The many versions of ‘How Long, How Long Blues’: Leroy Carr’s lyrics together for the first time online

Leroy Carr’s ‘How Long, How Long Blues’ is one of the most famous and most covered blues songs of all time. First released in 1928, the song was so popular that Carr recorded five further versions of it between 1928 and 1932. This post presents and discusses the lyrics to Carr’s biggest hit.

Singer and pianist Leroy Carr (1905-1935) was one of the most popular African American blues entertainers of the 1920s and 30s. In contrast with some of the more famous blues from this period, Carr’s performances held none of the raw, rural feeling of some of his contemporaries, such as Sleepy John Estes or Charlie Patton. Carr, and his longtime musical partner Scrapper Blackwell (guitar), were masters of the urbane and sophisticated ‘race records’ market; their records sold well throughout African American communities across the United States.

how long how long

[An advert for Carr’s first ‘How Long, How Long Blues’, Chicago Defender, 8th September 1928]

Despite Carr’s relatively short career, his records have had a massive impact on blues history. Many of his songs have become standard repertoire for blues bands, such as ‘Blues Before Sunrise’, ‘Midnight Hour Blues’, and of course ‘How Long How Long Blues’ – which Muddy Waters said was the first blues song he ever learnt. Perhaps most famously, Carr’s classic ‘When the Sun Goes Down’ became the model for Robert Johnson’s ‘Love in Vain Blues’.

I could say much more about the importance of Leroy Carr’s style, but Elijah Wald has already done a great job of this on his website, and in his book Escaping The Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues. What I want to address in this blog is the lyrics to Carr’s ‘How Long How Long Blues’. With each successive recording, Carr substantially reworked the song’s lyrics, even while keeping the melody and the instrumental accompaniment almost exactly the same. Yet, despite the fact that ‘How Long How Long Blues’ remains a staple of blues recordings, gigs and jam sessions the world over, it’s remarkably difficult to find the lyrics to the song online; a quick google search – even including the name ‘Leroy Carr’ – mainly throws up links to Eric Clapton’s cover from his 1994 album From the Cradle. Moreover, it’s especially difficult to find the lyrics to any of Carr’s five other versions of the song!

So, for the first time online (I think!), here are the lyrics to all of Leroy Carr’s ‘How Long, How Long Blues’. As well as a brief discussion of what I find interesting about each version, I’ve also included information as to the matrix number, recording date, and the original Vocalion 78rpm issue, and if you click on the title of each version it will take you to a recording of that particular version.

[Note: as with any transcription from an old 78, it can be very difficult to hear the words Carr is singing. Similarly, there are often words at the beginning of each line that are intentionally mumbled, such as ‘Well’, ‘But’, ‘For’, ‘And’, or ‘Baby’. So please leave a comment below if you hear the lyrics differently!]

How Long, How Long Blues (IND-623-A)
Rec. June 19 1928. (Vocalion 1191)

How Long, Baby How Long
Has that evening train been gone?
How Long, How how Long, Baby How Long

Well, I asked her at the station:
Why’s my baby leavin’ town
You were disgusted, nowhere could peace be found
For how long etc

I can hear the whistle blowin,
But I cannot see no train
And it’s deep down in my heart baby, there lies an aching pain.
For how long etc

Sometimes I feel so disgustin’ and I feel so blue
That I hardly know what in this world baby just to do
For how long etc

And if I could holler, like I was a mountain train
I’d go up on the mountain and I’d call my baby back
For how long etc

And someday you gonna be sorry that you done me wrong
But it will be too late, I will be gone
For so long, so long, baby so long.

My mind gets a ramblin’, I feel so bad
Thinkin’ about the bad luck that I have had
For how long etc

This is Carr’s first recording of ‘How Long’. Note how he squeezes in a slight change to the refrain ‘how long’ in chorus six, where he sings ‘so long’ instead.

How Long How Long Blues – Part 2 (C-2688-A)
Rec. December 19, 1928 (Vocalion 1241)

How long, baby how long?
Must I keep my watch in pawn?
How long, how long, baby how long.

I going to the pawn shop
Put my watch in pawn
I don’t want it to tell me
That you have been gone
But so long, so long, baby so long.

