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Mike Reviews: In Search of the Blues

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  • David Mosley
    Eternal Administrator
    • Jul 2004
    • 11823

    #2
    Rewriting the blues

    Marybeth Hamilton's In Search of the Blues leaves Michael Moorcock looking for answers

    Saturday January 20, 2007
    The Guardian



    Buy In Search of the Blues at the Guardian bookshop

    In Search of the Blues: Black Voices, White Visions

    by Marybeth Hamilton
    246pp, Jonathan Cape, £12.99

    The generally accepted creation narrative about blues music, which most of us take, as it were, as gospel, is that it came out of the fields around cotton-rich Clarksdale in the Mississippi delta and the whorehouse bands of Storyville, New Orleans. The earliest "race" recordings, produced for a black audience in the 1920s, and the prison recordings of John Lomax and his son Alan, give the best idea of what this music was like to listen to in the juke joints of the south. Records by country players such as Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson illustrate how delta blues first sounded - raw, irregular and hugely inventive. The first commercial blues recordings were almost all by women such as Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey and Victoria Spivey.

    By the time the Illinois central railroad took the blues up to Chicago it had gained, in the hands of masters such as Jimmy Rogers or Otis Spann, a far more regular bar structure, forming the base of R&B and rock'n'roll. Classical pianist and blues enthusiast Joanna MacGregor believes early blues can only be learned by copying the records of geniuses such as Skip James and Jelly Roll Morton, not from annotation. Each performance of the same number would be very different, as friends of mine, who backed those great surviving country bluesmen, discovered.

    The early collectors, hardly ever musicians themselves, translated their aesthetic response into what was essentially a political view. Traditionalists have long used the now-familiar narrative to fuel revivals of their favourite music, to justify its preservation and to give ownership to primarily leftwing versions of black history. Alan Lomax, in England escaping McCarthyism, told me he copyrighted traditional music to himself to keep it from being "corrupted" by the likes of skiffle-king Lonnie Donegan - an argument that, as a performer, I found disingenuous. Donegan's skiffle records took kids of my generation to the authentic originals, helping fuel the British blues revival of which Alexis Korner was the best-known exponent. Korner's followers - among them Eric Clapton, Paul Jones and Bill Wyman - later sold R&B back to white Americans. Today most blues performers and audiences are white.

    While not questioning this immeasurable cultural contribution of black Americans to the US and the world, Marybeth Hamilton challenges the authority of the origin story. Based mostly on the Lomaxes' accounts, she tells how Huddie Ledbetter or Leadbelly, their most famous protégé, swiftly lost his "purity" when he got to Harlem and met the great jazz entertainer Cab Calloway. While Hamilton relies heavily on John Lomax's accounts of his relationship with Leadbelly, she hasn't interviewed any of the surviving Ledbetter relatives and has done little new research to support her claim that the narrative was constructed by "commercialisers" such as WC Handy and white, mostly north-eastern, enthusiasts. As it is, she makes no mention of Martin Scorsese's monumental series The Blues, televised a year or so ago, and seems not to have heard of living bluesmen such as Honeyboy Edwards, who knew Robert Johnson in the Mississippi delta. Nor does she make any reference to BB King, who feels somewhat bitter about the "skinny white boys" who came along just as he was starting to make decent money. King knew such people as Howlin' Wolf. Wolf learned directly from Patton and, like Edwards, also told the origin story Hamilton challenges. In the end I was left rather confused by a book which argues, reasonably, that the blues was hijacked by white visionaries but which offers no living black voices to support it.

    · Michael Moorcock's latest book is The Vengeance of Rome (Cape)
    _"For an eternity Allard was alone in an icy limbo where all the colours were bright and sharp and comfortless.
    _For another eternity Allard swam through seas without end, all green and cool and deep, where distorted creatures drifted, sometimes attacking him.
    _And then, at last, he had reached the real world – the world he had created, where he was God and could create or destroy whatever he wished.
    _He was supremely powerful. He told planets to destroy themselves, and they did. He created suns. Beautiful women flocked to be his. Of all men, he was the mightiest. Of all gods, he was the greatest."

    Comment

    • GuyLawley
      Champion of the Balance
      • Aug 2004
      • 1479

      #3
      An excellent piece.

      Breaks the "rule" of "I review books I like", doesn't it, Mike?

      Did you review this one because the glaring lack of contemporary bluesman interviews meant you just couldn't let it go by without comment?

      Just loaded a French BB King 2-disc set onto my trusty iPod. Got lots of the songs already, but couldn't resist this package; it's part of a series with comic strips included. CD-BD !

