contributed to some of the mismatches in programming. Lonnie Johnson, for instance, made his first appearance playing popular ballads, including ‘Stardust’, ‘Careless Love’ and ‘Just Another Day’, to poor reviews criticising both his programme, and his crooning style of delivery., His next appearance could not have been more different, featuring instead the songs he had recorded for US ‘race’ labels Okeh and Bluebird.[2]

Yet even the reporting of this ‘about turn’ can also serve to emphasise Broonzy’s success a year earlier, through the strength of his apparently more rough and ready, authentic performances. In some ways this is surprising, given that Broonzy had an equally soft spot for popular ballad performance, especially during his subsequent visits to Britain. The programme of his first 1951 concert advertises a ‘Recital [of] Blues, Folk Songs, [and] Ballads, by the Famous American Singer Big Bill Broonzy.’ Both ‘Careless Love’ (performed by Johnson the following year) and another ballad, ‘When Did You Leave Heaven’, appeared on the programme amongst a mixture of blues and spirituals.[3] It is clear, then, that audiences expected at least a modicum of ballad performance from visiting blues musicians. What is more, ‘Careless Love’, performed by both Broonzy and Johnson, was standard repertoire for British blues and traditional jazz performers, recorded by Neva Raphaello, Ottilie Patterson, Humphrey Lyttelton (to name a few) between 1950 and 1955.

 

In addition to falling into established narratives and biographical accounts, it’s also important not to miss another vital aspect of British accounts of visiting musicians: the presence of British musicians! Visiting musicians were only able to enter the UK as ‘variety artists’, meaning that they came without their normal backing bands. This meant they had to perform solo, or with British backing musicians. Tours were booked with little rehearsal time; Chris Barber remembers meeting Muddy Waters for the first time only hours before taking to the stage with him. Moreover, the standard traditional jazz concert often featured multiple bands on the lineup, meaning that the visiting American musician would not have been the only draw for prospective audiences – British fans were coming to hear their home favourites, too. In 1958, for instance, Muddy Waters and Otis Spann shared the billing with Chris Barber’s band and Ottilie Patterson, at that time the only traditional jazz band to be playing sellout nationwide tours in provincial theatres.

Modern writers have frequently used these collaborations as an opportunity to assert the abilities of American musicians at the expense of their British counterparts. In recounting Waters’s first British performance, Robert Gordon speculates that ‘Muddy spent the first half of the evening subjected to Dixieland, and wondered if anyone in the entire country of funny-speaking people knew anything about the blues.’ In Gordon’s mind, this linguistic divide covers all manner of sins: Brits are too British, and too white, to play the blues.

Nevertheless, Broonzy certainly seems to have played on contemporary anxieties regarding British musicians’ blues abilities. ‘You’re too quick, buddy! You gotta be lazy to play the blues. Don’t snap at them keys!…That’s bop you’re playing, boy;’ so Broonzy chastised the young pianist Roy Sturgess during rehearsals for his London debut. These remarks can be read in the context of Broonzy’s overall project to authenticate himself as the archetypal ‘folk’ musician. From the same interview, we find Broonzy questioning ‘Twelve-bar blues, what is that? I can only sing the way I feel. It might be eleven bars, it might be thirteen, and it might be one. I can’t sing no other way…I don’t know what note I shall sing till I’ve sung it.’ Broonzy’s insistence on the individuality of his performance, as well as the precision needed to accompany him, chimed perfectly with the British consensus that Broonzy was one of the few remaining ‘true’ blues singers.

And yet, at the same time, it is important to identify tensions in how these collaborations were reported. For instance, reports of Broonzy’s precocious and taunting direction of his accompanists does not chime well with contemporary descriptions of his offstage poise, modesty, and even occasional shyness, all evidence of decades of having to defer to white employers. That’s not to say that Broonzy could not have come to interact on more egalitarian terms with his contemporaries; rather, it’s important to look closer at the politics of these transnational encounters – more than likely they were not always on equal terms. Interestingly, too, Hugues Panassié identified Broonzy’s slow blues – such as ‘Trouble in Mind’ or ‘How Long Blues’ – to be some of his most poignant and heartfelt performances, yet at his Kingsway concert the majority of these slow blues were performed during his accompanied slot, rather than during the solo slot.

