Respecting the Blues Makers by Elijah Wald
This year has been dubbed “Year of the Blues” — not, as we’ve been informed, because Martin Scorcese is developing a documentary series about the music, but because it’s the 100th anniversary of the first recorded appearance of blues musicians. W.C. Handy overheard a down-and-out guitar musician at a Mississippi Delta railroad station, sliding a knife over the strings of his guitar and singing about “Going where the Southern cross the Dog.” There are earlier reports of songs that are more clearly blues, such as Jelly Roll Morton’s hearing Mamie Desdumes, a New Orleans singer and pianist, sing “2:19,” a perfect example of the 12-bar form, or Ma Rainey’s hearing a young woman in Missouri sing “2:19,” a perfect example of the 12-bar form, in 1902. The issue with such tales is that they do not suit the mainstream blues fan’s favourite stereotype: the ragged, male Mississippi Delta slide guitarist.
This stereotype did not emerge from nothing. Since the first time rural blues was introduced to a wide white audience, it has been carefully maintained. That occurred in 1938, when Carnegie Hall hosted the first “Spirituals to Swing” performance, which was organised by John Hammond Sr. The performance mostly consisted of live music, but Hammond also played records of two performers: one was an African group who was offered as an example of African-American music’s roots, and the other was an African group who was given as an example of African-American music’s roots. The other was a Robert Johnson sample that was a little out of the ordinary. Johnson had recorded 29 songs, all but a few in the current urban styles of Kokomo Arnold, Leroy Carr, Peetie Wheatstraw, Tampa Red, and Lonnie Johnson, but at the end of his first session — probably after running out of prepared recording material — he had tossed in a few songs he had learned back in his teens from a local juke joint musician named Son House, and these were the songs Hammond played for the Carnegie Hall audience.
In 1961, Columbia Records issued the first Robert Johnson LP, which served as an inspiration for a generation of young white blues and rock performers on both sides of the Atlantic. This record represented a totally different judgement of Johnson’s art than anyone in the blues world may have expected. Two of Johnson’s songs had become popular blues standards in the previous decades: “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” which had been recorded by a number of artists, including Junior Parker, whose recording had turned it into a Chicago barroom favourite, and “Sweet Home Chicago,” which had been recorded by a number of artists, including Junior Parker, whose recording had turned it into a Chicago barroom favourite. These songs were not featured on the Columbia album. Instead, it included every song Johnson had recorded with rural Delta roots, even a handful that had been blocked from publication in the 1930s (presumably because they were so out of touch with contemporary blues tastes). As a result, a young man who had previously been regarded as one of the hippest, most forward-thinking musicians on his local scene was reborn as a Delta roots revivalist — a prime example of apostles inventing a deity in their own image.
It’s reasonable to believe that Hammond and Columbia were doing Johnson a favour. Johnson was at his most potent when he was closest to his teenage devotion for Son House, and at his worst when he was closest to the pop-blues trends of the mid-1930s, according to most current followers of his work. But perhaps now, in this historic “year of the blues,” it’s a good opportunity to reassess how we’ve viewed the music and ask how closely it resembles how the musicians and their original listeners viewed it. Because, while the arbiters of blues taste have a lot of fair points on their side, they’ve also ruined and curtailed the careers of some extremely gifted musicians.
The CD Vanguard just published of Skip James’ “Rare and Unreleased” recordings from the 1960s would be a nice place to start this reappraisal. James was one of the best bluesmen to be “rediscovered” during the folk-blues revival, and he was the deepest of all the Delta singers for many listeners (including myself). Other Delta musicians could be classified as raucous showboaters, juke joint entertainers whose music transcended their barroom roots in some way. People getting drunk and kicking up their heels to sombre meditations like “Devil Got My Woman,” “Cypress Grove,” or “Washington DC Hospital Bed Blues” were impossible to imagine. Even Johnson had imitated James to get his deepest, most sorrowful performance, “Hellhound On My Trail,” and the fact that he drew fewer new followers than more accessible performers like Mississippi John Hurt only added to this reputation.
It must be conceded, however, that James’ recordings from the 1960s proved him to be a rather limited performer. He recut the same dozen tracks over and over on various blues collector labels, mostly remakes of the tunes he had recorded at his one session in the early 1930s. He may be wonderful at times, but the difference between one James album and the next was determined by how well he was playing and singing on any given day, not by the diversity or originality of the content.
So, what am I to make of this new Vanguard CD, which contains a number of songs that have never been released before, some of which are in styles that are extremely different from anything I’ve ever seen him play
? James’ version of Hoagy Carmichael’s laconic pop classic, “Lazy Bones,” was released on the Genes Vault label a few years back, and it felt like a surprising oddity in his repertoire, an unusual divergence that amused me but prompted no fundamental rethink of James’s creativity. Another version of “Lazy Bones” appears on the new CD, but this time it fits within a broader pattern. James covers Lemon Jefferson’s “One Dime Blues” and “Jack of Diamonds,” as well as Brownie McGhee’s “Sporting Life Blues,” on the album, which begins with a rendition of Bessie Smith’s big smash “Backwater Blues.” “Omaha Blues” and “Somebody Loves You,” both piano tunes in the vaudevillian pop genre, with the latter bordering on a Nashville country weeper. “My Last Boogie,” a guitar version of the piano hit “Cow Cow Blues,” is more indicative of the James I knew.
There has to be a reason why these songs weren’t published twenty-five years ago, and it can’t be due to a lack of quality. They sound good, and by any measure, they were more deserving than some of James’s less-inspired renditions of his well-worn “classics.” I can only assume they were kept hidden for the same reasons I wish they had been: because they revealed a more variegated and ambiguous artist than the haunting mystic we idolised. That is, they indicate that James was not a Delta Van Gogh, making personal masterpieces in defiance to the established mainstream, but a
skilled professional who was willing and able to integrate the current trends.
To put it another way, the young record collectors who introduced James to a new audience were looking for the man who recorded “Devil Got My Woman,” and they located and presented him. They would not have travelled to the Delta in search of a pianist who could entertain bar crowds with covers of Chicago and New York studio songs, and they had little or no interest in that aspect of James’s repertoire.
The young white blues fans were remarkably similar to the Delta audiences during James’ peak in this regard. Both wanted to hear music that took them away from their daily lives and transported them to a magical, faraway place. That world was the dark, mysterious Delta for white New Yorkers. It was the fabled metropolises up north for African Delta farmers during the Great Depression. James, being a seasoned veteran, was able to accommodate either request.
Of course, some artists have defied audience expectations, but this comes at a cost. Take, for example, Lonnie Johnson. He was working as a janitor when the rediscoverers came his way, and he really needed the extra money that concerts could offer, but he also had his pride. Unlike Big Bill Broonzy, who learned a new repertoire of traditional folk-blues to play the part of an Arkansas sharecropper, Johnson preferred to play electric guitar and sing songs like “Red Sails in the Sunset” and “I Lost My Heart in San Francisco.” He was more proud of the songs he’d recorded as a soloist with Duke Ellington’s orchestra than those he’d made as an accompanist for Texas Alexander, and of his romantic Number One R&B smash from 1948, “Tomorrow Night,” than of a forgotten blues about fleas he’d cut in the 1920s. As a result, he found few friends on the blues revival scene, albeit a small group of trad jazz lovers adored him.