      Sadly, bought from a little independent (cheap) CD seller in Soho, Mr CD, who is soon closing up. Too much competition from the supermarkets, he reckons. (Also those pesky downloads, no doubt.) If Tower can't survive, what hope for these "little chaps"?

      Great shame. He always has bargains, including imported Italian "official bootlegs" which I don't see on any other London shelves (anyone know better?).

      Another long-established independent retailer bites the dust. But heck, we can never have too many Starbuck'ses, right?

      Reminds me too that I never did see those Scorcese et al documentaries. Recommended?? Any particularly good one(s) to start with?

      Comment

      • Michael Moorcock
        Site Host
        • Dec 2003
        • 14278

        #4
        I didn't see them all. Thought the ones I did see were pretty good.
        I'd hoped to like the book but I just couldn't discover its argument.
        Apparently other critics liked it better.
        Your CD guy is one of several smaller importers who have gone or will be going out of business because of illegal downloading AND larger companies who can afford to absorb greater losses. Great shame.

        Pre-order or Buy my latest titles in Europe:
        The Whispering Swarm: Book One of the Sanctuary of the White Friars - The Laughter of Carthage - Byzantium Endures - London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction
        Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles - Kizuna: Fiction for Japan - Modem Times 2.0 - The Sunday Books - The Sundered Worlds


        Pre-order or Buy my latest titles in the USA:
        The Laughter of Carthage - Byzantium Endures - London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction - The Sunday Books - Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles
        Kizuna: Fiction for Japan - The Sundered Worlds - The Winds of Limbo - Modem Times 2.0 - Elric: Swords and Roses

        Comment

        • greengryphon
          Citizen of Tanelorn
          • Nov 2006
          • 255

          #5
          "Urban Blues"

          Picked up a second hand book, Urban Blues recently, by Charles Keil, written in 1966. Your post prompted me to dip into it.
          I was interested in Keil's description of perceptable changes in blues style

          "Some of the basic changes that occur in blues styles through time and space are the following. More instruements are used, and the role of each instrument becomes more specialized. Volume and density increase proportionately...become electrically amplified... Beginings and endings become more clearly defined, standardized, and instrumental...A broader spectrum of tempos is found. ...a broader variety of structure developes...and these formulas are adhered to without deviations commonly found in older country blues singing, where a beat or two or occasionally whole measures may be dropped from or added to a chorus as the spirit moves. Vocal calls and instrumental responses overlap more obviously. ...vibrato that tends to become broader. Diction becomes clearer...less nasalization. Singers make greater use of melisma...There is an increasing emphasis on lyrics that tell a story as opposed to the country practice of stringing together phrases linked only to a very general theme or emotional state".

          Formularization can deaden creativity at its conception. Personally I like listening to more emotive music, where "deviations" are allowed to exist.
          Last edited by greengryphon; 01-23-2007, 09:43 AM.

          Comment

          • Michael Moorcock
            Site Host
            • Dec 2003
            • 14278

            #6
            I agree. The only problem comes with performing and recording with others. While my own rather erratic blues style,which moved between 7 to 13 bars, sounds fine on its own, it was very hard for even good musicians to play along with me. Sometimes I tried to 'formalise' the informal by marking stuff out as, say, 9 bars here, 8 bars there or whatever, but it was still almost impossible for a formally trained musician not to start trying to make it standard 8 bars or standard 12. I had a lot of problems in the early days and you find yourself forced to play conventional bar structures, for instance, simply in order to rehearse decently. Pete Pavli and I, using cello and glockenspiel (for instance) instead of conventional bass and drums, used to irritate and baffle sound engineers who had become so used to laying down bass and drum tracks first that they found it very difficult indeed to record some of our regularly structured but unconventionally played music. We did a straight 8-bar blues, for instance, which had no standard bass lines and the engineer kept asking us 'when are you going to put your bass and drums down'. That, in fact, is one of the main reasons we stopped taking our stuff into the studio. By that time, too, Brian Eno wasn't around to produce, as we'd hoped, so it wasn't worth carrying on.

            Pre-order or Buy my latest titles in Europe:
            The Whispering Swarm: Book One of the Sanctuary of the White Friars - The Laughter of Carthage - Byzantium Endures - London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction
            Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles - Kizuna: Fiction for Japan - Modem Times 2.0 - The Sunday Books - The Sundered Worlds


            Pre-order or Buy my latest titles in the USA:
            The Laughter of Carthage - Byzantium Endures - London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction - The Sunday Books - Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles
            Kizuna: Fiction for Japan - The Sundered Worlds - The Winds of Limbo - Modem Times 2.0 - Elric: Swords and Roses

            Comment

            • greengryphon
              Citizen of Tanelorn
              • Nov 2006
              • 255

              #7
              Blues Behind Bars

              Would like to think you had a fun time bending the bars anyway.