 

Although labour restrictions sometimes provided British musicians with an opportunity to perform alongside their idols, these concerts also fell foul of industry politics; groups such as the National Federation of Jazz Organisations (NFJO) used high-profile concerts (and any American visitor counted as ‘high-profile’) to expose what they saw as the absurdity of labour restrictions on American musicians. Antagonism between the NFJO and the Musicians’ Union (MU) came to a head in June 1952, surrounding the appearance of blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson the following month. Johnson was to appear at an all-star NFJO concert, sharing the bill with American boogie woogie and ragtime pianist Ralph Sutton, who was also visiting, as well as British groups including Roy Simpson’s Commodores, George Webb’s Dixielanders, British blues vocalists George Melly and Neva Raphaello, and Ambrose Campbell’s West Africans.

The plan was for Johnson to play part of the concert solo, and another part accompanied by the assembled British musicians. On 14th June, however, the MU decided that, although Johnson and Sutton could share the bill with British musicians, on no account were American and British musicians to perform together. The resulting furore in the musical press caused the BBC to withdraw from its planned broadcast of the event. This left Johnson to perform accompanied by Ralph Sutton – an unplanned pairing – until several British musicians defied the MU’s edict and joined Johnson on the stage impromptu. By the end of the month, the union had expelled the offending musicians for their misdemeanours, and the NFJO widely discredited for having failed to stand up for its members.

With these circumstances in mind – which, incidentally, are absent from Roberta Schwartz’s account of Johnson’s reception in Britain – it is possible to see audiences’ dissatisfaction with Johnson’s first concert as having just as much to do with the shambles arising from these disagreements, as it was with Johnson’s inauthentic style or poor programming. Indeed, critics in the Melody Maker seem to have been far less concerned with the quality of the performance, than with the embarrassment of such a wasted opportunity for US-UK musical collaboration.

 

In this blog post, I’ve tried to show that there are a number of additional factors in play regarding the reception of visiting blues musicians in Britain. These include the politics involved in staging collaborative concerts, as well as American musicians’ difficulty in ascertaining their audiences’ tastes. Most importantly, it is vital that these performances be viewed in the context of an existing British performance scene, complete with its own presentation formats, standard repertoire, and entertainment traditions. There is much more work to be done here. The omission of this context is, I think, primarily due to the fact that accounts by authors such as Schwartz and Gordon do not believe in the existence of a ‘British blues’ scene during the 1950s. Rather than remaining open to British musicians’ ability to assimilate blues performance, these authors consign them to the position of well-meaning imitators. Most uncomfortably, this effectively reifies African American performers as inspired creators simply by virtue of their nationality and ethnicity.

 

Works Cited

Asman, James, ‘Frankly, I am Disgusted!’, Musical Express (September 28 1951).

Barber, Chris, (with Alyn Shipton), Jazz Me Blues: The Autobiography of Chris Barber (Sheffield: Equinox Publishing, 2014).

Bell, Graeme, (with Jack Mitchell), Graeme Bell, Australian Jazzman (Frenchs Forest, NSW: Child & Associates, 1988).

Gordon, Robert, Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters (London: Jonathan Cape, 2002).

Panassié, Hugues, ‘Big Bill doesn’t sell his music – he gives it away’, Melody Maker (September 15 1951), 9.

Riesman, Bob, I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

Schwartz, Roberta Freund, How Britain Got The Blues: The Transmission and Reception of American Blues Style in the United Kingdom (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007).

Standish, Tony, ‘Muddy Waters in London’, Jazz Journal 12/1 (January 1959), 2-4.

 

[1] Here, ‘rhythm and blues’ refers slightly ambiguously to two types of mid-50s popular music: rock ‘n’ roll by artists such as Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, (USA) and Tommy Steele (UK); and African American ‘RnB’ by musicians such as Wynonie Harris, Earl Bostic, and Jimmy Witherspoon. Both styles were lambasted for their pollution of the true ‘folk’ nature of the blues, and were frequently associated with youth immorality and Americanisation.

