Friday, April 20, 2007

The fake folk blues

"... that peculiar hard core [of folk song lovers] who seem to equate authenticity with artistic merit and illiteracy with charm." -- Tom Lehrer

Today I came across two interesting links on Arts and Letters Daily. The first is a review by Adam Gopnik of a biography of Kingsley Amis, who wrote the brilliant "Lucky Jim" and some execrable later books. It talks of Lucky Jim's "bracing contempt for culture and higher education" and cultural pretences; but continues:
Hating pretentiousness is a bracing sentiment in "Lucky Jim," but it jumps easily to the philistinism of "Pseuds Corner" in Private Eye, where not just babies but whole generations of first-borns get tossed out with the bathwater. It is a very good thing to have a built-in bullshit detector, but a bad thing when the bullshit detector crowds out the rest of your brain; that's why they call it being narrow-minded. You quickly reach the stage where anything ambitious, complicated, or merely foreign gets spat on along with the things that are genuinely phony. Pretense and ambition are different words for the same thing, and a writing without pretense pretty soon becomes a literature without ambitions, content to congratulate itself on its own insularity. Blimpishness is not a step away; it is all you have left.

The second link is a review of a book by Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor, "Faking it: the quest for authenticity in popular music", and connects directly -- especially in the sections on the folk blues -- with the Tom Lehrer quote above, and indirectly with the Amis article.

But let me preface with why I found it interesting. I find the blues fascinating as a style in jazz and in rock. Whether it's Louis Armstrong singing "Basin Street blues", or the Modern Jazz Quartet playing "Willow weep for me", or the Allmans playing "Statesboro blues", it's all up there with some of the most amazing music I've ever heard. But when a "peculiar hard core" of people say "the blues", they don't mean these people. They mean a particular subcategory of musicians, mainly from the Mississippi Delta in the 1930s and 1940s -- people such as Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson -- and their successors into the electric blues era of the 1950s, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, B B King, Willie Dixon and others.

Some of the electric blues is fun, in the way rock and roll is fun. But it gets way too repetitive for my tastes. And as for the acoustic blues -- not only can't these people hold a tune (nor could the electric guys), they can't even keep time! This is music?

It was especially strange to me since the blues had been clearly defined as a genre since at least the early 1900s, and people like Bessie Smith had made masterly recordings of blues songs by the 1920s. (These recordings are still available.) Why the regression, then, into a crude "delta blues" in the 1930s?

Messrs Barker and Taylor have the answer, and it stunned me. Here are some quotes from the review.
Leadbelly, Barker and Taylor reveal, was by necessity a master of "faking it", a sophisticated musician of cosmopolitan taste limited to a repertoire of "Negro" songs and told by his manager to perform in prison garb. That manager was John Lomax, one of the early 20th-century giants of what has come to be known as "roots music". "The music that was, for Lomax, the most authentic," write the authors, "the most black, the most free from 'white influence', was the most primitive." That doesn't mean Leadbelly was primitive, only that Lomax and, decades later, Cobain decided to believe that he was, the better to break the bonds of artificiality they felt modernity and celebrity imposed. Leadbelly was a tool. This shifty truth comes to us by way not of postmodernism, but of old-timey Marxist analysis. In 1937, the novelist Richard Wright, profiling Leadbelly for the Daily Worker, declared his coerced performances "one of the greatest cultural swindles in history".

But that's not quite right, either. Wright recognised Lomax's manipulation of Leadbelly (who later successfully sued Lomax), but he assumed there was a genuine Leadbelly behind the music, a real black expression minstrel-ised by the white man. In fact, many of Leadbelly's songs came from white folks, who'd learned them from black musicians, who'd composed them with African inflections as reinterpreted by white musicians eager to add "floating" rhythms to the marching beat of Scots-Irish reels. The strongest argument of Faking It is for the endless "miscegenation" of music. Great popular music is always a collage of cultures, while the quest for authenticity all too often functions as a means of policing racial boundaries.

Jazz is a collage of cultures that emerged as a coherent style in the 1910s, and as a respectable art form in the 1920s. Jazz musicians took the blues well beyond the crude 3-chord format it started with: particularly with Charlie Parker and others in the bebop era, the standard 12 bars of a blues "chorus" became a maze of substitutions on those basic 3 chords.

Meanwhile, the "folk blues" actually regressed on what Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith had already achieved. The Delta blues, it seems, were a mistaken step backwards in the quest for "authenticity". And who were responsible? Not the musicians: it was the record companies, the same people who are responsible for Britney Spears today. And it was marketed to people whose finely tuned "bullshit detectors" (to use Gopnik's phrase) steered them away from the pretentiousness of "serious" twentieth-century music, and into quite another form of bullshit.