I’ve had some trouble up lately
I got locked up in jail
I sat and called you, baby
To come and go my bail
For how long, etc

I’m going down to Georgia
And up to Tennessee
Don’t look me over baby
That’s the last you’ll see of me
But so long, so long, baby so long

The last time I tried to love you
You were so very cold
I thought that I was standing
Holding the North Pole
For how long, etc

I can look and see the green grass
Growing on the hill
But I ain’t see the greenback
On a dollar bill
For so long etc

I haven’t any money
For a ticket on the train
But I would ride the rods baby
To be with you again
For how long etc

In this version, Carr incorporates the ‘so long’ refrain into the rest of the song, alternating it with the regular ‘how long’ version. Interestingly, too the lines about ‘the green grass’ and the ‘greenback’, which are common in modern versions of ‘How Long’, seem to stem from this version of the song. I also like how this version incorporates a number of comedy lines, such as ‘holding the North Pole’, that don’t fit modern performances of this song. Although we now hear ‘How Long Blues’ as heartfelt and quite mournful, it is clear that Carr also intended the song to be heard as jokey and satirical.

How Long How Long Blues – Part 3 (C-2689-A)
Rec. December 19, 1928 (Vocalion 1279)

How long, babe how long
Must I sing my lonesome song
How long, how long, baby how long?

I have been waiting
But the mail man leaves no mail
I’m just drifting
Like a ship without a sail
For how long etc

Sometimes I think you love me
And I feel so glad
But you stay away baby
And then I feel so bad
For how long etc

I guess some day you’ll find me baby
Six feet under the ground
And you’ll always be cross you’ve quit me
For I’ll have my face turned down
For how long etc

You went and left me baby
And I do the best I can
But if you had to quit me
Why steal some other woman’s man?
For how long etc

Last night I heard a hound dog babe
And I felt so blue
Cause I dreamt he was in the graveyard
Looking down at you
For how long etc

Sometimes I get to dreaming
That you’re coming back
And I go down to the station
Stand gazin’ up the track
For how long etc

[Final chorus is a piano and guitar instrumental]

In this version, Carr appears to continue to inject some satire into the proceedings, by referring to the popularity of his own record at the start: ‘how long…must I sing my lonesome song?’ Also interesting in this version is that there are far more explicit references to death. In the first version, Carr sings about his love coming back ‘too late’, by which time he ‘will be gone’; this might not necessarily imply death, just that Carr has moved on (to a new place or a new lover). In this version, however, Carr sings specifically about being ‘six feet under ground’, but about his lover being dead and buried, too. I find the final sung chorus very evocative, too, as Carr’s description of going ‘down to the station [to] stand gazin’ up the track’ is far more weighty than simply saying that he ‘couldn’t see no train’, which are the lyrics we’re more used to hearing. Finally, this version is also notable because it is the first to incorporate an instrumental chorus.

The New How Long How Long Blues (C-4031-A)
Rec. August 12, 1929 (Vocalion 1435)

How long, baby how long
Do you think I’ll let you do me wrong?
How long etc

If you don’t want me baby
Why don’t you tell me so
I know you love someone else baby
And you can go
For so long etc

And I will tell you
Tell you to your face
That when you’re gone baby
Someone else will take your place
For so long etc

No I ain’t going to cry
Ain’t going to waste no tears
For if you go away baby
I hope you stay a thousand years
For that long, yes that long, baby that long

You are a dirty mistreater
And you ain’t no good
And I wouldn’t [drive?] you back again [inaudible]
Even if it was good
For how long etc

Don’t start that jive baby
Just you leave me alone
Or you’ll be [setting?] up daisies [inaudible]
Round some cold headstone
For so long etc

So go on baby
And just let me be
If I never see you anymore
That’ll be too soon for me
For so long etc

I struggled with hearing several words in this version, so please do let me know if you hear something that I haven’t. In Carr’s ‘New How Long Blues’, he alters the melody of the final phrase – perhaps this is what makes it ‘new’! The refrain alternates a lot more here, from ‘how long’ to ‘so long’ (as we’ve seen earlier), but also to ‘that long’ in chorus four, which is another example of Carr’s use of humour. Like the previous version there is a reference to death in chorus six, only now it might be read as more threatening. Is Carr saying that he will kill his lover for messing him around, or is this another reference to dying from a broken heart? (That is, Carr’s lover will have to arrange the flowers around his grave after he has died.)

