Urban Blues / Edition 1

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Charles Keil examines the expressive role of blues bands and performers and stresses the intense interaction between performer and audience. Profiling bluesmen Bobby Bland and B. B. Kind, Keil argues that they are symbols for the black community, embodying important attitudes and roles—success, strong egos, and close ties to the community. While writing Urban Blues in the mid-1960s, Keil optimistically saw this cultural expression as contributing to the rising tide of raised political consciousness in Afro-America. His new Afterword examines black music in the context of capitalism and black culture in the context of worldwide trends toward diversification.

"Enlightening. . . . [Keil] has given a provocative indication of the role of the blues singer as a focal point of ghetto community expression."—John S. Wilson, New York Times Book Review

"A terribly valuable book and a powerful one. . . . Keil is an original thinker and . . . has offered us a major breakthrough."—Studs Terkel, Chicago Tribune

"[Urban Blues] expresses authentic concern for people who are coming to realize that their past was . . . the source of meaningful cultural values."—Atlantic

"An achievement of the first magnitude. . . . He opens our eyes and introduces a world of amazingly complex musical happening."—Robert Farris Thompson, Ethnomusicology 

"[Keil's] vigorous, aggressive scholarship, lucid style and sparkling analysis stimulate the challenge. Valuable insights come from treating urban blues as artistic communication."—James A. Bonar, Boston Herald

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226429601
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/1992
  • Edition description: Reissue
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 244
  • Sales rank: 1,373,641
  • Product dimensions: 5.25 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Charles Keil is professor of American studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

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Read an Excerpt

Urban Blues

By Charles Keil

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1991 the University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-42960-1



Afro-Western music, as the hyphenated label implies, represents a reflection in sound of massive black and white culture contacts. There are as many Afro-Western idioms as there have been distinctive acculturative situations. In brief, West African music and European folk music are enough alike to blend easily in a seemingly infinite array of hybrids. Or, in Marshall Stearns' words,

European folk music is a little more complicated harmonically and African tribal music is a little more complicated rhythmically. They are about equal in regard to melody.... when the African arrived in the New World the folk music that greeted him must have sounded familiar enough, except for the lack of rhythm.

This statement adequately suggests the general ingredients of any Afro-Western musical style—African rhythm prominent, harmony essentially European, a melodic fusion—but it is important to note that in the blending process the African rhythmic foundation absorbs and transforms the European elements. Analyses of these musical amalgamations have been offered by Stearns, the ethnomusicologists Waterman and Merriam, and many others. (My own analytic framework or ethnomusicological point of view is presented in Appendix B.)

In recent years the vigorous hybrids from Africa, Spain, the Caribbean, and the Americas have repeatedly cross-fertilized until the ancestry of any "new" style becomes very complex indeed. For example, the samba tradition in Brazil (itself a complex fusion of Iberian, Indian, and West African elements) is modified by the influx of jazz records from the United States (particularly those of Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz, et al., whose styles represent another complex synthesis); the resultant jazz samba is labeled "bossa nova," and is in turn picked up by the American jazzmen as a suitable vehicle for improvisation and modified considerably before being redistributed to the world. It is not unlikely that "high life" (itself a synthesis of calypso, European, jazz, and a dozen different indigenous traditions) in Lagos and Accra will begin to show a bossa nova influence; and since high life is just now beginning to interest a few American jazzmen, there is no end in sight to this particular chain.

My only postulate so far is simply that the field of Afro-Western music offers an ideal laboratory for the study of diffusion, acculturation, syncretism, and the emergence, acceptance, rejection of styles through time—all matters of importance to anthropology both theoretical and applied. A few scholars—Herzog and Berger, in addition to the above-mentioned—have posed the relevant questions, but few substantial answers have been forthcoming.