The review continues:
Consider the case of Mississippi John Hurt, the subject of the book's longest and most powerful essay. First, there's his name: Mississippi was an add-on from the record company. Then there's his reputation as a patriarch of the Delta blues: Hurt wasn't from the Mississippi Delta and he insisted he wasn't a blues musician. And then there is the problem of his blackness, thought by the white fans who rediscovered him in the 1960s to be pure and profound ("Uncle Remus come to life," write the authors). When Hurt was "discovered" the first time, he was performing for black and white audiences backed by a white fiddler and a white guitar player who also happened to be the local sheriff. He recorded blues because the record company insisted he do so. Meanwhile, Jimmie Rodgers, a white musician who happened to be a bluesman, recorded what came to be known as "country" music because the blues were reserved by the market for black men. One more twist: when Harry Smith included two of Hurt's songs on his great Smithsonian Folk Anthology, most listeners mistook the black musician for a white hillbilly.

The term "folk" itself presents more problems. Until 1949, country music was simply "folk", as was much "black" music. Racism was the centrifuge that separated them...

Fascinating stuff. I think I'll buy the book (which also apparently has caustic comments on the authenticity of contemporary musicians, from John Lennon to Nirvana).

(PS - That's post number 100.)

Addendum: The second review, and my review of the review, may give the impression that the folk blues musicians were all sophisticated musicians with wide interests and influences who got pigeonholed by John Lomax. This may have been true of Leadbelly and John Hurt, and not true of others like Robert Johnson. That is to say, there really was a "Mississippi Delta blues" style in the 1930s, which should have remained in that place and that decade, but was pushed by the record companies and later picked up by aspiring rockers; and because it existed, black musicians like Leadbelly were straitjacketed into it, while whites like Jimmie Rodgers were forcibly labelled into other styles.


Tabula Rasa said...

Wait, are you saying that none of Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, B B King, or Willie Dixon could hold a tune?

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Umm... what tune?

km said...

Rahul: that's a great post and you better get your boxing gloves out :D

To be continued.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

km - thanks and I have my asbestos vest on... but other than TR, I'm not sure how many blues fans read my blog.

Tabula Rasa said...

you heartless man. i'd *told* aunty it was a mistake to allow you to watch channel v.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

TR - try harder. (Eg, "i'd *told* aunty it was a mistake to allow you to that arty classical stuff." or, "are you saying dylan can carry a tune?" etc.)

Tabula Rasa said...

ha! that's trying easier, not harder.

Anonymous said...

musicians can often speak for themselves.........,%20John%20Hurt%20Interview.mp3

wildflower seed said...

sorry, that link didnt come out right. go here :

and click on "06 - Pete Seeger...."


Rahul Siddharthan said...

ws - thanks for the link, but it's kind of difficult: my home connection is a bit too slow for a 72 MB download, and it seems too long to listen to at work (I'm spending limited hours in office these days). Any idea whether a transcript exists?

Anonymous said...

sorry, rahul. no transcript. first thing john says on that interview is that he was born and raised in mississippi (teoc and avalon, respectively), so i dont know how to square that with the claim "Hurt wasnt from the Mississippi Delta"

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Hm, Wikipedia says the same. Looks like a goof by either the authors or reviewers. But his music, from what I know (which isn't much), doesn't seem like traditional 12-bar blues: it had country and folk elements in it.

Anonymous said...


I have the book, and I believe it's the reviewer's mistake. The writers describe Hurt as coming from the Delta, or at least from the 'edge of the Delta'. A sample quote: "Time magazine called him "the most important rediscovered folk singer to come out of Mississippi's Delta country, the traditional home of Negro country blues singers" even though Hurt lived in predominantly white Carroll County.'

The point they are emphasizing is that Hurt learned to play his music in a very mixed environment, often learning styles and songs from the white musicians he played with. Whereas the blues revival emphasized the notion that blues came out of an essentially black environment, the truth is it was much more mixed. White singers played blues as well, and record companies only wanted blues from black artists - Hurt didn't even sound like a 'Delta bluesman' - he could equally have been identified as a kind of country/folk artist but the racial segregation of genres was created by the record company and he could only be perceived as a bluesman.

(Interesting blog, by the way).

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Thalia - thanks. Would you recommend buying the book?

Anonymous said...

I'll declare an interest here - I know one of the authors slightly, which is why I got the book.