New How Long How Long Blues – Part 2 (C-7221-A)
Rec. January 16, 1931 (Vocalion 1585)

I think I’ll drop
My baby a line
And let her know
About these hard luck times
For how long etc

I wonder how long
Will these hard times stay
I’ll be so glad
When they go away
For how long etc

And it’s tight up the country
It’s tight in town
I can hardly make it
No matter where I am
For how long etc

Women walk the streets
Wear no boot and shoe
And if a woman can’t make it
What can a poor man do?
For how long etc.

I used to get a dollar
Before I could catch my breath
Now I can’t get a dime
I talked myself to death
For how long etc

Now all of my things
Are all locked up in pawn
How long will these hard luck times hang on?
Well how long etc

I used to have money
Everyday that passed
Now these hard luck times
Got me on my “yes yes yes…”
For how long etc

In this version, Carr does not start with the usual refrain of ‘how long’; instead he deliberates over contacting his absent lover – the only time he does so in any of the ‘How Long Blues’. There’s also a sense in this version that a significant amount of time has passed since the first ‘How Long Blues’: not only does Carr specifically discuss the passing of time in several choruses, but also his choruses are more reflective and observant of the world around him. As with earlier versions, too, there’s an element of humour when Carr censors himself in the final verse!!

How Long Has That Evening Train Been Gone (11494-a)
Rec. March 15, 1932 (Vocalion 1716)

Mr. Engineer-Man
Turn your train around
My baby’s on there
And she’s southern-bound
For how long, has that evening train been gone?

She left me standing
Throwing up my hands
Said she was moving
Back to [an?]other man
How long, has that evening train been gone?

[Chorus of guitar and piano]

Now here I stand
All blue and sad
Thinking how much I loved her
Ain’t that too bad?
How long, has that evening train been gone?

If I had known
She was gonna leave me that way
My poor broken heart
Would have to pay
How long, has that evening train been gone?

[Chorus of guitar and piano]

Well she’s gone
There’s nothing for me to say
But maybe she will come
Back to me someday
Well how long, has that evening train been gone?

This final version of ‘How Long Blues’ is very interesting, not only because Carr introduces the song without the normal ‘how long’ refrain, but also because he dispenses with it entirely at the end of each chorus – preferring instead ‘how long has that evening train been gone?’ Guitarist Scrapper Blackwell takes a slightly more prominent role here too, in the two instrumental choruses. What is more perplexing, though, is that Carr seems to talk about his lover as though she is actually on the train, having recently departed, even though it is clear in other versions of the song that he has been alone for some time. Does this mean that she has recently come back, only to leave again? I’m also interested in the fact that Carr says his baby is ‘southbound’, as this has significant implications for where he (and in turn his audience) are positioned both literally and metaphorically. While narratives of the blues’s development often highlight the movement northwards by African Americans in the first half of the twentieth century, here it is clear that Carr and his soon-to-be ex lover are somewhere northern already, and that she is going ‘back down south’. This is a further reminder that, as Guthrie Ramsey has argued, the act of travelling south was just as culturally important in midcentury black America as travelling north was; indeed, large numbers of the population did so frequently. Muddy Waters, who settled in Chicago in 1943, had already made several temporary visits to the city before moving permanently, each time returning to Memphis or the Mississippi Delta.

So there you have it – all the lyrics to all of Leroy Carr’s ‘How Long Blues’. There are many layers to these lyrics, and I think that spending some time thinking about what they might mean, and what the successive versions of the song might mean when compared to one another, is very important. We’re very used to this idea that the blues – particularly the ‘country blues’ – is made up of ‘stock phrases’, drawn on by early performers in the spur of the moment. Yet it is clear from Carr’s recordings that he wanted to develop certain themes in particular, and I think that audiences would have listened to later versions of ‘How Long Blues’ with the earlier versions in mind. That Carr had this sort of interaction between himself and his audiences in mind is, I argue, what distinguishes him as such a professional – and is perhaps part of the reason for his success and influence.