In Afro-American music in the United States, three broad subdivisions or genres may be distinguished. In order of stylistic conservatism, these are: sacred music—spirituals, jubilees, and gospels; secular music—blues (country and urban) and most jazz before World War II; "art" music or jazz since 1945. In the past decade a synthesis of jazz, blues, and gospel forms has emerged, and this fusion, "soul music," can be considered a fourth stylistic stream in its own right. Although the blues and the sacred forms are slowly declining in popularity, soul music continues to gain favor among Negroes, particularly with the younger generation. If present trends continue, it may not be long before Negro music will be characterized by the interpenetration of two musical genres: a music of the people (soul styles), and a music for listeners only (advanced jazz styles).

An adequate analysis of any one of the three basic Afro-American genres, whether synchronic or diachronic, cannot be readily divorced from consideration of the other two. In attempting to treat one of the traditions in isolation through time, as in the following chapter (see also Appendix C), I am constantly tempted or forced to point out the areas of overlap. Many blues singers begin their careers in gospel groups, and a few become preachers or gospel singers when the fast life begins to lose its charm. Many blues musicians work their way into the jazz community. Church choir directors are eager to outdraw each other, and try to bring their arrangements up to date by introducing elements from current blues styles. The recent back-to-the-roots trend among many modern jazzmen (one aspect of the soul music resynthesis) has led them to adopt and adapt blues, spiritual, and gospel themes for their own purposes. Apparently no shift in one of the three genres takes place without having repercussions in the others. This mutual malleability has been a constant factor—even a defining feature—in any Afro-American style both today and in the past. Harold Courlander, in his recent book Negro Folk Music, U.S.A., makes a similar observation concerning the grass-roots forms of American Negro music that are his special concern.

But we must recognize that the outer boundaries of some song forms overlap other forms. Some of the criteria established for religious songs apply also to certain secular songs. Worksongs sometimes are recast religious songs. Thematic materials of a certain kind may be found in ring play songs, blues and worksongs. And some musical characteristics are shared by spirituals, gang songs, game songs and blues. Yet these various forms do have elements which, in general, distinguish them from one another.

The Afro-American tradition represents not only a variety of mixtures between European and African elements but a series of blendings within itself.

The flexibility of African cultural systems has been pointed out many times, most commonly in the studies of syncretist religions and perhaps most convincingly in Janheinz Jahn's book Muntu. In one art form after another Jahn reveals the African foundation and European overlay—the words in a poem may be English, French, Portuguese, or whatever, but the structure, redundancy, and rhythms usually remain distinctively African. The great flexibility or blending capacity of Afro-American musical forms derives primarily from a rhythmic substructure that can incorporate with ease the most diverse melodic and harmonic resources. Indeed, jazzmen are constantly on the prowl for new forms to devour, new sources of nourishment, and as a result the world's music is rapidly becoming jazz.

Any attempt to label and define the styles to be found in one of the three main genres while excluding the others in a risky business. The task of placing any individual bluesman (musician or singer) vis-à-vis his forebears, contemporaries, and descendants is still more difficult. Yet if we are to talk about continuities and changes in style, or in culture for that matter, definitions of styles, the placing of practitioners, and perhaps a not completely arbitrary slicing of the continuum are required at some early point in the discussion. (Chapter II and Appendix C represent a first step toward this end.)

The first-step nature of the subsequent classification deserves an explanation. Jazz has been written about extensively; the great bulk of religious music has been ignored almost completely; the blues tradition, thanks to a recent spurt of interest, ranks in an intermediate position, as far as quantity of literature is concerned. Although a number of books and articles have been written about the blues and bluesmen, all the authors without exception refuse to look at, much less discuss, the music as it exists today.

