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Pioneers of the Blues Revival
By Steve Cushing
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
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PAUL OLIVER INTERVIEW
Well, I was born in Nottingham, England, but my family actually came from the west of England near Wales. So that was in 1927.
If you were born in 1927, that would make you about twelve years old when the war broke out. Do you have any home-front experiences that you can relate?
Well, I was in the London suburbs during much of the war, so I was there at the time of the bombing, but it wasn't as heavy in the suburban areas as it was in the East End of London and Central London. We did have incendiary bombs fall on our house, but we all put them out, and other than that we had no serious problems. Later in the war—from that time on, actually— I was working in harvest camps and later in the war in forestry and ran forestry camps for felling trees and logging. But that was my kind of war effort, because I was still too young to serve, and when I was called up right at the end of the war, I had asthma very badly and they didn't accept me.
I know that you're an expert in a couple of different fields. Which came first—the music or the architecture?
Well, I think prob ably by a year or so the music came first in the sense that I was already excited Huggins by boogie-woogie in the 1930s when I was about ten or eleven. In fact, the rhythm of the trains was so like boogie that I used to travel on the steam trains just to enjoy that—and put my mind in that kind of field. So really I started quite young in that respect. I didn't understand that to be blues or anything; I just knew it by the popular name of the day, boogie-woogie. So that was really up until about '42 ... And around about that time I had to help my father, who was an architect, but he had been seconded to the war office to help with drawing up and planning the situation from the very heavy bombing in places like Plymouth and Exeter, which destroyed the cities and caused tremendous problems. That involved me to quite an extent in housing of the poor and difficulties in relating that to other architecture around the world. So within a year or so both of them were my obsessions and have been so all my life.
Let's follow the music trail. How was it that you were exposed to boogie-woogie?
It started from about 1938 through to the early war years—I suppose off and on for about three or four years, really. After that I got interested in other things, but, you see, the boogie recordings of people like Pete Johnson and Meade "Lux" Lewis and so forth were all entering Britain at that time. And people don't always realize how many blues records were available in Britain in the 1930s. So it was fairly accessible. Of course we weren't actually hearing the musicians themselves, but I did eventually in one or two of the areas where the American military settled in.
It was records, not radio broadcasts, that you heard?
We heard radio too as the years went by, but Alan Lomax came to England and he brought with him a number of Library of Congress recordings, and those were played on the radio as well. But very early on we started having our own bands and groups, and I was interested in documenting the subject as far as I could, but really it was recordings that were the primary source at that time.
How did you make the jump from boogie-woogie to the rest of the blues world? Over what time did that happen, and what events led you to expand your enthusiasm?
Well, the basic thing was that on one of the trips that I had made to work during the summer vacation—I was still in school, I was working in harvest camps, and one was in the East Anglia area of England—that's in Suffolk—the American army was just digging in at that time—the American air force, in other words. So it happened to be that their camp was next door to the camp where I was working. And a friend of mine said he wanted me to hear something and took me off to hear the most extraordinary sounds. I just never heard anything in my life like it. Even now it gives me quite a shiver when I think about it. These people were on fatigue essentially, but these were black Americans who had been digging in but for some reason or other had defaulted, and they were singing. My friend said, "You're listening to blues." Actually I think they were work songs really, but at that time, anyway, that turned me on enough to get me interested in it. His name was Stan Higham and he was killed in the war later. But Stan had quite a good collection of jazz records and some blues records and he got me started.
Can you remember the names of the artists that Stan introduced you to?
Well, there were quite a few that were being issued. I mean often the circulation was very, very small because there were limitations of up to ninety-nine copies, so to speak, and because they couldn't afford to consume much material. But even so, I managed to get recordings of "Pinetop" Smith and certainly of the pianists who accompanied blues singers, Big Joe Turner and so on. They were among the earliest ones I collected. And of course some of the classic singers. But particularly Bessie Smith was available, because though it's not generally known in the United States, her last session was, in fact, commissioned and paid for from England.
I was just going to ask you a foolish question—if you were interested at this time in postwar blues—but it hadn't yet happened, had it?
