Tuesday, May 13, 2008

In Search of the Blues

In Search of the Blues
By Marybeth Hamilton
Basic Books

The country bluesman carrying a guitar down that lonesome road is now a well established cultural archetype. It was not always so. Many folklorists and “song hunters” contributed to the Country (later Delta) Blues concept, often for their own ideological reasons. That evolution is examined by Marybeth Hamilton in her new study of Blues Studies, In Search of the Blues.

Hamilton begins with the not exactly reconstructed Southerner Howard Odum, who may have softened in his later years, but originally studied the folk songs of Southern African-Americans in hopes of buttressing prejudiced racial notions. Although self-styled as a progressive, novelist and academic Dorothy Scarborough’s interest in the music came from a related nostalgia for the idealized South of her youth. In a particularly telling passage, Hamilton captures Scarborough’s disillusionment on meeting the future personified, an economically prosperous, independent African-American man of music—W.C. Handy:

“Here the tenderness of her remembered South had been crowded out by a hard-nosed commercialism, faceless and altogether lacking in deference, as Scarborough found herself rebuffed in a smoke filled office where white women and men jostled with black ones for the attention of a black entrepreneur.” (p. 90)

While Odum and Scarborough were far from boosters of the music we now refer to as the Blues, their work laid their foundation for the most famous and controversial figures in Search, the Lomaxes. Father John and son Alan Lomax are well remembered for their discovery of Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, and the resulting fallout from that association. Hamilton’s treatment is far more critical of the conservative elder than the fellow-traveling son. John Lomax’s dogged defense of the South in general is certainly questionable, but his fears regarding his son’s involvement with the Communist Party seem well founded in light of subsequent revelations about the Soviet domination of the CPUSA.

The unlikely hero who emerges from the pages of Search is the rather eccentric and anti-social record collector, James McKune. Together with a rag-tag group of fellow obsessives dubbed the “Blues Mafia” he largely shaped the Country Blues aesthetic. In his triumph, Hamilton posits a victory for the mafia over the “philistine brand of left-wing populism” of those championing the blues as an expression of proletarian solidarity (p. 229). In particular, Samuel Charters is identified as a critic who would eventually make an about face, first politicizing the music in his book The Country Blues, then writing four years later:

“If the blues simply mirrored the protest of the moment they would finally have little more than a historical interest, like the songs of the suffragettes or the Grange movement.” (p. 235)

While McKune certainly had his collector’s quirks, he is portrayed being attracted to the music because of the music itself, and not for an ideology laid on top of it. Like other figures in Hamilton’s study, he uses terms like “primitive” to describe the music. However, McKune seems to come to these expressions to describe sounds which resonated for him, rather than adopting the music for its preconceived primitiveness. Indeed, one gets the sense it would have been equally uncomfortable for Leadbelly’s Popular Front sponsors if he had started offering sophisticated discourses on monetary policy as it would have been for the elder Lomax.

Like the musicians he loved, McKune was a figure on the margins of society, ultimately dying a death worthy of its own blues. Search deserves credit for elevating him from obscurity. While specifically addressing the blues, Search also contains substantial crossover material for jazz audiences, as Alan Lomax’s Jelly Roll Morton sessions and New Orleans jazz oral histories are explored to give wider context to folklorists’ pursuit of “authenticity” in African-American music. Unfortunately, Hamilton often lets the left off the hook for the sort of primitive fetishizing she criticizes in others. Overall though, Search is consistently informative and highly readable, offering a fresh perspective on the now well trod ground of blues creation mythology.