[2] I have not yet researched this revised programme, but for a list of Johnson’s Okeh sides, see http://www.redhotjazz.com/ljohnson.html.

[3] It is also apparent from contemporary recordings at this time, and other concert programmes from his European visits, that ballads such as ‘Blue Tail Fly’ and ‘Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home’ made regular appearances in Broonzy’s concerts.

 

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Disciplining Technology

[This post appeared initially on the website for the forthcoming Technology in Music Conference at UNC Chapel Hill, where I’ll be giving a paper in May.]

One of the great things about a conference organised around the theme of ‘technology’ is that, because ‘technology’ in all its many forms is involved in every aspect of music-making, it gets us to think a lot more about what technology ‘is’ and how it functions. I know that sounds pretty obvious; indeed, the popularity of the interdisciplinary approach means that we’re all regularly engaged in drawing on other scholarly traditions for new perspectives on our research, and we’re used to theorising important agents in the historical periods we’re studying. But it still remains the case that sub-disciplines of musicology – ethnomusicology, ‘jazz studies’, ‘sound studies’, analysis and music theory etc. – often have their own distinct ways of thinking about technology. Moreover, these have developed in parallel with each pathways’ own quest for recognition as a ‘sub-discipline’ in their own right.

For this blog post, I thought I’d explore this idea in a bit more depth, as it underpins my paper “‘New Orleans, London, Memphis, Manchester’: Blues, transnationalism, and Britain’s ‘Jazz Public’ before 1960” that I’ll be giving in May. At the heart of my paper, I’m hoping to point out how ways of thinking about the reception of the blues in Britain have been conditioned by a particular definition of ‘technology’ that has been formulated to a great extent through the emergence of the ‘New Jazz Studies’ of the past twenty years or so.

In the New Jazz Studies, ‘technology’ overwhelmingly means recordings, and the function of these recordings is to encode and represent the broader tradition of live jazz performance. This is due to the overwhelmingly historiographical orientation of the discipline, encapsulated in Scott DeVeaux’s landmark 1991 essay ‘Constructing the Jazz Traditon’, which has been quoted by nearly every jazz scholar ever since. In his essay, DeVeaux identified that jazz histories are often dedicated to defining a narrow canon of master-musicians, who each have a place in an overarching narrative of unstoppable, organic musical progress. What is more, each musician’s biography is perfectly poised to inherit the mantle of the ‘jazz tradition’ at the appropriate moment: as legendary New Orleans trumpeter Buddy Bolden began to lose his marbles, a young man named Louis Armstrong saw the opportunity to carry the music onwards, and to larger audiences. As the public were beginning to tire of big band swing, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie began developing new and more complex ‘licks’ in their uptown jam sessions.

We’ve all probably heard this story before: first there was New Orleans jazz in the 1910s and 20s, then there was swing in the 30s, and bebop in the 40s. The 1950s was the home to ‘cool jazz’ and Miles Davis’s iconic Kind of Blue album, and the 1960s….well, everything got a bit weird and difficult to define. A good example of a history like this might be Ken Burns’s PBS mega-documentary Jazz (2000), which spends most of its time lionising the achievements of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington during the 1930s and 40s. Over ten two-hour episodes, Armstrong plays a prominent role in episodes 2, 3, 4, 5, and then 8, 9, and 10. Ellington fares similarly well, looming large in every episode from number 3 onwards. And if you’re a fan of Herbie Hancock, hard-bop, fusion, ‘latin’ jazz, or interested in the role of jazz in the civil rights movement, you’ll need to wait for the final episode.

So the New Jazz Studies has grown up spending a large amount of its time critiquing these sorts of overly comfortable narratives, and calling for greater attention to be paid to neglected musicians and performance styles. It’s a very historiographical mode of enquiry: are we telling the right stories about jazz, featuring the right people, and in the right way?

