One of the pleasures of being a record and/or book collector is occasionally stepping back and taking stock of what you have in your collection. This often leads to re-arranging what is on the shelves in ways that reflect new ways of thinking and organizing ideas. For this reason, I recently decided to finally gather together all my books related to the Blues. I read the ones I had until then neglected and reviewed the ones I had previously finished. It was not a particularly large stack (especially compared to the number of Blues records that I have), but it was fun to spend time focused on reading about one genre of music. Why did I start with the Blues rather than another genre?
When people speak about how they came to be a fan of a certain genre of music they sometimes share stories of personal epiphanies. They tell of a time when they heard a particular song or attended a moving performance and knew instantly that genre was for them. In my own life, hearing Blondie for the first time certainly gave me a sense that my identity and how I understood the world was about to change in ways that I couldn’t fully imagine. However, it strikes me that more often we come to appreciate and enjoy genres over a longer period of time. This is the case with the Blues for me. Rather than having a Road to Damascus moment, it took a while. More than any other genre I can think of, rather than being immediately smitten, I had a long term courtship with the Blues. However, since we exchanged vows I have been a faithful partner.
I can’t be sure, but I believe the first time I knowingly encountered the Blues was in my suburban Connecticut seventh-grade Music class. I don’t remember what the context was, but the teacher showed us a clip of Bessie Smith singing. I am 99.9% sure that it was from St. Louis Blues, a short musical drama from 1929. Even though there is a full chorus of people singing behind her, with musical accompaniment yet, somehow my 7th grade brain thought she wasn’t acting – I took her to actually be drunk (the scene takes place in a bar and she’s drinking). I knew how acting and movies worked, of course, but without the rest of the narrative I took this to be some kind of document of an unscripted live performance. It was so visceral that I kept thinking, “This is wrong. She’s drunk and they are keeping the cameras rolling instead of helping her out.” It seemed like a violation of her dignity. This stuck with me, and shaped how I approached the Blues. I wanted to listen, but I didn’t want to feel voyeuristic or exploitative. Of course, at the time I did not have that vocabulary, but I can remember the feeling well-enough to name it now. This experience has loomed large in my life and I have revisited my memory of it often.
I had a similar response to what I believe is the first Blues record I ever bought – Billie Sings the Blues by Billie Holiday. The LP itself is a collection of odds and ends, and I’m not even sure it is a legal release. In addition to studio and live performances, it contains a few introductions and snippets from radio interviews. Like generations of others, I was struck by her singing, but the interview parts made me queasy. She was slurring her words and kind of laughing to herself, so it seemed like she was under the influence of something. I often skipped over those parts because it was like watching Bessie Smith all over again, but Holiday was not acting. At that point I was not aware of the full extent of her struggles with addiction, but now I know the timing of the interviews coincides with some of the more difficult periods of her life. For years she struggled with a heroin habit that really took a toll on her. I generally don’t like biographies or autobiographies, particularly those that deal with addiction, but hers was well written. It was frank without romanticizing self-destruction. Holiday’s music was more Blues-informed-Jazz than what people might consider classic Blues, but listening to her meant I was in the vicinity of the Blues, even if I was keeping my emotional distance.
Another pivotal moment in high school involved Creedence Clearwater Revival. I was never a fan of CCR, but when I was young they seemed to have always been around and their music was hard to avoid. When I finally found out they were from El Cerrito (a suburb near Oakland) I was flabbergasted. I remember thinking, “These white dudes telling me that they ‘hoid it through the grapevine’ aren’t even from the South? ‘Proud Mary keeps on ‘boinin’’? What the fuck is this?” I felt mislead in some way, and it seemed like even having it on the radio meant I was complicit in this crime against music and human decency. I only had a passing sense of the history of minstrelsy at that point and certainly didn’t have the language to put forth a critique of cultural appropriation, so I was terribly offended in an impassioned, but inarticulate, way. This was my first taste of how certain white fans of the Blues projected their own predilections and ideas (racist and otherwise) onto the music. I recently found out that prior to being CCR, they were a band called The Golliwogs – named after a black-faced minstrel doll. The people rest their case, Your Honor.
