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Monday, Jan. 18, 2010

Long Lost Blues

The Tangled Roots of American Music

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Anyone interested in American music knows that the cotton fields of Mississippi were fertile ground for the blues; as the Delta soil was carried down river to New Orleans, the blues helped shape the emergence of jazz; and when the blues traveled by rail to Chicago, it turned electric and became one of the roots of rock’n’roll. All this is not only true but also crucial, and yet isn’t the entire story of the emergence of blues as the bedrock for most of the music identified as distinctly American.

Peter C. Muir explores a little understood chapter of this story in Long Lost Blues: Popular Blues in America, 1850-1920 (University of Illinois Press). Especially in the first two decades of the last century, many Tin Pan Alley pop tunes played around with blues in their song titles and—sometimes—in their music, laying a foundation for Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith and other important urban blues singers in the 1920s. Blues scholars have disdained most of the Tin Pan Alley music Muir investigates through surviving sheet music, acoustical recordings and piano rolls as “inauthentic.” After all, the 1916 tune “I Found Someone to Chase the Blues Away” by the entirely obscure Murray Bloom scarcely leaves an impression when compared to Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on My Trail.”

Muir’s study is fascinating, with implications larger than the history of blues in its examination of the interplay between orally passed-along folk music (which was where the blues stood at the dawn of the 20th century) and popular music transmitted through commercial media. With the spread of communication and transportation networks, even folk musicians in remote hollows of the backwoods could not remain entirely innocent of popular music, and pop tunesmiths freely borrowed from folksingers once they became aware of their music. Muir finds that for the nascent music called the blues, which grew from the black soil of the Southern states near the end of the 1800s, one principal bridge of transmission to the wider culture was African-American vaudeville and minstrel shows, which influenced their white counterparts. Another route was the popularity of W.C. Handy, the African-American songwriter whose “Memphis Blues” became a huge and influential hit in 1912.

Defining his subject broadly, Muir considers any song with “Blues” in its title to be blues, a risky proposition ameliorated by his insistence on placing each song on a spectrum from purely folk to pure pop. He finds a large amount of material, some never recorded but sold as sheet music, that falls somewhere in the middle, including popular songs with blue notes or a 12-bar sequence or lyrics that echo the African-American experience. Especially fascinating is his discussion of the convergence of black blues music with the currency of the word among whites. Blues was a popular way of referring to neurasthenia, the fashionably fin-de-siecle “psycho-physical reaction to the excesses of modern life.” It was a middle class malady for which the working poor had little time, and partly explains the acceptance by white America of a cathartic music called the blues—albeit usually in whitewashed form.

Long Lost Blues is part of a wider reassessment, represented by Elijah Wald’s recent How the BeatlesDestroyed Rock’n’Roll, which expands beyond the narrow assumptions and tidy preconceptions of the original cohort of Baby Boomer rock-blues-jazz critics. The full story of vernacular music in the 20th century was much more complicated than usually admitted—a messier history with at least as many roots in the commercial market as in the folklore of romantic bluesmen and country minstrels. Muir’s exploration of how blues found its way to Tin Pan Alley is another addition to understanding the complexity of what we call American music.

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