One final thing bugs me, however. It is clear that none of Carr’s original recordings match the lyrics most of us now know for ‘How Long Blues’. Sure, many of the same phrases and choruses are there, but the transcriptions above show that the version of ‘How Long Blues’ performed today is in fact a ‘collage’ made up of Carr’s multiple versions. So who recorded the first ‘modern’ version of ‘How Long Blues’; that is, the particular selection of these choruses in that order? By the 1950s, performances by Big Joe Turner (1956) and Lonnie Donegan (1956) follow the ‘modern’ order we know well, yet earlier versions such as Jimmy Rushing’s (1939), or Jimmy and Mama Yancey’s (1943) are very different.

Further Reading

Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr., Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hiphop (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

Elijah Wald, ‘Leroy Carr: The Bluesman Who Behaved Too Well’

Elijah Wald, Escaping The Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (New York: Amistad, 2004).

Stefan Wirz, ‘Illustrated Leroy Carr Discography’

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Whose Blues? How we risk destroying blues music’s heritage even as we try to celebrate it.

The blues is a landmark of African American culture, and has become popular around the world. Yet efforts to celebrate the importance of this music often ignore its most vital messages.

Today is ‘International Blues Music Day’. Around the world, but particularly in the United States, blues fans are getting together to listen to, perform and celebrate a style of music that is widely recognised as one of the most influential cultural achievements of the twentieth century. If you’re at all familiar with the genre, you’ll know of its history: from humble beginnings amongst African Americans in the segregated South of the early twentieth century, the music moved north to Chicago as postwar African Americans searched for a life away from Jim Crow. And then to 1960s Britain: a generation of young musicians and listeners successfully brought the genre back into the public eye through the popularity of blues-tinged rock by groups such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Yardbirds.

The worldwide recognition of the blues has since continued apace, especially since the United States Congress declared 2003 the ‘Year of the Blues’, in light of the music’s influence on subsequent genres, and its role as an international ‘ambassador’ for American culture. I’m writing this blog post from the Orkney Islands, surrounded by fishing boats and sea birds off the northern coast of Scotland. In September, they’ll hold their annual Blues Festival.

Yet while the success of the blues across the globe is undeniable, I don’t think that emphasising the music’s worldwide acclaim is necessarily the best grounds for celebrating the genre. Rather, there is a more immediate value in the music: its historic role in twentieth-century African American culture.

Most readers will probably be rereading the sentence above; it sounds obvious, doesn’t it? More to the point, we already know and recognise that the blues was born of the social experiences of African Americans. In this blog post, however, I want to demonstrate how well-meaning people and organisations are actually neglecting this aspect of the blues’s importance.

Take a look at this video about Muddy Waters below, published by the Mississippi Blues Commission (hereafter MBC) in 2010.

It begins straightforwardly enough, highlighting Muddy Waters’s role in the transformation of rural ‘Delta’ blues into ‘electric’ blues. As Living Blues founder Jim O’Neal points out, this development coincides with the journey that Waters and countless others made to industrial cities in the north, such as Chicago, in search of better employment prospects. In Waters’s words: ‘I felt like I was good enough to get on record, and where I was living I didn’t have a chance.’

The film then highlights the popularity of Waters’s ‘urban’ sound with Chicago’s black audiences, and its influence on other blues musicians such as B. B. King. At this point, the film turns to the first impressions of British musicians Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin) and Bill Wyman (Rolling Stones) on hearing Waters’s music. Their responses are innocent enough: they give us an idea of what it must have been like to hear for the first time a genre that, in Plant’s words, provided ‘a window into a culture that we had no idea about’.

Yet it is Bonnie Raitt’s statement that becomes slightly problematic:

…and then some little kid in California, or Elvin Bishop, or Paul Butterfield, or the Rolling Stones, get to celebrate and somehow relate to the universal call and the power of this music, and to blow it out into rock n’ roll. And then to turn around and be able to give Muddy what he deserved, which was worldwide acclaim.