Wary of exploitation of a variety of kinds, I was still interested in the Blues, but had a clearer sense of what I didn’t want to hear than what I did. This all changed with one record – It’s A Mean Old World To Try to Live In by Rev. Pearly Brown. Given the limited choices suburban Connecticut record stores presented in terms of the Blues, how did I end up with this LP? I have absolutely no idea. I certainly didn’t hear Rev. Pearly Brown on the radio, I didn’t have access to music magazines writing about the Blues, and none of my friends were Blues fans, so I really had nothing to go on. It might have been the title, the cover, or just that mysterious vibrational force that drew us to certain records before the internet and streaming services. I was always broke, so dowsing for records was financially risky, but as soon as I put this LP on the turntable I came to the conclusion – “This is it. This is what I was looking for.” It was sparse and stripped down with no pyrotechnics. This is the same reason I like punk or a good pop song. No muss and no fuss. Get to it. I also appreciated his use of space and repetition, though once again, I would not have had that language at that time. Given how these aspects of his music resonated with me, it is not surprising that later in life I would become a fan of minimalism and drone. Indeed, the intertwined branches of our musical interests are usually only revealed over time.
When I went to college, I became a DJ at the college radio station the first semester my freshman year (WESU, 88.1 FM). Upperclassmen got the choice evening spots (6:00 pm to Midnight) so new staff members fought to get one of the overnight slots just to get a chance to be on the air. Pretty quickly I figured out that if I signed up for an afternoon Jazz show I could get a regular slot without having to be up all hours of the night. With my foot in the door, I had access to the station’s record collection and I spent hours poring over it. My sophomore year I switched to an afternoon Blues show and by dint of seniority (no other Blues DJs hung around), I was the Blues program coordinator my last two years. The only perk of that title was that I got to assign people to the timeslots we had. This was actually painless because there was only a very small group of us, so we each got a weekly show. I hung out at the station on days when I didn’t have my own show, often talking to people while they were doing theirs. These hours were a key part of my musical education. I called my show The Hard Drinking Blues, and I went by two names during my time on the air. I started as Lil’ Erik, but then I switched to Near Sighted Jacobson (the years do catch up with you). My fashion sense changed a bit, too. I would never have expected to start wearing vintage cardigans, but Lightning Hopkins made sweaters look so cool I kept an eye out for them on trips to the Salvation Army store.
Two key memories of my time at the station come to mind. First, I got a request for a dedication from somebody who said they were on their way to prison. They didn’t say what for and I didn’t ask, but the song was about drugs so the math was pretty easy. I didn’t care if it was real or not, because that kind of a put-on (if it was one) takes a level of planning that makes it worthwhile. Second, I tend not to covet other people’s things, but one time I saw a milk carton so filled with rare and obscure Blues records that I was drooling. It belonged to Jacob Guralnick, one of the other Blues DJs and son of Peter Guralnick, an influential writer on the Blues, soul and early rock and roll. In my memory those records shine like whatever is in the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. At the time I just stood there, staring at them as he started his show. I don’t think I was ever cocky about my growing knowledge of the Blues, but it was still a humbling experience. I knew I was never going to be an expert, not only because I had not lived the life of a Bluesman, but because I was also not a Guralnick.
After college, I never did find a group of people who were also into the Blues. I had a grand total of three friends who were at least vaguely interested, but mostly because they were music fans more generally. Talking about the Blues was never top on their list of things to do, though one of them (Hi, Stephen!) gamely did a hilarious wordless John Lee Hooker impersonation once when we were playing the celebrity name game. This lack of a Blues circle meant that I had to continue my education via buying records, watching documentaries and reading books. Now, all three of those things are fine ways to spend time, but they are not the same as hanging out at a radio station comparing notes with other DJs before you go on the air. Perhaps inevitably, the Blues became just one genre among many that I listen to, with no special pride of place. However, decades later, I still dig through record bins looking for things that might hit the spot.
