“THE TIMES THEY ARE A’CHANGE’ED”?
IN SEARCH OF THE BLUES: Black Voices, White Visions
Jonathan Cape (2007) London.
BLUES DISCOVERY: Reaching Across the Divide
Self published/revised edition (2012) San Bernardino, CA.
DO NOT SELL AT ANY PRICE: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records
Scribner (2014) NYC.
PIONEERS OF THE BLUES REVIVAL
University of Illinois Press (2014) Chicago, Urbana and Springfield.
There was something of a “golden era” of so-called “discoveries”/”rediscoveries” of older styled blues artists in the ’60s & ’70s, many of whom had recorded commercially in the ’20s or ’30s (often for the sacred Paramount label). I have had problems with those terms from the git-go, and consider them to be a tad on the racist side. Those musicians were always “there”, it’s just that White folks were blissfully unaware of them and their abilities! As B.B. King is quoted as saying, “I’ve never understood how you can ‘rediscover’ something that’s never gone away… .”* I couldn’t have said it better! “Located” or “re-located” seem better terms for us to use – they were “discovered” earlier by their immediate communities and the recording companies, or they wouldn’t have been recorded or been frequently referenced by other Black musicians. They existed even without the knowledge of W.E.**, who often think stuff doesn’t exist until W.E. know about it, so the use of “discovery” is a terribly racially biased designation!
A number of those “oldies” from those days of yore had unexpected new careers as a result of being re-located and then traveling on the folk festival and club circuit performing for us White folks. John Hurt, Skip James, and Big Chief Ellis being among those who had previously recorded back in the day, while the likes of Peg Leg Sam, Fred McDowell, and Robert Pete Williams were a few of the more recent “locations” and “recordees”. Their new audience was W.E. outsider aficionados of the music and not authentic African American audiences. Most past recorded artists were not so lucky, either by choice or mortality, not to mention the many good musicians W.E. never heard/heard of! There were even artists who turned down being recorded (Blind Lloyd, McTell’s GA buddy; Henry Johnson turning down The Stapleton Brothers of SC in the ’30s). Being recorded is and always has been an act of sheer serendipitous dumb luck and had very little to do with their abilities to play and/or sing. Right place, right time, right interest, right attitude, and all right everything – some of the factors that thousands of other musicians missed out on! The many folks that I personally located and recorded during the ‘70s, for example, were the proverbial iceberg’s tip of the South East! I “missed out” on hundreds more through no fault of my own (e.g.: Herman Jordan or John Lee Zeigler in GA) – that’s life!
The “locational” efforts by W.E. of those older musicians began in the ‘60s and was usually carried out by White male record collectors (or people influenced by such collectors) who often had their own personal critical axes to grind. In my estimation, record collectors have tended to fall into two basic groups – those who shared freely (such as Joe Bussard, and a minority of other collectors) of their 78s with other interested parties, and those who did not (the NY Blues Mafia). I’m told that the reason Sam Charters had little in his lovely and influential book, The Country Blues, on Charlie Patton was because the latter group refused to play him their Patton discs… true or not, the essence of the story is spot on. It’s unfortunately often the nature of collecting and collectors – some degree of hoarding takes place. I am also aware of some relatively recent unconscionable illegal acts by a now-deceased collector or two in obtaining valuable 78s for their collection at the expense of another well-known collector’s estate. Or the Scandinavians visiting a friend on the West Coast who pinched some of his rockabilly 45s before leaving: a great way to respect one’s hospitality. No honor amongst certain denizens of the clan, I’m afraid.
So, the artists of recorded note (no pun intended) have mostly shuffled off this mortal coil. Henry Townsend was the last pre-war recorded performer to go, and my “stable” of artists from the ’70s are all long gone save Little Sam Davis (in a home after suffering strokes). That leaves other more recent guys interested in the music with few, if any, musicians to talk to/with/about from those times, so they have attempted to fill such lacuna by speaking with those who more recently located the talent. Folks like myself, for example (still un-interviewed, save for local radio)! Beginning with Sam Charters, Paul Oliver, and Mack McCormick and on to the temporally more recent George Mitchell, Axel Küstner, and Tim Duffy, books and articles are now appearing covering their “locational” efforts. This serves as a sort of replacement for being unable to talk directly with the musicians by talking with those involved in locating those musicians in more recent times (1970-1980 pour moi!). It all sounds a bit weird and slightly unsanitary to me, but that’s all that’s left for the OCD diggers to mess with!
