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The result is a view of the blues from the inside, based not only on recordings but also on the recollections of the musicians themselves, the African-American press, and original research. Wald presents previously unpublished studies of what people on Delta plantations were actually listening to during the blues era, showing the larger world in which Johnson's music was conceived. What emerges is a new respect and appreciation for the creators of what many consider to be America's deepest and most influential music. Wald also discusses how later fans formed a new view of the blues as haunting Delta folklore. While trying to separate fantasy from reality, he accepts that neither the simple history nor the romantic legend is the whole story. Each has its own fascinating history, and it is these twin histories that inform this book.
|1||What is Blues?||3|
|2||Race Records: Blues Queens, Crooners, Street Singers, and Hokum||14|
|3||What the Records Missed||43|
|4||Hollers, Moans, and 'Deep Blues'||70|
|5||The Mississippi Delta: Life and Listening||83|
|6||A Life Remembered||105|
|8||First Sessions, Part One: Going for Some Hits||131|
|9||First Sessions, Part Two: Reaching Back||149|
|10||Second Sessions: The Professional||166|
|12||Jump Shouters, Smooth Trios, and Down-Home Soul||193|
|13||The Blues Cult: Primitive Folk Art and The Roots of Rock||220|
|14||Farther On Up the Road: Wherefore and Whither the Blues||250|
|Afterthought: So What About the Devil?||265|
"The sorrow songs of the slaves we call Jubilee Melodies. The happy-go-lucky songs of the Southern Negro we call blues."
-- W.C. Handy, in 1919
"I never did name one of my records the blues after all. Everybody else called my sounds what I made 'the blues.' But I always just felt good behind 'em; I didn't feel like I was playin' no blues."
-- Jimmy Reed, in 1975
There has probably been more romantic foolishness written about blues in general, and Robert Johnson in particular, than about any other genre or performer of the twentieth century. As white urbanites discovered the "Race records" of the 1920s and 1930s, they reshaped the music to fit their own tastes and desires, creating a rich mythology that often bears little resemblance to the reality of the musicians they admired. Popular entertainers were reborn as primitive voices from the dark and demonic Delta, and a music notable for its professionalism and humor was recast as the heart-cry of a suffering people. The poverty and oppression of the world that created blues is undeniable, but it was the music's up-to-date power and promise, not its folkloric melancholy, that attracted black record buyers.
When did blues emerge? We have all heard variations on a mythic answer:
The blues been here since time began
Since the first lyin' woman met the first cheatin' man.
Which is indisputably true, if we are talking about heartache rather than music. People have always had the blues, and as far as we know they have always sung about it. This is the source of Spanish flamenco, of Cape Verdean morna, and of country and western, all styles notable for lamenting lost and martyred love. However, if we are talking not about a universal emotion, but about the music filed in record stores as "blues," matters become both more prosaic and more complicated.
Before going into the history of blues music, we first have to confront the fact that the term has been used for a lot of different styles over the years. Like all genre names, "blues" has always been, first and foremost, a marketing term. When the market is hot, the word gets tacked onto plenty of songs that fit no musical definition of the form. When it gets cold, even the most straightforward twelve-bar blues may get classified as folk, jazz, rock, or funk. I am not going to enter the meaningless debate over what is or is not blues -- I have no problem with people using whatever definition they like, as long as they grant that it is not the only one. It is worth taking a moment, though, to look at a few common definitions and provide an idea of what the word means to me.
The simplest and clearest definition of blues is the one used by musicians, as when they say, "Let's play a blues." This is a certain sequence of chords, commonly known as the twelve-bar blues, and there have been literally thousands of songs composed in this pattern. All such songs are technically "blues," though they have been played by ragtime orchestras, jazz bands, pop and rock groups, and have formed the bedrock for artists as different as Ma Rainey, Count Basie, Elvis Presley, James Brown, and Mose Allison.
While this definition has the virtue of simplicity, a lot of music that is generally considered to be blues does not fit the twelve-bar framework. Much of Bessie Smith's and B. B. King's work, for example, is set to more varied and complex chord changes. As a result, folklorists and musicologists often say that the standard blues form can have twelve, eight or sixteen bars, or various other variations, and that the most important thing is a certain tonal feel created by the use of "blue notes" (in technical terms, the flatted third and seventh notes of the major scale). Such notes are common in many earlier African and African-American styles, as well as in quite a few other musics around the world, and they are usually described by Europeans and Euro-Americans as having a mournful, lonesome, minor-key sound.
The perception of this "blues feel" is to a great extent subjective, and different people hear it in different places. There is infinite argument, for example, over which jazz masters have and have not been able to get a blues feel in their music. In the wider world, some writers will argue that the Egyptian star Oum Khulthoum was a sort of blues singer, or the griots of Mali, or the Greek rebetika artists, while others fervently dispute the point. Even within the musics normally considered blues there is plenty of room for disagreement. I recently had a conversation with an expert who argued that most of the famous blues queens of the 1920s were not really singing blues, while white "hillbilly" artists like Dock Boggs often were.
Where all the experts come together is in their irritation at the most common and influential definition of blues. This is the definition used by the true modern arbiters of genre, the people who market music and file it in record stores. Through their good offices, "blues" has come to be generally understood as the range of music found in the blues section when we go shopping for CDs. This commercial definition uses the word as a grab-bag term for all sorts of older African-American musics that cannot be filed elsewhere: The rule seems to be that if a black person played it before 1950, and it is not classifiable as jazz, classical or gospel, then it must be blues. In most record stores, fiddle hoedowns end up in the blues section if they were recorded by black players, as do work songs, children's songs, and a good deal of ragtime. Even gospel music will usually be found there if the performer was black and accompanied him- or herself on guitar ...Escaping the Delta
Posted January 9, 2013
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Posted June 9, 2012
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