Without a doubt, I love early 20th century Gospel Blues more than any other Blues sub-genre and Blind Willie Johnson is probably my favorite Blues musician of all time. His singing is so full-bodied it fills up the room and listening to him feels almost like a tactile experience. His song, Dark Was the Night Cold Was the Ground, was included on the Golden Record that NASA included on the Voyager spacecraft to represent the musical culture of the planet. It is an unquestionably fine choice. There are not even any lyrics – just his guitar and his humming create a haunting experience of loneliness and existential despair.
I’m also really into Washington Phillips because of the combination of his songwriting, his singing, and the distinctive sound of the dulcimer-like instrument he accompanies himself with. For decades the nature of that instrument has been the object of speculation, but a recent book provides good evidence that it was a homemade creation called a Manzarene. An artist that combines good music with a mythic past seems to be catnip for white Blues fans, and in this case, I’m guilty as charged (apologies to Dewey Cox).
However, in my own defense, the mystery of Washington Phillips’ sound may be the only example I can think of where I fell into that particular cliché. In Kiel’s (1966) description of problematic white Blues fans, he humorously cuts to the chase. He suggests that for these types of fans, the favored Blues musician is one who:
* Is preferably more than 60 years old, blind, arthritic and toothless
* Should not have performed in public or have made a recording in the last twenty years
* If deceased, appeared in a big city one day in the 1920’s, made from four to six recordings, and then disappeared into the countryside forever (pg. 34-35).
In contrast to this, I was never looking for some kind of avatar of primordial, “pure” Blues. I think time spent in punk scenes where people wasted time debating who was real and who was a poseur disabused me of the notion that authenticity was that valuable of a concept. There is a limit to this, I admit, as my reaction to CCR would indicate. Indeed, I believe that same CCR-fueled epiphany about white Blues fans acting out their fantasies of Black culture and their celebrating naïve primitives inoculated me from thinking of Robert Johnson as some kind of unschooled, singular ur-bluesman that arose from the dust or a deal with the Devil. Imagining Johnson in these terms is a particularly bad reading of his career, since when he was performing and recording he was more attuned to newer urban strains of the Blues than many of his regional contemporaries. He was a decidedly modern guy, not some living remnant of a forgotten past. Similar racist noble savage myths were projected onto Lead Belly, in particular by John Lomax, who “discovered” him and then took control of his career. Lomax sold the idea of Lead Belly being a primitive prodigy, going so far as to forcing Lead Belly to dress the part of a barefooted back-country hick when he was playing in New York City. It took Lead Belly a considerable amount of time to gain control of his own career and image, but when he did he was able to play the full range of music he was interested in.
In Blues People, Leroi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka) explored the tensions between the different strains of Blues – the country and the city, the traditional and the modern, the communal and the commercial – as a way to discern key socioeconomic fault lines that ran across the 20th century. For example, he believes that many more upwardly-mobile African American music fans consciously rejected the Blues music of previous generations due its close association with the experience of slavery. He suggests some listeners gravitated towards Jazz sounds that he hears as part of an assimilationist aesthetic, while others valued musicians who were breaking new ground and creating sounds that explicitly connected to a re-embracing of their African heritage. Jones thus sees music fandom as part of a larger discourse about the nature of African American identity and how best to respond to systemic racism and the violence of White Supremacist ideology. The book was fascinating, but reading it as a non-African American was like finding myself in the middle of an incredibly articulate, well-versed and passionate family feud. Punches are not pulled – as far as I can tell – and Jones/Baraka comes to ready to fight.
Cone’s The Spirituals and the Blues engages in the same type of sociocultural analysis via music. His key concern is pushing back against what he sees as a misreading of the nature the Blues and Spirituals. He is keen to reject the notion that the content and form of Spirituals indicate enslaved African Americans had accepted their lot and were only looking towards freedom in the afterlife. Likewise, he rejects the idea that the Blues signify some kind of similar resignation to fate. Cone suggests that both of these genres celebrate the Black experience and remarkable perseverance in the face of tremendous obstacles. To Cone, Spirituals and the Blues are about surviving and asserting agency, and thus are essentially lived experiences, rather than simply aesthetic productions. He explains – “I am the blues” and “My life is a spiritual.” For this reason, he believes that “you have to have lived Black music to understand it.”