“Collectorism” carries its own unfortunate obsessive and compulsive baggage that can interfere with understanding what actually was going on back in the day, and can lead to invalid biases. To my way of thinking, one of the greatest defects with collecting is that the focus tends to be upon the rarity of the item rather than the degree of success in its intended marketplace. Occasionally there is a very rare recording by a successful artist that is musically important: the Gennett 78 recording of “Zulu’s Ball” by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band (with Louis Armstrong) easily comes to mind. But usually rarity connotes general within community failure, and the collector usually does not pay much attention to the popular records… that is the kiss of death for them! We know less about Bumble Bee Slim than Robert Johnson, for example; more about Skip James than about Blind Blake, to pick two Paramount Records artists. It took Bastin and I to corral some of the knowledge regarding Blind Boy Fuller, whose best seller moved over half a million copies. It was also a crossover hit with many White musicians of the day and entered their long-term repertoire as well. As I have stated many times before, do we write the history of the automobile and focus on the Edsel (or the Metropolitan, or the P76)? No. But that is what the collector-driven research into old music on 78s is essentially doing.
So the collector has had both good and bad effects on what we know about the music and how we judge the old recordings. People like James McKune, or Harry Smith created canons within the realms of “blues”, or of “folk music” that have taken on lives of their own. The touting by the former of the Mississippi Delta as an ur point-of-departure for blues’ birth and blues scholarship; the focus on the “darkness” of mountain music as the be-all-to-end all throughout its early history. These are in and of themselves valid suppositions worth investigating, but that does not make them “real”, even though too often that is the case. For that level of informational verity, one need go talk with the intended record buyers from back in the day! Such a survey of course becomes more and more difficult as time passes.
The books listed above are an interesting lot that fall into these categories of endeavor to a greater or lesser extent, and are generally well written. The Cushing and Ismail books are straight up collections of interviews with some subject overlap. Steve talks with seventeen men, initially for his Chicago public radio show of some thirty years, “Blues Before Sunrise”***. Matthew was a student in Hiram, OH, studying with Roger Brown, when he “did” the five interviews he collected in his book****. Marybeth Hamilton goes further back in time and much deeper in thought and genre while referring to multitudinous collectors (jazz and blues) and folklorists***** in her accurately subtitled, and challenging (if flawed) book that is definitely worth a read. Amanda Petrusich may be the best known to the general public due to her stunt of trying to SCUBA dive by Paramount Records former riverside location. This was to investigate whether or not records and/or stampers had been hurled Frisbee-like into the waters of the Milwaukee River by former employees of that bankrupt’s corporation’s (The Wisconsin Chair Company) Port Washington, WI location as had been claimed by many over the years! And she also deals with many collector types in pursuing this tome, some directly, some not; some deeply, some superficially.******!
Being regarded today as one of the blues “elders” sits uncomfortably with me, but there you are… down to seeds and stems once again! While the “locating” stories can be interesting and often eye-opening (and occasionally dangerous), it still does not take the place of the performers themselves. So one important degree of separation is now denied us, leaving the world with only second-hand reportage. Record collectors are also shown to be a rather odd bunch (often extremely so!) in the Petrusich, and Hamilton books. Such is life, and such can be that fraternity and it IS a fraternity, as women seem not to obsess about records the way men do! They’re a weird mob. I do not count myself in that crew… I do not own any Paramount 78s and the bulk of mine are post war R’n’B!
The musicians involved in the old recordings are now well and truly gone, making further documentation of the music and the musicians a wee bit difficult without them! It’s time to gather all the information W.E.’ve gathered over time and collect it into coherent wholes, rather than doing “angels on the head of a pin” sort of time wasting (and pointless) stuff on the internet. Otherwise all the efforts of the aforementioned scholars were for naught and Mack McCormick, George Paulus, Don Kent, Francis Wilford-Smith (a/k/a “Smilby”), Stephen Calt, a.o will have died in vain. In spite of what one might personally think about some of the characters in these stories (and others not published), they usually did some pretty decent and valuable work. Often some very important work, whether they knew it or not! Can I get an “Amen!” here?*******
* from: Blues All Around Me: the Autobiography of B.B. King, done with David Ritz – Avon (1996) NYC. and cited by David Whiteis: “B.B. King – The King of the Blues” in Living Blues #238 (Vol. 46, #4), August 2015, p. 39.
