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:

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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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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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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