Oddenda & Such – #69

To write that Paul Oliver has contributed much to our knowledge, understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of that music known as “blues” would be a gross understatement. Beginning with BLUES FELL THIS MORNING: Meaning in the Blues in 1960 through to 1984’s SONGSTERS & SAINTS: Vocal Traditions on Race Records, his books have always been looked forward to with great glee and expectation by aficionados. In recent years, there have been fewer books from Paul (save 2005’s BROADCASTING THE BLUES, a collection of old BBC radio scripts) until BARRELHOUSE BLUES: Location Recording and the Early Traditions of the Blues from Basic Civitas (2009) London. While the book is a good idea, I fear that Paul may have finally “jumped the shark”* with this one. His intention is an attempt to answer some questions posed by African American writer Alain Locke in his booklet THE NEGRO AND HIS MUSIC published in 1936/7 regarding the provenance of Negro “folk musics” in the United States, including blues. Not a bad premise, but one that is let down by mistakes in the text, proofreading glitches, “soft” logic and conclusions. There is much of some interest contained between the covers, but all in all, the book is a disappointment to this reader – it was a good idea if well handled, but its slipshod presentation indicates some problems.

This book has an acknowledgement for having been asked to give a series of Alain Leroy Locke lectures at Harvard in February of 2007 for The Institute of African and African American Studies. It probably comes from his papers given then – they are full of data, but thin on information and roughly organized, reading like Power Point presentations. Whoever organized those materials into this book had a great lack of knowledge of the field, not surprising, given that academe barely pays lip service to African American folk activities (outside of a folklore department of which there are few, that are diminishing in quality and numbers). There are any number of correctable “misteaks” to be found throughout the text – either they slipped through the compiler’s notice, or Paul is slipping! Not that they are major, although to place Durham’s famous son, Blind Boy Fuller, as a South Carolinian (p.140) is certainly factually off the map (pun intended)! On page 53, Oliver says that slide guitarists played in only one tuning {false – there are many} and often used a knife blade as a slider {also false – the back of a closed-up pocketknife was common, whether or not the guitar was flat in the lap or held normally}. Other factual errors include referring to White guitarist Chris Bouchillon as a violinist on page 87 which has a picture holding one! Bristol, TN is NOT on the border with KY (p. 95) and shares the name with Bristol, VA directly across their shared Main Street border (a mini twin cities!). W.C. Handy’s autobiography is cited as being published “early in the nineteenth century”, a temporal impossibility on page 166. There are also a few mis-captioned pictures (e.g. – p. 129). Other passages, such as, “…blues singers express their own experiences, emotions, and aspirations through their songs.” (p. 48) are woefully retrograde summaries of what blues music is to Black communities and performers that I had thought dead and buried by the 21st century. It ain’t always personal to the performer – to say that is an gross underestimation of the person’s artistry and the community’s aesthetic, and borders on racism. In fact, personal blues songs are in the minority, including protest songs in that style.

What’s positive about the book, which turns out mainly to be a look at the so-called “field recording” sessions done by the commercial record companies in the 20s, and 30s away from the urban North, site of their “home” studios (plus some mention of the LofC sessions done mainly by the Lomaxes), and is not an unuseful effort. It’s a good idea that is fumbled – Locke’s surprisingly unique questions (for the late 1930s**), asked rhetorically from a position of little personal knowledge of the music’s availability, are worthy of consideration if probably impossible to answer. They are products of a certain time, place and mind-set in African American thought and much is of miniscule importance today, having either been answered or discarded long ago. Examination of such folk “products” was low on the list of priorities of those who were a part of “The Harlem Renaissance” or other Black intellectual trends. There is a short, but useful bibliography, and an interesting discography of materials cited in the book that may be found on a Document 2CD set with the same title as the book. This CD set might be worth picking up if your collection lacks a lot of pre-war blues and blues-related material. The photos are pretty well reproduced on near-newsprint quality paper, and there are two useful indices. That’s about it, folks. I am sorry to be negative about Paul Oliver’s latest book, given his status within the realm of blues researchers and his pioneering efforts of the past, but I calls ’em as I read ’em!



* For those outside the US unfamiliar with that phrase, it comes from an episode of the 1970s television sit-com “Happy Days” when The Fonz (played by Henry Winkler) on water skis jumps over a shark in some sort of container on a bet to prove his manliness – it is cited as an indication that the writers had stretched their (and the audience’s) suspension of disbelief to the max and that the show went downhill from there. In this case, I feel that Paul seems to have run out of ideas to pursue, to have lost touch with much current research and his standards have sadly slipped noticeably. It may not all be his doing, though.

** “Why were the secular songs neglected {by collectors before his time}? How have they been recovered? Do we have them in their earliest form? Are blues or folk ballads older? What are the distinctive verse and musical form of each? What are the {geographical} “zones of Negro folk music” and their characteristics? Is the musical structure of the blues original? Racial? How racially distinctive are the moods? Even where the themes are common to Anglo-Saxon (sic) folk ballads, are there differences? What is the John Henry saga? What is the home of the blues? Who is the father of the blues? Are the later ‘artificial blues’ different? Whose work are they?” – quoted on p. 159 in Oliver’s book.

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