Blues on Film: Errol Linton

Tonight I’m off to hear Brixton-based blues musician Errol Linton at the Green Note in Camden. Linton has been singing and playing harmonica all around London for over twenty years. I even have vague, childhood memories of hearing him busking in Oxford Circus tube station!

Linton was featured in a two-part BBC documentary in 1993 entitled ‘Two Generations of the Blues’. The first part focuses on Linton, including in-depth discussion and some really evocative performance footage. The second part examines Big Bill Broonzy’s 1951 visit to the UK.

Check out ‘Blues South of the River’, below:

The blues community’s silence on Ferguson.

Blues audiences the world over recognise the genre’s origins in the oppression of African Americans under slavery and segregation. But when it comes to racial tensions in the present day, blues blogs, websites, and facebook groups are surprisingly silent.

The time difference between the US and the UK being what it is, I went to bed last night with that all too familiar heaviness; the feeling you get when you know you will wake up to bad news. My radio, set for 6am, punctured the morning gloom with the words I that had been hoping not to hear for several weeks now – that a Grand Jury has failed to indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson for shooting unarmed African American teenager Michael Brown, Jr. (1996-2014). Brown, who was eighteen years old, was shot six times, including twice in the head, on 9th August.

As I logged on to social media this morning, my various news feeds loaded up the various topics, groups and voices that reflect my three main internet reading habits: a healthy dose of populist left-wing writing; a number of prominent African American and black British cultural and political commentators; and numerous blogs and groups devoted to the blues.

What struck me, however, was that the first and second groups – the left-wing writers, and my snapshot of ‘black Twitter’ – were talking about roughly the same thing: Ferguson. My blues groups, on the other hand, chugged away as usual, blithely unaware of recent developments. One account tweeted a well-known blues lyric, another reviewed a recent CD, another posted a series of grainy photos to mark the anniversary of a bluesman’s birth.

So why don’t the talking points, posts, likes, shares, and retweets of the blues groups I follow not match up more with those who discuss African American culture and politics in the present day? Why is the blues community so silent on Ferguson – or, for that matter, on the recent deaths of Jonathan Ferrell (1989-2013), Tamir Rice (2002-2014), or Aiyana Jones (2002-2010) at the hands of the police?

I should make clear at this point that I do not wish to question the legality or the outcome of the Ferguson grand jury. As President Obama has pointed out, we have to hope that the grand jury assessed the evidence presented to them in a fair and just manner, and that the evidence itself was a fair and reliable account of the event. Nor am I interested in getting into a discussion about the precise events that took place; there are so many conflicting accounts, and many people more qualified than I am to assess their legal implications.

What I am concerned about is how victims such as Michael Brown have been presented in the media, and the atmosphere of suspicion and fear that causes armed law enforcement to make the terrible and irreversible decision to end someone’s life. I am concerned that the blues community makes few connections between modern day depictions of African American society and culture, and those of the past that we celebrate in the blues.

Very soon after Michael Brown’s shooting, many media outlets started to question the young man’s integrity. Some commentators suggested that Brown may have had marijuana in his bloodstream, and evidence emerged showing Brown taking some cigarettes from a local store in the hour prior to his death.

Again, I do not seek to cast doubt on these claims – although it is worth stating that neither theft nor narcotics use are punishable by death under US law. Instead, I want to compare them to some of the common depictions of blues musicians that are regularly celebrated by the music’s fans.

Stories of blues musicians’ substance abuse are ubiquitous. They appear in many songs, from Big Bill Broonzy’s ‘When I Been Drinking’ to Muddy Waters’s ‘Champagne and Reefer’, and in musicians’ biographies. Robert Johnson is famously thought to have died from drinking poisoned whiskey given, continuing to drink more and more despite the protestations of his friends.