Why this complete exclusion of recent and contemporary blues forms in every treatise on the subject? In trying to answer this question, I find that the men who write books about the blues are often more interesting than the books themselves. Most of these authors exemplify what might be called the "moldy-fig mentality," "moldy fig" being a term formerly used by "modern" jazzmen and their supporters to designate individuals whose interest in jazz was restricted to the prewar period—pre-World War I, that is. Samuel Charters, Paul Oliver, Harold Courlander, Harry Oster, Pete Welding, Mack McCormick—even Alan Lomax until recently—share a number of interests or preoccupations, first and foremost of which is a quest for the "real" blues. The criteria for a real blues singer, implicit or explicit, are the following. Old age: the performer should preferably be more than sixty years old, blind, arthritic, and toothless (as Lonnie Johnson put it, when first approached for an interview, "Are you another one of those guys who wants to put crutches under my ass?"). Obscurity: the blues singer should not have performed in public or have made a recording in at least twenty years; among deceased bluesmen, the best seem to be those who appeared in a big city one day in the 1920's, made from four to six recordings, and then disappeared into the countryside forever. Correct tutelage: the singer should have played with or been taught by some legendary figure. Agrarian milieu: a bluesman should have lived the bulk of his life as a sharecropper, coaxing mules and picking cotton, uncontaminated by city influences.

The writers listed above manifest the moldy-fig mentality in different ways and to varying degrees. Admittedly, their criteria for including a given singer among the "true blue" are slightly exaggerated as listed here. But the romanticizing motive or element is omnipresent in blues writing, and the reader must keep this factor in mind when evaluating any book on the subject.

For example, Samuel Charters' best-known work, The Country Blues, has a chapter on postwar developments in which the adjectives "crude," "loud," "unsophisticated," "monotonous," and the like are applied liberally throughout. Charters seems to feel that the blues have been diluted and polluted beyond recognition.

After the war, there were more and more young blues artists who used their new electric guitars at an increasingly high volume. The poorer musicians turned it up to hide their weaknesses and the others were forced to go along.

The large record companies, within two or three years after the war, had completely lost control of the blues record business. There were hundreds of companies recording blues, many of them Negro owned ...

There were long months of insecurity for many of the blues singers and most of the older men were eventually forced into retirement.

The blues have almost been pushed out of the picture; and the singers who have survived at all have had to change their style until they sound enough like rock and roll performers to pass with the teenage audience.

In a paragraph devoted to T-Bone Walker, the greatest single influence on postwar blues before the emergence of B. B. King, Charters says:

T-Bone had grown up around Waxahachie, Texas and had seen Blind Lemon Jefferson two or three times when Lemon was in town or T-Bone was in Dallas.... He wasn't much of a blues singer but he was a hard working entertainer.

Charters' comments on an English critic's reaction to a Muddy Waters concert are also revealing.

The critic spent the last half of the concert in the men's room, where the sound seemed a little less shrill. He couldn't hear much of Muddy's singing, but there had been so much din in the stage he hadn't been able to hear much of it anyway. After the refined, sophisticated singing of Brownie McGhee and Big Bill, Muddy sounded a little barbaric, but there was an unmistakable earthiness and vitality in his music.

As for the late Big Bill Broonzy, I wonder why all the blues writers (and Charters is most certainly not the worst of the lot) have failed to notice his terse and logical definition of the field. As reported in Time, Broonzy "had short patience with all the folk song curators who insist that a true folk song has to be of unknown authorship and come down through oral tradition. 'I guess all songs is folk songs,' he said, 'I never heard no horse sing 'em.'" No neater summary of the present chapter's argument could be found.