As far as the MBC’s film makers are concerned, Raitt’s words are the icing on the cake: the blues has gone from a music of the African American south, to Chicago, to (white) Britain, and then to the world. The blues has more than just global appeal; it has ‘universal’ power.

I want to look more closely at this transformation from rural South to ‘universal power’. The blues has always meant something to its performers, because of its connection to the performers’ direct experiences of the society in which they lived. For Waters this was to do with his own journey from the Delta to Chicago; for Robert Plant it was discovering a new form of cultural expression that offered something different compared to his existing worldview.

But is it right to interpret the blues as having ‘universal’ appeal when the music originated in a society so affected, so determined, by the institution of segregation? The idea that the blues is ‘universal’ often draws our attention away from really understanding what the blues meant to communities under the hand of Jim Crow, both in the south and in Chicago.

Many modern blues audiences understand the music to have originated as a form of authentic African American ‘folk’ music, immune to commercial influence and set apart from other types of music. While thinking of the blues as ‘folk’ music is a good way of demanding recognition for the genre (i.e. it is important cultural heritage and needs preserving), the category of ‘folk music’ ignores the complexity of the blues’s meanings for its original audiences. African Americans in the 1930s, 40s and 50s heard the blues as popular entertainment, where the boundaries between what we would today call ‘jazz’, blues, and ‘rhythm and blues’ were considerably more permeable. We would be surprised, for example, to learn that the semi-professional Muddy Waters (still living in Mississippi) enjoyed listening to Fats Waller, Louis Jordan, Count Basie, and even Gene Autry.

That the urbane, sophisticated sounds of these musicians were readily available in the Delta gives lie to the narrative of rural ‘Delta’ blues becoming urbane ‘electric’ blues when Waters moved to Chicago. What would be infinitely more interesting to explore, of course, would be the ways in which ‘urbane’ and ‘rural’ sounding styles of blues coexisted in both the Delta and Chicago, or that Waters’s more direct and ‘downhome’ style actually follows on from the more sophisticated sounds of contemporary rhythm and blues.

Thinking along these lines would lead to a further investigation of what the distinction between ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ meant in postwar African American culture. As historian Adam Green has pointed out in his book Selling the Race, the postwar period saw the growth of a nationwide black American sense of identity with a markedly cosmopolitan outlook. Musicologist Guthrie P. Ramsey has also highlighted the reciprocal nature of cultural exchange between northern and southern states at this time, showing how people, music and performers circulated far more freely than our current narratives allow. What, then, does ‘downhome’ mean, if people ‘downhome’ were listening to music from the urban north, and if musicians from the urban north were frequently traveling back down south?


The story of the blues we’re most used to hearing – where the music develops in tandem with its movement from the American south, to the north, and then out into the world – has been set up with this end point in mind. Promoters, critics, listeners and performers alike want to recognise the ‘universal’ appeal of the music, setting up a narrative of the blues’s growth that leads towards this goal.

But this has serious implications. By taking the blues’s universal appeal as evidence of its cultural worth, we are effectively saying that the music’s role in African American culture isn’t enough to grant the music recognition. Understanding what the blues meant to black Americans throughout decades of racist oppression is held to be less important than recognising the blues’s adoption by people around the world, who have often not faced racist oppression.

Under the watchful eye of Jim Crow – Clarksdale MS (1939)

The MBC video does not tell us why Muddy Waters was important to African American audiences, aside from that he ‘updated’ the sound by adding harmonica, electric guitar, and piano (he wasn’t the first to do any of these – but that’s another story). But what is impressed upon us when watching the video is that Muddy Waters’s music meant something to white people. As Bonnie Raitt points out, the Rolling Stones ‘[turned] round and gave Muddy what he deserved, which was worldwide acclaim.’ This implies, as blues scholar Ulrich Adelt has pointed out, that a blues musicians’ popularity with his original African American audience is viewed as only incomplete success.

The MBC video could have validated the blues by focusing on the music’s meaning for the African Americans who lived through the decades when American white supremacy was at its most ugly and most untenable. Instead, the video validates the blues by focusing on how important it is to everyone else. The genre’s ‘complete’, ‘worldwide’ of ‘universal’ success is granted – apparently – by white people’s acceptance and recognition of it. Does this suggest that African American cultural value on its own isn’t important enough?