              I am not a trained musician, so I try to instinctively count bars in jams (on the bass). Not reliable.


              Why Eno particularly?

              Did'nt Syd Barrett mess with musicians structured sensibilities when he played?

              Have you seen "Remember A Day" a film portrait of Syd, starring Darryl Read and Zoot Money?
              Very enjoyable. Recommended.
              http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0279367/
              Last edited by greengryphon; 03-24-2007, 06:49 AM.

              Comment

              • Michael Moorcock
                Site Host
                • Dec 2003
                • 14278

                #8
                I can, of course, do regular bar structure when playing with others, or I'd have been thrown out of my own band years ago, but I prefer, when playing on my own, to revert to irregular. I was talking to a friend, a well-known musician, the other night and we were swapping stories about how people had been so stoned or otherwise 'unready' that they had made these extraordinary recordings -- which critics then went on to praise inordinately as masterpieces of originality. I think that's probably fair to say of Syd Barrett... Though not of Zoot -- who was an extraordinarily clever 'natural' musician. And could do things with a monster Hammond that were not meant to be done by man or beast...

                Pre-order or Buy my latest titles in Europe:
                The Whispering Swarm: Book One of the Sanctuary of the White Friars - The Laughter of Carthage - Byzantium Endures - London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction
                Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles - Kizuna: Fiction for Japan - Modem Times 2.0 - The Sunday Books - The Sundered Worlds


                Pre-order or Buy my latest titles in the USA:
                The Laughter of Carthage - Byzantium Endures - London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction - The Sunday Books - Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles
                Kizuna: Fiction for Japan - The Sundered Worlds - The Winds of Limbo - Modem Times 2.0 - Elric: Swords and Roses

                Comment

                • greengryphon
                  Citizen of Tanelorn
                  • Nov 2006
                  • 255

                  #9
                  Altered Staves

                  What is an accurate definition of a natural musician? Does it involve an innate mathematical understanding that incorporates instinct emotion intellect?
                  Are you implying Syd was not one?
                  His excess's probably were the main cause of an irreversible psychological condition and resultant communication problems, but his music worked a magic at its best, while later songs can sound like pub ramblings if you listen with a certain ear.
                  Havnt heard much Zoot. It would be interesting to hear how he would compare himself to Syd.

                  Comment

                  • Michael Moorcock
                    Site Host
                    • Dec 2003
                    • 14278

                    #10
                    Totally different musicians, of course. Zoot was an R&B performer through and through while Syd was an inspired 'natural' I suppose you'd say. I would also say that certain music works to bring things out of the listener in spite of not being formally especially well-structured and that probably has as much to do with the inherent creativity of the listener as the composer. I'm always impressed by how much creativity readers or listeners bring to my stuff, for instance. This isn't to minimise the talents of the performer, but to celebrate, if you like, the innate inspiration of the audience.

                    Pre-order or Buy my latest titles in Europe:
                    The Whispering Swarm: Book One of the Sanctuary of the White Friars - The Laughter of Carthage - Byzantium Endures - London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction
                    Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles - Kizuna: Fiction for Japan - Modem Times 2.0 - The Sunday Books - The Sundered Worlds


                    Pre-order or Buy my latest titles in the USA:
                    The Laughter of Carthage - Byzantium Endures - London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction - The Sunday Books - Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles
                    Kizuna: Fiction for Japan - The Sundered Worlds - The Winds of Limbo - Modem Times 2.0 - Elric: Swords and Roses

                    Comment

                    • greengryphon
                      Citizen of Tanelorn
                      • Nov 2006
                      • 255

                      #11
                      Synergy

                      Dependant on how "tuned in" the audience and artist is.



                      Music is an excellent motive for aesthetic contemplation. The sensual appeal of its melodies, rhythms, timbres and sounds is a temptation to forget the usual functions of our senses as instruments of purpose-oriented recognition and action temporarily and instead to focus our attention on the wealth of the moment which is normally dismissed as irrelevant. This performance-oriented form of perception as an end in itself raises the moment out of the passing time and thus satisfies our need for ,experiences of presence" (Gumbrecht 2003, p. 201ff.).
                      Taken from :-

                      http://www.musictherapyworld.net/modules/mmmagazine/

                      Comment

                      • greengryphon
                        Citizen of Tanelorn
                        • Nov 2006
                        • 255

                        #13
                        Attar of roses

                        "In the garden mystery glows
                        The secret is hidden in the Rose".
                        Farid ud-Din Attar

                        Comment

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