Likewise, bluesmen’s petty crimes are often treated as a simple fact of life, sometimes even necessary to their success. Harmonica player Junior Wells often recalled how he acquired his first instrument, in a story eerily reminiscent of Brown’s. After saving his pennies as a teenager, Wells found himself short on the price of a Hohner Marine Band. Exasperated, he threw what pennies he had on the counter, and took the harmonica. Brought up before the judge a few days later, Wells admitted to stealing, because he ‘just had to have that harp‘.

Can you play that thing, boy?‘ questioned the judge.

Wells blew a few choruses. When he was finished, the judge tossed the shop owner 50 cents, and shouted ‘case dismissed!

Blues history also valourises the apparently aggressive and dangerous nature of the African American entertainment scene. Many blues musicians were renowned ‘hotheads’; there is a memorable scene in the 2008 film Cadillac Records, where harmonica player Little Walter calmly shoots an imposter taking advantage of the success of his song ‘My Babe’.

Which one of you motherf*ckers is Little Walter?‘ demands Walter.

I am, fool!‘ retorts one.

Walter turns, pulling a revolver from his waistband, and fires. The imposter drops to the ground. Returning to the car, Walter coolly draws on his cigarette.

Blues fans tolerate – even celebrate – their heroes’ excessive, immoral and criminal tendencies. Broonzy’s drinking songs match the singer’s own enjoyment of liquor. We reminisce over Muddy Waters’s womanising. We chuckle at the overzealous store clerk who took a young Junior Wells to court over a 50 cent debt. We present Walter’s aggressive streak as integral to his image and to his uncompromising, innovative harmonica style.

And yet Michael Brown, who appears to have dabbled in rap music, was a ‘thug’. Newspapers adorned their front pages with photos of the teenager in a hoodie, ignoring many of the more childlike photographs available. This tactic is commonplace and has prompted the social media campaign #iftheygunnedmedown, where young black men and women highlight the multiple personas presented in their social media photo albums.

They wouldn’t show the smiling girl who graduated abroad at one of the best schools in the country. The media would portray me as a hard and mean-looking girl who was asking for it.’ states one contributor.

‘They wouldn’t honor the life I had lived, but rather justify the reason I was dead.’

As blues fans, the stories we tell about our favourite musicians often justify their misdemeanors and misfortunes. Robert Johnson ‘couldn’t help himself’; Junior Wells ‘just had to have that harp’. Little Walter’s own, violent death is seen to be symptomatic of a mean-talking fast-shooting aggressive life, lived at double speed.

But it would be incorrect to say that these depictions of our favourite blues musicians are simply voyeuristic fantasies. Blues audiences know their history. We know that the reason why Junior Wells worked a dead end job for a whole week and yet only made $1.50 was because African American workers were routinely paid less than their white counterparts, or had their earnings docked to pay for the equipment they used. We understand when we read the story of how Bessie Smith died after being denied treatment at the local ‘whites only’ hospital following a car accident (although this story is now thought to be apocryphal). We know that the emotional intensity of the blues was a response to the oppression of its performers by their white oppressors.

And yet we tell jokes about ‘proper blues deaths’: ‘If it occurs in a fleabag hotel or in a shotgun shack, it’s a blues death. Other blues deaths: being stabbed in the back by a jealous lover…You cannot die a blues death during a tennis match or while getting a liposuction treatment…Persons with names like Sierra, Sequoia or Chauncey will not be permitted to sing the blues no matter how many men they shoot in Memphis‘.

Of course, it’s a joke. But it’s a joke that happily ignores the many instances where blues and jazz musicians have suffered at the hands of police brutality. It ignores the fact that Junior Wells might have come off a lot worse had he stolen his first harmonica from a shop in twenty-first century Ferguson.

I am not saying that the blues community is responsible for, or complicit in, the many vindictive slurs against Michael Brown’s character. Neither am I saying that Brown was a saint, but then neither were any of our favourite blues musicians. I simply have one question: why is the blues community – for all that it does to recognise the historical achievements of its idols – not more vocal in condemning the many aspects of American racism that are still alive and well today? The silence is deafening.


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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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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, 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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