No, it certainly hadn't. I was interested in there being one day perhaps a postwar period, but we didn't know whether the war was going to last for three years or ten years or what. You know, there was no indication really. It was a pretty difficult time. So much so that we didn't talk too much about what things would be like after the war in case "after the war" didn't come. Well, my interest continued to develop actually during the war years, because, as I say, there were quite a few records that had been issued, and I was very interested in going around junk shops and just finding early recordings, and I was gradually getting an idea of who was worth listening to and who wasn't. Fortunately, just at the end of the war, as the American servicemen were going back to the States, they left quite a lot of 78 records with the junk shops, so I bought quite a few at that time. "Kokomo" Arnold, I think, was the first one.
By the end of the war I was busy getting a collection together, and in the immediate postwar years we formed a small jazz society which we called the Jazz Purists Society, which was both jazz and blues, so to speak, because jazz was becoming very popular. Jazz was, for a number of years, really the dominant popular music in Britain. So I was just as interested in the blues after that and continued with my own researches. I obviously had difficulty getting the information, but slowly it came together, and at that time it was still possible, after the war, to order 78s like Bukka White and so forth directly from the United States. And we traded also. We traded English dance bands such as Harry Roy and Ambrose, many of whom had jazz musicians from the States playing with them. We traded those records and got a lot of blues records that way. So gradually the collections were building up, and I got very interested. You see, most people were saying, "Don't bother listening to the words." You know, they were concentrating on the music. I got very interested in the words. So one way or another it gradually got me started, but not with any particular objective at that time beyond just wanting to know more about it.
In what capacity did black American GIs serve in England?
Well, in very poor capacity. In theory the army was not segregated, but in practice it was. So that most of them were doing the digging in, the fairly menial work on the locations. But you see, while we were actually working on the farms, we often used to go down to the local pub for a drink in the evening, and generally one or two of the black Americans would be there, and they got very excited by the fact that we welcomed them and wanted to hear them play. Plenty of them played piano and so forth. Interestingly, in 1960, when I was doing my fieldwork in the United States, I met several blues singers who had visited Britain during the war, and all of them had the most warm memories of it, which was very helpful in the sense that they were very positive to me.
Were you lucky enough to run into people who could actually play?
Yes, we did! These were people like ourselves—sort of amateurs—so that, in a sense, they weren't likely to have any kind of career. But it was their music, and that's what they played when they sat down in the saloons, see. Most of them were pianists that we heard, so we—I say we because there were several of us who were interested—as we had already got these boogie records and so on, it wasn't difficult to encourage them to play some.
Did you have any curiosity about the actual persons who made this music—what their lives might be like, if they were still alive, any notions of that sort?
That's why I did the fieldwork, when I was able to do it in the States, to find that out. That was the motivation behind my fieldwork—to try and find out what the lives of the singers and musicians were, especially in the South, when they weren't, at that stage, really wrapped up in the business, so to speak, where their music wasn't any kind of club or show music, but when they largely played for each other or themselves. So I was personally interested in the background. But already, you see, I had some indication or intimation to that just by talking with people. It just seemed to me that the research had to be done in the South.
After you had the Jazz Purists Society, where did your interest go from there? How did it manifest?
First and foremost it manifested by what I listened to most and what I liked to collect most, which tended to be the blues records. And then immediately after the war—surprisingly rapidly after the war—quite a few collectors like ourselves began to start small record companies, so the repertoire was expanding. And knowledge also rose in the process, see. One or two people got me interested in discography, so we began to try and work out how certain singers came to be working in the company of others. We were piecing together all this information. So it was a piecemeal business, but it was actually coming together and taking shape ... so that finally in 1951 I wrote and sent an article, which in fact was about gospel music, because I felt that people weren't taking any notice of it. That was published by Jazz Journal. In those days blues was always thought of as being an influence on jazz. It still wasn't thought of as being an idiom of its own. One of the things I was intent on doing was trying to get blues recognized as a genre; that was one of the things that motivated me. So I started writing for various jazz magazines, but always about blues.
