Someone has finally come up with a book that attempts to look at how W.E. have examined African-American musical cultures over the centuries, literally: IN SEARCH OF THE BLUES: Black Voices, White Visions. By one Marybeth Hamilton (a Californian living in London) – Jonathan Cape: London (2007), this book purports to deal with the impacts of White “collectors” (in a major multiplicity of that term’s meanings) on this music that we all purport to love. Certainly its sub-title heralds that approach and it’s a good idea to have such a perspective in hand. The book begins in the 1920s with a look at Howard W. Odum’s work, followed by Dorothy Scarborough into the 1930s. John A. Lomax (w. Alan somewhat appended) comes next. There is then a major shift in focus from blues per se and song collecting “in the field” to look at jazz record collecting mavens and researchers Charles Edward Smith, Frederick Ramsey, and Bill Russell. The final individual written about is another shift, with blues record collector James McEwen essentially being the focus. Each individual mentioned is interesting, but the whole does not hold together as the premised book because the author shifts focus and perspective chapter by chapter as the text goes along.
Even so, one point that stands out regarding most of the individuals dealt with in the book is that they were romantically looking for some form of “pure” African American music before the impact of outside commercial influences sullied things. This search for the “pure” is, of course, an impossibility – “it” never happened as such as life is always in flux! It’s no more valid than a “period” room in a museum full of furniture all in the same style and from one narrow time period. John McDonough summed it up nicely in a recent article in a jazz magazine: “The true cultist, of course, is empowered by his purity. But even within a cult there can be different views of purity.”(1) Therein lies a major conundrum. The constant search for an Ur form is one that has basically wasted many a decade’s worth of work, not just in the “folk” field, but throughout the social sciences. This attitude/approach of looking for purity in song has permeated all collecting up to the present: e,g. Dvorak, Cecil Sharp, G. Legman, Child, Bartok, Laws, A.L. Lloyd, Robert Burns, a.o., regardless of genre being examined. And “impurity” must be acknowledged as constantly active in the realm of human behaviors, music included. “For the most part folklorists of the period tended to publish large collections of lore without drawing many conclusions about the folk.” (2) A limited and limiting approach that tells us very little about the “folk” or what their “lore” was actually accomplishing in their lives.
As I have constantly expounded to my students in the past, none of this shit is “pure” – influences and cross-fertilization are completely and constantly unavoidable and inevitable… always. That’s what makes it all so damned interesting, to see if one can winkle out what the pieces might have been that went into whatever point in time being focused upon – without destroying what is or was. It’s akin to looking at a few frames of a motion picture film – one cannot extrapolate the whole film from the bits, but one can say something about that which is there IN THAT SEGMENT. Attitudes and perceptions change over time both within and without whatever community is being examined, and must be taken into account – not simplistic relativism, just proper contextualizing.
The problem is that all the folks covered here, and most of those who (myself included) have done anything like the necessary kind of field-work to edify us, are generally not a part of the culture(s) examined. That is a constant problem. Even Eric Lott, in his almost totally unreadable book, has nailed it well: “Moreover, ideologies of culture have most often been produced by those who do not belong to the culture that is defined, variously, as folk, traditional, popular, or oral. Which is to say that cultures of the dispossessed usually, for better or worse, come to us mediated through dominant-cultural filters… .”(3) The term “cultural colonialism” comes to mind here, but only in the nicest way, for all of us are well-meaning in our efforts, no matter how misguided they may be. The problem is of looking at things through “me”-colored glasses and thinking that what we perceive is real.
Howard Odum was a good first choice, but so would have been Robert Winslow Gordon who began the LofC Folk Music Archive before John A. Lomax came on board, but he’s already been “done” – I refer readers to Deborah Kodish’s book GOOD FRIENDS AND BAD ENEMIES: Robert Winslow Gordon and the Study of American Folk Song – Urbana (1986) University of Illinois Press. A full book on Prof. Odum would have been a great addition to our knowledge, but what we get here is a fairly simple chapter. His work with Black music was relatively unique back in that day and his books are still worth reading today… if you can find them!
Dorothy Scarborough brings up another problem beyond the “Ur-ness” search. Apparently all her research was done with WHITE people’s memories of the Black music they remember from their Southern youths. I think the difficulty there is obvious: unfortunately (my copy of her book was destroyed before I could read it and I haven’t been able to replace it as yet) I cannot comment directly from my own readings of her stuff. Too many degrees of separation from the source in my estimation.
John A. Lomax has also been written about (4) in depth and is very much a man of another era looking for something HE remembered from his youth in Texas. Alan’s work is worth its own full-fledged biography, and my friend John F. Szwed has written one (5): his authorship is a good recommendation, for Szwed’s ability to link up things that seem totally disparate is legendary… and spot-on – see his biography of Sun Ra for an example. John A. at least had had some first-hand personal experiences with Black music growing up in Texas, so that it wasn’t a totally foreign (and distant) landscape. We are all most likely aware of some of the peccadillos and quirks in his field-work approaches, but he was very successful in spite of all that baggage!
The shift from what could be called “social scientists” to record collectors is a major paradigm shift and it begins with three individuals allied with the “New Orleans is the birth-place of jazz” approach that bloomed by the late 30s/early 40s in part to counter the rise of swing and its popularization. [Another of their ilk would have been Alan Lomax who told me that it was the German band-masters of the SW who ruined “real” jazz with sectional playing, resulting in the demise of good old “pure” polyphonic jazz.] While Ramsey, Smith, and Russell are all worthies, certainly this is an example of at least moving the goal-posts in the middle of a game, if not something even more drastic! A whole other book could be written on that particular point-of-view; the deification of New Orleans and its music as the point-of-origin for jazz is as much an “accepted-wisdom” jazz fallacy as that of Mississippi (especially the so-called “Delta”) being the “birthplace” for blues music. It’s much more widespread and complicated than that – Occam’s razor WAY overused! AND there is not all that much that is dealing directly with the supposed focus of this tome in that chapter.
The final subject, James McEwen, was an odd duck (in some of the same way that Harry Smith was, who has become something of a god-head for both “folk” and “pop” music cognoscenti). McEwen used his personal tastes/reactions to blues recordings to “set” a canon, a hierarchy of approved blues people from his personal record collection. W.E. owe the ever-popular focus on so-called “Delta blues” to James’ record-listening preferences, preferences which have now become embedded in “our” understanding of the music and colored how W.E. look at the musics involved. For better or worse. Part of the difficulty here is that very little hard factual biographical material is available on McEwen, much less insights into his stances towards the music. His impact on others has been large, though, affecting their stances and foci to this day.
So, Ms Hamilton has missed the mark she set for her book. Sadly, very often a poor book will preclude anyone else taking on the subject – our loss. This is a bobbled opportunity.
(1) John McDonough – “Meet Benny”; in Down Beat, Vol. 76; #7; July 2009.
(2) Charles Joyner – “Let Us Break Bread Together” in SHARED TRADITIONS: Southern Folk History and Folk Culture: University of Illinois Press: Urbana/Chicago (1999). p.33
(3) LOVE & THEFT: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. Eric Lott – Oxford University Press: New York/Oxford (1993). p. 103.
(4) LAST CAVALIER: the Life and Times of John Lomax, 1867–1948. Nolan Porterfield – University of Illinois Press: Urbana, IL (1996).
(5) ALAN LOMAX: The Man Who Recorded the World. John Szwed -Viking Press: NYC (2010).
Peter B. Lowry