So, on International Blues Music Day, let’s take a rain check on applauding the blues’s ‘universal’ or ‘worldwide’ acclaim. Let’s ask ourselves how important it is to hear the blues as an international music if, by doing so, we omit to hear it as part of African American history, society, and identity. This does not invalidate white American or white British enthusiasts’ deep-felt love of this music (I include myself here). But I do think we should stop pretending that the best way to honour the blues is to celebrate its supposed universality, as though recognising its historic meaning for black Americans isn’t sufficient. To do so isn’t to celebrate the blues – ‘the soul of America’ – at all; rather, we celebrate only one part of it, and continue to ignore the African American history that has always been ignored.

Further Reading

Adelt, Ulrich, Blues Music in the Sixties: A Story in Black And White (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010).

Gordon, Robert, and Bruce Nemerov (eds.), Lost Delta Found: Rediscovering the Fisk University-Library of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941-1942 (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2005).

Green, Adam, Selling the Race: Culture, Community and Black Chicago, 1940-55 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

Miller, Karl Hagstrom, Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005).

Ramsey, Guthrie P., Race Music: Black Cultures From Bebop to Hip Hop (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
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What if the ‘Godfather of British Blues’ was actually a woman?

The ‘godfather’ is a familiar honourific in popular music. Tap in ‘the godfather of soul’ into google, and we can be pretty sure whose picture is going to appear – James Brown. ‘Godfather of funk?’ That’s George Clinton. ‘Godfather of house?’ – Frankie Knuckles. In some genres, the jury seems to be out on this question; the title ‘godfather of punk’ has been variously attributed to Joey Ramone, Pete Townshend, and Iggy Pop.

Who holds this title is always a matter of consensus or debate, but it’s clear in every case what qualities these musicians have in order for the title of ‘godfather’ to be conferred upon them. They’ve been around since the start of the genre, and put in years – if not decades – of hard graft. James Brown is a case in point: he’s also known as the ‘hardest working man in show business.’ As a result, his influence extends beyond those he worked directly with, informing the activities of generations of subsequent performers and listeners.

In this post, I want to explore some further implications of the ‘godfather’ title, particularly with regard to the way it makes us think about the history of musical genres. First, the ‘godfather’ title is often used to identify the musician as one of the first people to play in that style. Calling James Brown the ‘King of Soul’ makes him sound like ‘the best’ or ‘most successful’ soul musician amongst many others. Yet calling him the ‘godfather‘ means that he was there at the beginning, setting the standard for others to follow.

This use of the ‘godfather’ title is particularly common when talking about British Blues. The holder of the title ‘Godfather of British Blues’, judging by a search through google pages and twitter hashtags, seems to be John Mayall, but both Eric Clapton and Alexis Korner get a look in too. This seems well deserved; each was a highly influential figure on the British popular music scene of the 1960s, not only turning generations of young British listeners onto the sounds of American blues, but also acting as mentors for countless other British pop and rock musicians.

Too often in the case of British Blues, however, we think that these ‘godfather’ musicians were the first people to start listening to and performing the blues in Britain. This simply isn’t true. Many British jazz musicians of the 1940s and 50s were interested in the blues, such as Chris Barber, George Melly, Sandy Brown, George Shearing, Tony Short, Vic Lewis, Cyril Blake, Humphrey Lyttelton, Harry Parry and many others. Indeed, Alexis Korner, who is best known for his performing activities in the 60s, was actually a founding member of the ‘Blues and Skiffle Club’ at the Round House pub on London’s Wardour Street in 1955. Earlier than that, too, Chris Barber recalls playing blues numbers in a trio with Korner and Trinidadian bassist Brylo Ford in 1949.