English blues concerts afford an interesting opportunity to view the moldy-fig mentality in operation. An affair I witnessed in London featured an array of elderly bluesmen, a few of them quite decrepit; one scheduled performer had just been shipped back to the States with an advanced case of tuberculosis, another's appearance was little more than an exhibition of incipient senility, and some "stars" had all they could do to stave off the effects of acute alcoholism. Aside from a slobbery but impassioned harmonica solo by Sonny Boy Williamson, a couple of numbers in which Howlin' Wolf coerced the dilapidated rhythm section into a more cohesive state, and an all too brief display of artistry by Lightnin' Hopkins, the concert might be best described as a third- rate minstrel show. The same show presented to a Negro audience in Chicago (assuming they could be enticed into watching a parade of invalids in the first place) would be received with hoots of derision, catcalls, and laughter. The thousands of Englishmen assembled for the event listened to each song in awed silence; the more ludicrous the performance, the more thunderous the applause at its conclusion. Even a good blues presentation, yanked out of context, seemed inane. Sonny Boy's usual blues-bar "shuckin' and jivin'" echoed into a void; "Who's the pastor in this here church, huh?"—silence. Howlin' Wolf's performance style—stalking around, rolling his eyes, lunging to and from the microphone—so appropriate to the boisterous atmosphere of a Chicago lounge, made him look like an awkward Uncle Tom. The high point of the evening came when Willie Dixon, the bulky bassist, picked up an unamplified guitar and sang his own ballad on peace, love, and brotherhood in the dulcet Appalachia tones of Joan Baez. The applause was deafening and justly so. Considering this utterly sincere ballad, specially composed for the occasion, and the hundreds of lyrics Dixon has created for his fellow bluesmen—rich in hyperbole, humor, astute sexual metaphors, current slang, and tailored to fit each singer's personality and audience perfectly—I could not help feeling genuine awe in the presence of genius. The concert was brought to a fitting conclusion by the goateed German promoter and master of ceremonies, who noted cheerfully: "These boys just love to play the music; that's all they do, day and night. And, ah, you can be sure that there are lots of empty bottles backstage (laughter). Well, we hope you've enjoyed hearing the boys play as much as the boys have enjoyed playing for you." Applause. Curtain.

Having illustrated the moldy-fig mentality, I have yet to suggest an explanation for the phenomenon. In part, it is simply a semi-liberal variant of the patronizing "white man's burden" tradition that has shaped white attitudes toward Negroes for centuries. Somehow a "we-know-what's-best-for-them" or "we-know-what's-best-in-their-music" attitude helps to alleviate some of the oppressive guilt that many whites cannot help feeling. There is an honest and laudable interest in alleviating Negro suffering or at least to make it known to the world in every blues book, Paul Oliver's Blues Fell This Morning being a notable example. Yet I can almost imagine some of these authors helping to set up a "reservation" or Bantustan for old bluesmen; it is often that sort of liberalism. There is also an escapist element in these writings. By concentrating on old-timers and scorning today's blues as commercial or decadent, the writer can effectively avert his eyes from the urban ghetto conditions that spawn the contemporary forms. Similarly, the idealistic undergraduates who flock to a folk blues concert at the University of Chicago are not particularly interested in slum conditions, but can be overheard at intermission discussing last summer's crusade in Mississippi or a forthcoming church reconstruction project somewhere in the Deep South. It is so much easier to reminisce with old bluesmen, collect rare records, and write histories than it is properly to assess a career-conscious singer, analyze an on-going blues scene, and attempt to understand the blues as a Chicago Negro in 1966 understands them. A corollary factor here is historical respectability. A coarse lyric of thirty years ago has poetic qualities and historical interest; much the same kind of lyric of today is considered frivolous and not worthy of scholarly attention.

Among those who write professionally about music—any music—there is often a feeling of ambivalence or inferiority, a not unfounded notion that only those who can't play music write about it. With Afro-American music, the compulsion to be participating rather than observing is particularly strong; it is simply that kind of music. I suspect that there is great vicarious satisfaction to be derived from discovering and "resurrecting" a blues singer, a satisfaction surpassed only by finding for him a new (invariably white) audience. It's the next best thing to playing the music oneself.

In all fairness, it must be admitted these writers are performing a valuable service when they document, as best they can, the history of the blues and explore its rural resources. A book like Oliver's with its 350 examples of blues lyrics or Charters' most recent anthology of lyrics performs a most useful service. Still, a serious sin of omission has been committed, and anyone who is interested in contemporary blues expression is left largely to his own devices.


Excerpted from Urban Blues by Charles Keil. Copyright © 1991 the University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

I. Afro-American Music
II. Blues Styles: An Historical Sketch
III. Fattening Frogs For Snakes?
IV. B. B. King Backstage
V. Big Bobby Blue Bland on Stage
VI. Role and Response
VII. Soul and Solidarity
VIII. Alternatives
Appendix A. The Identity Problem
Appendix B. Talking About Music
Appendix C. Blues Styles: An Annotated Outline
Afterword: Postscripts

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