Indeed. This is at the heart of much commentary about the Blues, of course – who hears what and why. Like Pauline Oliveros, I try to listen deeply when I put an album by Ida Cox or Otis Rush on the turntable, but I realize that I can never fully recognize how my positionality affects what I (can) hear. So what keeps me coming back to this music that, per Cone, I can’t truly understand? As Oliver suggests in his study of Blues lyrics, Blues Fell Down This Morning, I am looking for meaning in the Blues, not the meaning of the Blues. Clearly, if there were a list of people who are qualified to discuss the meaning of the Blues, I’d be pretty close to the bottom. So, what kind of meaning do I find in the Blues?
One thing that resonates with me may seem academic in nature, but I think it goes beyond that. In my professional life I study language and literacy development. In part, this is motivated by my fascination with the sociolinguistics of dialects. I love learning about variations in accents, vocabulary, and grammar. I am not a prescriptivist, so rather than viewing these variant forms as straying from some sort of “correct” foundation, I am eager to see what additional communicative resources dialects introduce. Even before becoming a professor, I found it fun to think about how small differences in language use are part of the construction of identity, both communal and individual. This line of thinking suggests that there may not actually be something simply called the Blues, as there are subtle but important differences between Blues played in the Texas, Piedmont, Delta, Chicago, Country, or Gospel styles. I can’t always hear the gradations of these regional distinctions, but I love learning about local flavor, both linguistically and musically. The Blues are all about that.
However, when it all comes down (to quote B.B. King), I think the strongest connection I have to the Blues is my love of reading and writing haiku. I have been writing haiku since elementary school, and I still love the economy of the form. Every word matters when creating the scene and the mood, and there is no room for excess. Italo Calvino writes – “I dream of immense cosmologies, sagas and epics reduced to the dimensions of an epigram.” The best haiku do just that, often evoking an ineffable sense of understanding. I would suggest songs like Dark Was the Night Cold Was the Ground are no different. Blues musicians express rich and nuanced feelings with just a few perceptively constructed phrases and notes played just right. When a song creates a connection, it can feel like both a revelation and a reminder of something we’ve always known. Yes, yes. It is a mean old world to try to live in, isn’t it?
Cone, James H. (1972). The Spirituals and the Blues. Orbis Books: Maryknoll, New York.
Holiday, Billie (1956). Lady Sings the Blues. Penguin Books: New York
Jones, LeRoi (1963). Blues People. Harper Collins: New York
Kiel, Charles (1966). Urban Blues. University of Chicago Press: Chicago
Oliver, Paul (1960). Blues Fell This Morning. University of Cambridge Press: New York
Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dream – Dust to Digital (2016)
A Very Short List of Some of My Favorite Blues Songs
Pink Anderson Titanic
Rev. Pearly Brown It’s a Mean Old World to Try to Live In
Please Momma, Stay Home With Me
Bobbie Cadillac Carbolic Acid Blues
Elizabeth Cotton Shake, Sugaree
Ida Cox Seven Day Blues
Blind Boy Fuller Step It Up and Go
Buddy Guy Ten Years Ago
Vera Hall Black Woman
Algia Mae Hinton When You Kill a Chicken, Save Me The Head
John Lee Hooker It’s My Own Fault
Lightening Hopkins Slavery Time
Elmore James The Sky Is Crying
Blind Willie Johnson Dark Was the Night Cold Was the Ground
Lord I Just Can’t Keep From Crying
(I’m Gonna) Run to the City of Refuge
B.B. King The Thrill is Gone
When It All Comes Down
Mighty Sam McClain A Change Is Gonna Come
(This is not my favorite performance by him of this song, but that one is not online)
Mississippi Fred. McDowell Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning
Washington Philips What are They Doing in Heaven Today?
Lift Him Up That’s All
Otis Rush So Many Roads
Bessie Smith I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle
Henry Thomas Bull Doze Blues
Run Mollie Run
Georgia White Your Worries Ain’t Like Mine