In fact, the further you dig into the jazz scene of 1940s and 50s Britain, the more blues you find. Blues performance was often marked out as a specific segment of a jazz concert; a smaller collection of musicians from the main band would accompany a singer. This programme from a 1951 concert in Leicester is indicative. New Orleans-style jazz repertoire is interspersed with more bluesy numbers, performed by smaller groups. Both Cy Laurie and Mick Mulligan’s groups feature a guest singer for blues numbers. George Melly is even advertised as ‘Britain’s Great Blues Singer.’IMAG3221

As far as I can see, the ‘blues singer’ label is not uncommon at this time. Adverts in Jazz Music magazine in 1955, for example, invited readers to Bath’s ‘Club Dixie’ to hear Joe Brickell’s Jazzmen ‘every Tuesday night,’ featuring the well-known clarinettist Terry Lightfoot, and the ‘blues singer’ Pam Coster. Later that year in the same magazine, an advert alerted readers to Manchester’s Rainy City Jazzband performing at the Wheatsheaf Hotel. Again, it made sure to highlight the appearance of ‘Blues singer-guitarist Chris Holroyd.’ Indeed, it seems that many jazz bands contained one or more musicians capable of singing the blues as a matter of principle.

So why are we not more familiar with any of these earlier British blues performers? Why does one of them not hold the title of ‘godfather of British blues?’ The answer has to do with a shift in the relationship between blues and jazz in the 1960s. As blues-influenced pop music became more popular both in the UK and the USA, its performers and audiences came to relate less to the jazz scene through which earlier listeners had first encountered the blues. It’s partly a matter of generation: to audiences growing up in the 1960s, ‘traditional jazz’ was often what your parents listened to. Consequently, younger British blues fans legitimised their own tastes by distinguishing them from their parents’ – even if in many cases both older and younger generations shared an awareness of the blues’s cultural value. This transition is revealed in the liner notes to the 1962 LP R&B from the Marquee by Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated. Although the Marquee Club was swiftly becoming the go-to venue to hear British blues, the liner notes describe Korner’s band as ‘One of the most exciting innovations on the British jazz scene.’ Furthermore, the liner notes also make it clear that the Marquee Club is owned and managed by the National Jazz Federation.

Since the early 1960s, British ‘traditional’ jazz has come to be seen as the hackneyed cousin of the more authentic, hard-hitting British blues scene, even though ‘traditional jazz’ provided British audiences with their first taste of the blues over a decade earlier. The musicians we know today as ‘godfathers’ of British blues (Clapton, Mayall, members of the Rolling Stones, etc.) had yet to pick up their first instruments – let alone be old enough to go to a jazz club – when the likes of George Melly were performing as ‘British blues singers.’ While their influence on popular music is unarguable, this does not mean they were the first British blues musicians.

So who, from the earlier crop of British jazz musicians, might be awarded the accolade of being the ‘godfather of British blues?’ Several critics have identified trombonist and bandleader Chris Barber for this prize, and of course there is Alexis Korner, who was active both before, during and after the 1960s. Yet our appreciation of Barber and Korner has so far been quite selective. They are appreciated solely for having ‘set the stage’ for the 1960s: Barber for inviting American blues musicians such as Muddy Waters, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee to perform with him in the 1950s, and Korner for his late-1950s activities, mentoring teen-aged musicians of the later ‘British blues boom’.

Recognising a 1950s musician purely for their influence on the 1960s does not tell us what their contemporary listeners thought of them. Many attendees at Chris Barber’s concerts with Muddy Waters in 1958, for example, came to hear Barber’s band just as much as they came to hear Waters. As blues scholar Roberta Schwartz has pointed out, the success of Waters’s 1958 tour – playing in large theatres all across England – was due in no small part to the fact that Barber’s band was the only jazz band capable of attracting such a large, nationwide audience.

Perhaps calling Chris Barber the ‘godfather of British blues’ is appropriate, as long as we qualify that this is just as much because his own band played the blues (from as early as 1949) as it is about the African American musicians he toured with in the late 1950s. Yet, even here, I’m not sure we’ve got it quite right. The reason here is to do with a further implication of the ‘godfather’ title, one that is perhaps more damaging than the first.