Did you have any particular favorite artist at this point?
In 1951 Big Bill Broonzy came over to France, where he was playing. We had difficulty getting very close to him because of the big crowds, but we were at least getting an idea of what he sounded like. In '52 he came to England, and when he came over to England my wife and I got to know him well. I eventually did some illustrations for his autobiography. We got to know Big Bill well, and I think he was probably the most inspired. He had the greatest contact with the audiences. Josh White came over, but he was very much playing in the kind of Greenwich Village club idiom. And Lonnie Johnson came over, but Lonnie—brilliant though he was—completely misjudged the audience and thought it was a kind of American club audience and played things which were of no interest. [laughs] He did come again later. I got to know him and realized how great he was, but he was very disappointing when he first came over to England. Big Bill was a real surprise, so I think he largely shaped my interest and taste in terms of live performance.
Had he been your favorite before you met him in person?
I can't say favorite, because there were a number of people that I had on record, but Big Bill was certainly one of them. I had people like Barbecue Bob, who had in fact died, though I didn't know that at that time. So there were all sorts of names that appeared on record. Quite often I chose the people with the strangest names, like Peetie Wheatstraw or whatever, because they often turned out to be very interesting people. I might have missed a few in the process, but nevertheless that was a way of sorting the blues singers from the jazz singers.
Were you at any point categorizing the different genres of music? Were you detecting genres just among the blues records themselves?
Yes, that's what I was trying to do, yes, certainly! And that's where the discography came in. I eventually realized on the wax there would be D-A-L or something, and I began to realize that these were clues as to where the recordings were made. So I got interested in collecting recordings including singers who had been recorded in Texas and in Atlanta. These compared with the ones we had previously, which all seemed to be recorded in New York. And then we found out that there had been field units that eventually worked in the South that recorded the kind of folksingers in the South. It began to make sense. What would seem to be a series of puzzles began to take shape.
I know that you talked about the fact that there were people who were bringing these records in. Did you have any contacts in the States in terms of procuring records?
Yes, there were one or two people who dealt in the States. I can't even remember their names offhand, but there were a few. And the magazines like Record Changer and so forth, which were—I mean, they were just duplicated magazines in those ays, but they at least gave us contacts, people we could actually write to and contact and see if they were interested in trading records and so forth. So that's a good idea how that happened.
And then from about 1953 or '54, I started doing a series of articles in a magazine called Music Mirror which I called "Sources of African American Music." So by that time Id really already sorted it out. And Id got enough to be able to write about different traditions and the different veins of the development of music. I did that for a few years until Id written these first articles. That also was very useful, because by doing so we made contact with various other people who were interested and had other records. By the mid-fifties I was beginning to think Id like to do a book on the content of blues, you see. So I made friends with various people. In those days if you wanted to hear somebody's records, there was no tape recording even or any of the technologies available now. So one had to get on the train and visit them just to hear a record. [laughs] We did that! We went to Paris to hear records Jacques Demetre had, and so on. Those of us who were really excited about the music and wanted to know more about it were prepared to do it.
Were there any particular artists who when you heard them for the first time seemed like a revelation?
Well, yes, I think Blind Lemon Jefferson was the first person whose records really were a revelation to me. I think that not only the very fact that he was a blind musician but that his recordings were extremely early and just the quality of his blues poetry and so forth fascinated me. So I think he was the first person. I heard a couple of records of Robert Johnson, but they were very difficult to get ahold of. A friend of mine, Derrick Stewart-Baxter, used to write a blues column in one of the jazz magazines, Jazz Journal—he had a couple. I thought he was very impressive, but I didn't have the kind of fanatic admiration for him that seems to be the case nowadays. So I found him very interesting, but there were a whole lot of other people who were interesting as well. We were never short of new discoveries.
who drew my attention to items, and so I went to hear them—blues about prison, blues about traveling and migrating, blues about disasters, and so forth. I was trying to sort these out and to try to see what was the connection between them. I was very fortunate at this time because I was teaching, teaching art, and I took classes to France.
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