It seems that we may have gotten the blues all wrong.
Instead of the taproot of American popular music, drawing on work songs, spirituals, and juke joint rhythms, the blues now appear to be simply one genre of African-American musical development—albeit one that eventually dominated the commercial production of music, from the race records of the ’30s and the hard rock of the ’70s to the rap and hip-hop of today.
Somewhere along the way, obscure recordings from the heyday of the race record, releases from artists like Robert Johnson and Skip James, have become monolithic landmarks in the contemporary telling of the history of the blues. So where do two releases fit in: Classic African American Songsters from Smithsonian Folkways in 2014, and The Rough Guide to the Blues Songsters, out this month? Taken together, they represent an era pre-blues, spanning the demise of Southern Reconstruction and the intrusions of Jim Crow racial segregation to the advent of the commercial recording industry in the late ’20s.
These selections come to us almost as a gift, an afterthought of the recording industry, the product of artists whose births trace back to the end of the nineteenth century. And they drop in our laps a more inclusive and upbeat vision of what African-American street music must have been like at the turn of the twentieth century.
These joyfully eclectic discs offer all listeners plenty to be curious about and pleased with, but Louisianans especially. This music provides a context for the accomplishments of Lead Belly, a native of the Shreveport region who recorded as both a blues and folk musician, in all cases described by biographer Kip Lornell as “one of the most important grassroots artists of the twentieth century.”
The Rough Guide CD booklet defines songsters as pre-blues popular artists who might be called on to sing any number of songs in various styles, noting that Lead Belly may have been the greatest of them all, claiming an inventory of more than 500 tunes. The Rough Guide release, the more accessible and pleasurable of the two, also includes two New Orleans musicians who qualify as definers of the songster genre: “Papa” Charlie Jackson and Robert “Rabbit” Brown.
The Smithsonian release, loaded with previously unreleased tracks and assuming a more “archaeological” stance, also features a Lead Belly track (“My Hula Love”) and even makes the astute connection of including the late, lamented New Orleans songster, Ferd “Snooks” Eaglin, who played into the twenty- first century, drawing on a deep repertoire of blues, rhumba boogie, R&B, and soul music.
These two albums throw open a window on a vital era of popular American entertainment that precedes the wide availability of sound-recording technology.
A sly complexity pervades these performances, which anticipate vaudeville, network radio, and early ’50s television. The songster collections recall the evolution of American music that borrows heavily on African-American culture, starting with the heydays of minstrelsy and Stephen Foster. Remnants of minstrelsy persisted into the era of the songsters, appearing most prominently in the institution of the traveling medicine and tent shows.
These two single CDs perfectly complement the 2005 two-CD set Good for What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows 1926-1937. Taken as a whole,
the songster and the medicine show CDs contain a good deal of the available evidence of a highly spirited and proudly homemade period in American popular music.
These parallel releases gain additional illumination from a changing world view among academics, a wholesale revision of, first, the myth of the acoustic Mississippi Delta blues; second, the larger framework of the classification of the blues; and third, the individual agency through which we inherit the underlying mythmaking that tells us how to understand the popular music we listen to. In this case, Louisiana readers may be surprised to find the traditional New Orleans jazz revival playing a primary role, but that may be mainly because we still don’t understand it as well as we might.
The media world we take for granted was barely in its infancy before WWII. The genesis of this revival can be found in European jazz fans cobbling together elementary discographies and American jazz fans collecting and trading rare wax and vinyl records by means of mimeographed newsletters.
Two books stand out among a slowly expanding bibliography responsible for a dramatically shifting view of the blues—Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (2004), by the music historian Elijah Wald, established the cornerstone here. Its conversational prose slowly unravels the myth of the Delta blues and replaces it with a healthier understanding based on actual acoustic blues sales during their heyday from the late ’20s to the early ’40s. Less prominently, a trio of academic tomes fleshed out much of Wald’s basic thesis: Robert Johnson, Mythmaking, and Contemporary American Culture (2004) more thoroughly states Wald’s thesis in an academic context; Long Lost Blues: Popular Blues in America 1850- 1920 (2009) offers more than 450 blues titles that predate the first recorded blues, Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” a big hit in 1920; and Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow (2010), follows the “genre-ization” of American popular music, especially in the American South during the origins of a music industry.
The logical response to a revisionist view of blues history opens borders on the search for evidence of primacy. Here New Orleans, in particular,
and Louisiana, in general, stand a good chance of enhanced recognition for their contributions to early blues. For early bluesmen like Joe “King” Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Kid Ory, and even Louis Armstrong, the blues occupied a good portion of their repertoires. Even the earliest Cajun recordings, those from the late ’20s and early ’30s, contain a good number of selections described as blues. The Baton Rouge bluesman/actor Chris Thomas King has been blogging with passion for a new understanding of the origins of the blues, setting acoustic rural blues aside and giving new prominence to early jazz musicians. Itinerant musicians like those found in the songster and medicine shows CDs and early vaudeville, even created the phenomenon of a “blues empress” that included Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and by extension, even a quasi-contemporary figure like Billie Holiday.
A second cornerstone is found in Marybeth Hamilton’s collection of highly readable long articles, In Search of the Blues (2008). Hamilton’s compelling investigations are based on the understanding that mythmaking evolves from human activity, and in the case of especially
the Delta blues, our thinking has been heavily influenced by small sub-cults of mostly white, mostly male inveterate record collectors. Hamilton’s strategy is a simple and humane one: Focus on the record collectors who set the whole mythmaking apparatus in motion.
One of her six stories informs our understanding of the traditional New Orleans jazz revival by telling of the trio of white, male music fanatics who were at its core. Hamilton may have spawned a publishing cottage industry that makes the devoted music fanatic the center of its story.
Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting—by OffBeat’s own Brett Milano—predates Hamilton’s book, while Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 rpm Records, by Amanda Petrusich, dropped in on us just this past summer— reminding us yet again that, at least since the dawn of the traditional New Orleans jazz revival, obsessive record collecting may be a more powerful cultural force than we have yet begun to recognize.