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Monday, April 28, 2008

Deep in the Delta Mud

Missing out on the blues

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Just 11 pages into In Search of the Blues (Basic Books), author Marybeth Hamilton comes right out and attempts to shatter accepted visions of Mississippi Delta blues purity. She desperately wants to play the iconoclast.

“In fact,” she begins, “the Delta blues was not born in the bars and dance halls of Mississippi. That Robert Johnson and Charley Patton came to dominate blues history owes more to elusive mediators and shapers of taste. The idea of something called the Delta blues dates from the late twentieth century. It was discovered—or, if you like, invented—by white men and women, as the culmination of a long-standing fascination with uncorrupted black singers, untainted by the city, by commerce, by the sights and sounds of modernity.” She claims, with a barely repressed shudder, that record collectors created the myth.

That Robert Johnson and Charley Patton were not necessarily discovered by folklorists but by record collectors is interesting but—contrary to Hamilton’s implications—was not a conspiracy to create an idiom that never existed until collected on 78 rpm recordings by white intellectuals.

The great folklorist Alan Lomax recognized the value of putting commercial recordings into the Library of Congress and split with John Lomax, his father, over this issue. He realized that, sometimes, commercial recordings are as pure as field recordings. Hamilton doesn’t understand that and is crestfallen to find the hidden hand of commerce touching the blues. Her book reads like a sentimental novel about falling in love in high school and then discovering that your lover is not at the address assumed but at one across town.

Hamilton is part of a culture of academic, tenure-point scoring, alternate histories. In Search of the Blues represents her inexperienced longing to search in the wrong way for the roots of American music and does not convincingly alter the credibility of what has already been found in other places.

The mysterious and mostly white men who supposedly created the Delta blues myth were, in her view, a record-collecting Blues Mafia whose capos were James McKune, Frederic Ramsey, Charles Edward Smith and John Hammond. McKune receives more attention in this book than the Delta musicians themselves, while Hammond is largely overlooked. In his role at Columbia Records, Hammond was responsible for issuing 78 rpm recordings that were as spooky as any field recording or any “lost” bluesman rediscovered during the 1950s-’60s folk blues revival.

That revival was based not on original field recordings exclusively, if hardly at all, but on songs from 78s transferred onto 33 1/3 discs that came from Columbia and other major labels. And this is where Hamilton does make a statement worth considering: the aesthetic validation that white intellectuals in the 1950s-’60s added to commercial recordings from decades earlier that had originally been marketed to a niche, underclass African-American audience.

Sadly, Hamilton then goes off on stupefying tangents, calling McKune’s death as mysterious as the storied demise of bluesman Robert Johnson. This is fiction at its worst, passed off as music scholarship. It’s the act of making connections that are amusing, perhaps even intriguing as an aside, but that should not be presented as researched fact. In Search of the Blues is rather like a novel, rich with sentiment and investigative allure. Hamilton writes as if she had lived in the Delta during the formation of the blues, creating entire contexts that, while footnoted, do not add up to their subjective summation.

The book ends with McKune’s story as he wanders the streets penniless, shoeless and raving mad, his record collection having disappeared—but not before he established a collector’s guide for it so that others could carry on his obsessive work. This is not as interesting as Hammond’s contributions to American music. Like the people she criticizes for taking a wrong turn, Hamilton takes one down the dead-end of McKune’s life and her search for the blues becomes blinded by her own lugubrious perceptions. Instead of hearing the original, brilliant music, she listens to her own tone-deaf prose.

A book called In Search of the Blues should be about the dignified if occasionally foolish ethnomusicologists and the wily, profit-driven record label scouts who, for different reasons, discovered and documented some of the most vital music America ever nurtured. They spread the music and its mythology to the whole world, but they didn’t invent it. Nobody made anything up but the blues singers on the Mississippi Delta.