** What I refer to as “White Europeans”, which covers most of the denizens of this gathering.
*** Paul Oliver, Sam Charters, Pete Whelan, Dick Waterman, Gayle Dean Wardlow, Robert M.W. Dixon, Bob Koester, John Broven, Mike Rowe, Ray Flerlage, Jim O’Neal, Richard K. Spottswood, Jacques Demetre, Phil Spiro, Chris barber, and David Evans.
**** Roger Brown & George Mitchell, Ray Flerlage, Bob Koester, and Sam Charters.
***** John A. Lomax, Alan Lomax, Howard Odum, Dorothy Scarborough, Fred Ramsey, Charles Edward Smith, Bill Russell, and James McKune, a.o.
****** John Heneghan, John Fahey, Christopher King, Pete Whelan, John Tefteller, Marshall Wyatt, James McKune, Big Joe Clauberg, Jack Wistance, the “Blues Mafia”, Harry Smith, Allen Ginsberg,Ralph Rinzler, Mike Seeger, Richard Nevins, Nathan Salzburg, Don Wahle, Jonathan Ward, Chris Strachwitz, Pat Conte, Elijah Wald, Ian Nagoski, Richard Weize, Joe Bussard, Sarah Bryan, Michael Cumella, Jerron Paxton, a.o.
******* There is a book just published in October on Francis Wilford-Smith (a/k/a “Smilby”) entitled BLUES FOR FRANCIS: The Life & Work of Francis Wilford-Smith by Caroline Beecroft and Howard Rye from Music Mentor Books (2015) Yorkshire, UK.
PETER B.LOWRY Sydney – Jan 2016
FROM A READER:
I’ve read #84 with great interest. I particularly agree with the point you make in your first paragraph about the so-called “Discovery/Rediscovery” period as it’s mistakenly named. B.B. is correct with his comment. In fact I have often wondered what folks like Son House, John Hurt, Bukka White, et al must have thought about this “rediscovery”
business. I dare say they would never have thought in those terms. Perhaps it is simply one way W.E. have of claiming something they never owned originally?? I kinda liken it to the much-used comment these days (especially by white radio people) of “keeping the Blues alive”. I agree with you in thinking these terms are entirely racist. The Blues isn’t dead, never was, but it makes some people feel good when they say they are keeping the Blues alive, as though they are in some way responsible for the music’s “survival”.
By The Way…. it is also my experience that most collectors are a pain in the ass. They love to rub their hands together and gloat about what they have (and you don’t!). It’s a shame there aren’t many with a sense of history. I have read that there are those who will not share large percentages of their collections, for purely selfish reasons. They seem to be unaware that if they were to “share” their stuff, it would
increase their standing immeasurably within our community, and music historians generally.
Your call to arms in your final paragraph where you write, “It’s time to gather all the information W.E.’ve gathered over time and collect it into coherent wholes, rather than doing “angels on the head of a pin” sort of time wasting (and pointless) stuff on the internet. Otherwise all the efforts of the aforementioned scholars were for naught and Mack McCormick, George Paulus, Don Kent, Francis Wilford-Smith (a/k/a “Smilby”), Stephen Calt, a.o will have died in
vain”. It will certainly have been in vain if nothing coordinated isn’t done soon. I sincerely wish it were not so, but I have no idea about how to remedy the situation. It would take a huge amount of selfless dedication on the part of a couple of generations of right-minded folks to gather up everything around the edges and bring it into the middle to present a complete, historically accurate record of everything that’s been done, and without the musicians and associated folks who were there, I fear this is merely an unrealistic dream.
I’ll leave you with this thought. There are many, many self appointed experts in the R.B.F. that Paul Vernon runs and of which I am a part. Many of the world’s authors, researchers, scholars and collectors are members, but even after more than three years as a member, I have never heard the questions raised that you raise, nor opinions stated that you state.
BIG MIKE HOTZ
Radio Adelaide 101.5 FM, Online & Digital Radio