But having confessed that, yes I would recommend the book. I don't agree with every point they make, but it is a thoughtful argument, often very interesting, and makes a lot of points I hadn't really thought about before reading it.

At the least it is a book that challenges a lot of the ideas about music that we take for granted.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Yes, the quotes you supply and the parts of the review pertaining to the blues sound interesting. The parts that deal with contemporary rock/pop sound less convincing, but no doubt I need to read the book. I'll order it soon.

Thanks for the comments!

Anonymous said...

do you honestly believe that people like charley patton or son house or are musically inept, tuneless, expressionless minstrel men coerced into recording what they did by the record company honchos? if so i will gladly leave you to the allman brothers and whatever swill you prefer to infect your ears with. i'll be happy with the memphis jug band. it seems slightly absurd to claim the coersion of mississippi john hurt and leadbelly and stake a claim to a greater "authenticity" based upon these sources and deny the actual artifacts of their music that exists now. perhaps it doesn't strike your fancy. if so, we'll call it a matter of taste. though listen to the memphis jug band or dixieland jug blowers or many others and tell me that its all a tuneless musically unsophistaced mess, as you seem to imply, and i'll show you a backwards set of ears. but to dismiss the "fake" delta blues outright seems a bit foolish. go listen charley patton or skip james or bukka white and tell me that its all an out of tune absurdity (not to mention the unbeatable blind blake, perhaps the greatest guitar player we could ever see, someone whos rages show musical radicalism and innovation at all turns) if you truly believe so, and maintain the allman brothers as some form of great blues, well, i'll know to dismiss your views outright from now on. and it isn't a question of "authenticity" its a question of talent. i'll stand by the holy modal rounders, bob dylan, townes van zandt, jim kweskin and numerous others as those that have the same acheivment of musical genuis as a patton or son house or skip james anyday.

Anonymous said...

fyi: if you think the best part of "basin street blues" is the singing i'm at a loss. listen again, paying attention at the 2:00 mark, and especially the moments at 2:14-2:33 and the change at 2:33. still think the singing is the best part? then i give up

Anonymous said...

fyi: if you think the best part of "basin street blues" is the singing i'm at a loss. listen again, paying attention at the 2:00 mark, and especially the moments at 2:14-2:33 and the change at 2:33. still think the singing is the best part? then i give up

Rahul Siddharthan said...

gregkite - charlie patton (from what little i've heard) seems like an endorsement of the idea that there was no "pure" "black" mississippi delta blues. Not only does he sound nothing like later bluesmen (eg Robert Johnson) but his race was ambiguous too. And from what I can tell, he owed nothing to record companies. Son House -- what I've heard him is indeed the sort of "official" delta blues that I don't find very musical, but maybe he started out differently.

it isn't a question of "authenticity" its a question of talent.

That's my point too.

Anonymous said...

I think there's a confusion here in positing the ideal and the myth of "authenticity" on both sides. On one hand you're saying these musicians were manipulated at the hands of record companies and thus aren't "authentic" and on the other you dismiss the concept outright. It can't go both ways. To say John Hurt isn't "authentic" and then say the question of this "authenticity" is bullshit anyways is to negate basis of the first critique. "I don't like it and if the reason you do is reason a , well, reason a is bullshit so I'm right on both accounts." And further, to deny the marketplace, or whatever term, in any musical form is a bit idealistic. Music, etc. doesn't exist in a vacuum and the idealisation of the authentic as you put forth here wishes so. King Oliver, Bessie Smith, whomever, existed within similar exterior circumstances.
You may prefer one form to another but to only call upon the forces outside musical creation, as a dismissal, in one instance and not acknowledge that different forms of "manipulation" or shaping exist is to perpetuate this idea of authenticity you wish to negate.
I agree that in the blues revival etc there was manipulation and pigeonholing and such in the idea of blues players but one can acknowledge this and not use it as a means to dismiss outright.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

greg -- one isn't dismissing the concept of authenticity, one is dismissing the value of the concept. It seems to me you agree there.

There may be high-quality "authentic" folk music of any persuasion (that is, played the way it has long been traditionally played in that community). In that sense, the delta blues, even if "authentic", isn't a particularly ancient tradition. But authenticity does not imply quality (or lack of quality, either) -- it's just an unrelated concept.

When a music company pigeonholes an artist like Leadbelly or John Hurt as a "black Mississippi Delta bluesman" and forces him to perform in a certain way, in the name of authenticity -- I think one has every right to complain, even if one liked the results. Imagine what they could have recorded if they had been free to choose.