Not only does ‘godfather’ title imply that its holder was one of the first musicians of influence, it also provides a model for successive musicians. In the case of British blues, all the candidates for ‘godfather’ are male. In my research, however, I’ve found that there seem to be just as many – if not more – female British blues musicians before the 1960s as there are male. Fans who know their early British blues might have heard of Alexis Korner, George Melly, or even Cyril Davies, but very few are aware of Ottilie Patterson, Beryl Bryden, Neva Raphaello, Doreen Villiers, Rita Marlowe, Pauline Hinchcliffe, Pam Coster, or Joan Roberts.

This imbalance between reality (who was performing) and history (who we judge to have been the most important performers) is again to do with the blues’s changing meanings in the 1960s. In the process of reducing the genre’s connection to the British jazz scene, 1960s audiences also began to prefer the sounds of male guitarists, in particular those we now call ‘delta blues’ musicians. Bluesmen such as Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, and Son House came to be regarded as the most authentic and most influential African American musicians, meaning that British fans began to model their playing after them. Because we now hear these 1930s and 40s male guitar players as the most influential, it’s tempting to create a lineage of important blues musicians in later decades consisting of more male guitar players.

In contrast, British blues performers and listeners before the 1960s heard female blues vocalists such as Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Ida Cox from the 1920s and 30s as the best examples of the genre. This is due to the fact that many important jazz musicians, (e.g. Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson) had accompanied these singers on record. Moreover, contemporary jazz critics such as Max Jones and Iain Lang recommended recordings by Smith, Rainey and Cox alongside those of New Orleans-style jazz in their reviews.

In view of 1940s and 50s listeners’ preferences for female blues singers, perhaps the candidate for ‘godfather of British blues’ should be female. One name that springs to mind is that of Ottilie Patterson, vocalist with Chris Barber’s band from 1955 until the mid-60s, when health problems forced her to retire from performance. Patterson was born in Comber, Northern Ireland in 1932, and began performing with Barber’s band after sitting in with them during a gig in London during the summer of 1954. By the new year, she was with the band full-time, with her renditions of ‘classic’ blues repertoire such as ‘Careless Love,’ ‘Reckless Blues’ and ‘St. Louis Blues’ attracting rave reviews. Critic Gerald Lascelles reported that ‘more than any other British singer has she got to the heart of the blues idiom,’ while another reviewer declared her to be ‘the nearest thing to a real blues singer to emerge this side of the Atlantic.’

It is also arguable that the Barber band’s success was down to Patterson’s presence. Barber identifies the period 1955-61 as the height of the band’s popularity, selling out venues such as the 3,000 seat Newcastle City Hall five times in one year, and attributes this to Patterson’s own popularity with audiences. He recalls in is autobiography ‘we were not like…other jazz musicians. Once Ottilie was singing with us full time from January 1955, we became very different from other traditional bands because we started to play the blues regularly.’ In turn, when Patterson’s health problems caused her withdrawal from the band in the early 60s, Barber recalls that ‘promoters…would ask “will Ottilie be there?”…It wasn’t so much a question of whether the band was good, or not so good, it was just that promoters did not want us without Ottilie Patterson.’

I think the best way to tie up this post is to leave you with some examples of Patterson’s work. Her 1956 EP Blues (Decca DFE 6303) is widely available second-hand on ebay (perhaps another measure of its contemporary popularity!), and many tracks featuring her can be heard on YouTube – for example, here, and here. My own favourite example of Patterson’s work is a video of a live performance in 1955 at the Wood Green Jazz Club, at the Fishmonger’s Arms in North London. You can watch that on Vimeo here.ottilie-patterson-weeping-willow-blues-decca

Now, you might not think this sounds like ‘real’ blues. But, then again, who gets to decide what types of blues are more ‘real’ than others?

Finally, we should be cautious of the implications of titles such as ‘godfather’ in popular music history. While I don’t want to suggest that any of the musicians it is currently conferred upon are undeserving of praise, I think we also need to recognise that the ‘godfather’ title often obscures the importance of the musicians that came before, and the presence of those who do not fit the image of the title holder. Each generation has its own godfathers – and godmothers too.

Further Reading

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

Brunning, Bob, Blues: The British Connection (Poole: Blandford Press, 1986).

Schwartz, Roberta Freund, How Britain Got The Blues (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2007).


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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

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

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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