However, this approach has some fundamental limits. The primacy of historiography in jazz studies means that jazz scholars are overwhelmingly concerned with whether the histories written by modern scholars, historians and filmmakers are accurately representing ‘what really happened’. There are the obvious limits here, many of which have been identified by American jazz scholar Sherrie Tucker. Tucker points out that we can’t continually enlarge the ‘canon’ to include everyone; despite many scholars’ calls for more flexible definitions of jazz, academic jazzers are yet to show significant interest in shopping mall background music, the ubiquitous popularity of Norah Jones, or the jam session scene in Disney’s The Aristocats.

But what is really important to note here is that this overwhelmingly historiographical approach has bled into the ways in which jazz scholars think about technology. As I pointed out before, when jazz scholars talk about technology, they’re usually talking about recordings. In some ways, we can’t blame them, as a recording is the best way to capture the improvisation and spontaneity that is so essential to jazz. Yet this emphasis is, at its heart, also a historiographical one: records give us glimpses into the lost performances that we want to write about. They are a window into the complexities of the reality that we are so concerned about representing correctly in our books, films and articles.

This understanding of recordings has lead jazz scholars on the whole to only ask one question of recordings: ‘how representative is this recording of what those musicians were actually playing at the time?’ Yet this approach doesn’t apply in a situation where there is little or no corresponding access to the same musicians playing live, such as in Britain. And, perhaps more importantly, it doesn’t examine how recordings become what British jazz scholar Catherine Tackley has termed ‘social texts’. Whether recordings are representative of a ‘live’ tradition or not, recordings have been bought, sold, listened to, danced to, preserved – even burned – throughout the twentieth century. We can all remember our first LP, tape, or CD, and what that music still means to us years later. Similarly, I’m sure we’ve all been in the situation where we have been avid fans of a particular band or composer, only to discover something unpleasant about them or their history that causes significant anxiety over whether this music then still ‘means’ the same thing as it did before. A case in point here might be Eric Clapton: how could a musician who had been so influenced by the blues, and who had done so much to introduce British listeners to African American music through his recordings, stand on stage in 1976 and chant the contemporary neo-Nazi slogan ‘Keep Britain White’?

It’s clear, then, that recordings themselves – not just the music they contain – accrue meanings that change over time and can often become contradictory. As such, it is vital that a focus on how technology is ‘used’ and how this affects the meanings of the music should become more prominent in jazz studies, as it has done in other disciplines of musicology (Hi there, ethnomusicologists!). As Tackley points out, although jazz musicians regularly ‘use’ recordings to help them learn to improvise by transcribing ‘riffs’ and ‘licks’, even this practice has only been examined in a handful of academic studies. This is only one use of the recording, but there are many others.

And finally, there are even more basic things that jazz studies can do, if we want to expand the ways we think about technology. For a start, we could think about more than just recordings, contextualising LPs, 45s, and 78s with other technologies, such as radios, films, sheet music, or even magazines and book subscription clubs. These are arguably also ‘technologies’ – in the sense that they play a role in enforcing, communicating, or questioning the meanings of the music they feature – yet they are rarely used as such.

Instead, these technologies have circumscribed roles: we might typically look at a magazine review for an idea of what critics thought about a particular record, but we don’t yet tend to consider how both the recording and the magazine might both be technologies that (in different ways) are used to underpin the same set of cultural practices. As I hope to show in my paper, these might include cultures of collecting, communal listening, attending performances, social dancing, or amateur history writing.

In jazz studies, at least, there’s a lot to learn about new ways of thinking about technology that go beyond the recording as a ‘representative’ or ‘mediating’ artifact. Perhaps a conference on technology would be a good place to start!

 

Works Cited

DeVeaux, Scott, ‘Constructing the Jazz Tradition: Jazz Historiography’, Black American Literature Forum 25 (1991), 525-560.

Tackley, Catherine, ‘Jazz Recordings as Social Texts’ in Bayley, Amanda (ed.), Recorded Music: Society, Technology, and Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 167-186.

Tucker, Sherrie, ‘Deconstructing the Jazz Tradition: The “Subjectless Subject” of New Jazz Studies’, The Source 2 (2005), 31-46.

 
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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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Welcome to allthirteenkeys!

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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