Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Blues: black, white... and red? (I)

One of the most fascinating aspects in the history of American popular music is the origin of blues music. Having been put at the centre of most of 20th century popular music, the seed of a mass phenomenon such as rock, the contrast with its humble origins in the Mississippi Delta give an epic air to a genre which is already elating and gut-wrenching in itself. If it's also considered as the musical undercurrent of the kidnapping, the trans-Atlantic trip, and slavery of Africans and their descendants in America, mythification is hard to avoid.

Moreover, on top of this myth a sediment has formed which hardly lets any room for legitimate discussion regarding the origins of this musical genre, a sort of thick dogma compressed by considerations on authenticity. These are always useless, because if we consider history to be a film, authenticity is, at best, just a frame, a random image chosen according to a number of prejudices, selected to be an absolute and non-negotiable model against which the rest of the film is humbly compared. I say at best because normally authenticity isn't even a frame in the film, it's just an idealized utopian past.

Charley Patton - "I Shall Not Be Moved"

In some unproven way, blues is supposed to have been the musical baggage of slaves brought from Africa to America and their descendants. In the beginning, it was just purely a black thing, then it went losing its purity because of white influence of European origin. If we extrapolate that imagined trajectory, the origins of blues would lay in Africa. For a number of reasons, among them the choking and very real presence of racism in the US, the study and debate on what we know as the blues are constrained by some solid barriers. For instance: when it is insisted so much on the black/white racial dichotomy in American music, aren't we forgetting someone?

What about Native Americans?

In simple terms, when Whites got to North America, the Indians were already there. When Whites brought Blacks from Africa to America, Indians were still there, and all of them met (some Indians even kept slaves). Bearing in mind that Indians had their own musical traditions, and that the blues (and other musics) have only cropped up in the US, shouldn't we ask whether the Indians had something to do with it?

Well, even so, this is not a matter on which there's so much literature as far as I know. There's a recent book called The Guitar and the New World, by Joe Gioia (unrelated to music writer Ted Gioia), devoted at least in part to these issues. Since an excerpt has been published on line, I got in touch with Gioia and the publishers, and they have kindly granted permission to reproduce that bit of text (and translate it into Spanish).

The book itself is a good read, well-written and engaging. It's not quite so much a scholarly text, but it rather has a very personal slant that allows the author to thread through his family history, from Sicily to the US, his own relationship with the guitar, and the presence of Native Americans in American music.

Without further ado, this is the first part (of three) of the excerpt (you can read all of it at UTNE).

Hey, Hey

No question, something new was at large in America in 1901—a sense of greater mysteries floating above prevailing ideas of science and progress. The same summer [the Pan-American Exposition in] Buffalo held dueling visions of technology and magic, William James presented his Edinburgh lectures that became The Varieties of Religious Experience, which argued in favor of what James called a “pluralistic universe,” one in which the Christian God might compete on equal terms with other supernatural beings. Also that summer, James’s Harvard colleague, the anthropologist Charles Peabody, while excavating a pre-Columbian Indian mound in the Mississippi Delta at Coahoma, became, he said, distracted by strange music. Professor Peabody is not remembered now for any artifacts he uncovered, but for what he discovered in the air, what he called the “extraordinary” songs of the black men working for him.

Two years later, in “Notes on Negro Music,” published in the Journal of American Folklore, Peabody said the men’s singing was unlike anything he’d heard before, something he described as “autochthonous music [of which] it is hard to give an exact account”:
The music of the Negroes . . . may be put under three heads: The songs sung by our men when at work digging . . . unaccompanied; the songs of the same men at quarters or on the march, with guitar accompaniment; and the songs, unaccompanied, of the indigenous Negroes. 
(By “indigenous” he meant the men hired in Coahoma rather than those brought from Clarksdale, ten miles away.) Peabody noted the popularity of hymns and that the guitar playing “was mostly ragtime with the instrument seldom venturing beyond the inversions of the three chords of a few major and minor keys.”

Of great interest to later folklorists was Peabody’s remark that, in the song of one mule driver in particular, he heard “strains of apparently genuine African music. . . . Long phrases that were without apparent measured rhythm, singularly hard to copy in notes.”

One evening Peabody heard a woman singing a lullaby “weird in interval and strange in rhythm; peculiarly beautiful,” and compared it to something like contemporary Greek singing, albeit “better done.” There was another singer, 
a very old Negro employed on the plantation of Mr. John Stovall of Stovall, Mississippi . . . His voice as he sang had a timbre resembling a bagpipe played pianissimo or a jews harp played legato, and to some indistinguishable words he hummed a rhythm of no regularity and notes of apparently not more than three or more [sic] in number at intervals within a semitone. The effect again was monotonous but weird, not far from Japanese. 
When researchers in the 1960s began an academic search for the roots of blues music, Peabody’s account was considered crucial evidence of time and place. Stovall and the neighboring Dockery plantation were already recognized to be the home ground for a generation of musicians born between 1880 and 1910 who made records that embody what has been regarded by many later listeners as the essential blues: a black man’s conjuring of hard times with a voice and a guitar.

However, Peabody had qualified his observations in “Notes” with a word that music writers tend to ignore. He wrote “apparently” when citing “genuine African origin.” Going forward, the assumption has been that the music could only be African. Left unconsidered also is exactly how much African music Peabody was familiar with. More definitely, he had compared what he heard to Japanese music, which, considering the nineteenth-century fad for oriental arts in elite Victorian Boston, was probably something he had at least a passing familiarity with, if only by way of The Mikado. More likely Peabody imputed African origin to what he heard strictly on the basis of the skin color of the singers.

The other renowned early account of the blues was written by W. C. Handy in his 1941 autobiography, ambitiously titled The Father of the Blues. In 1903 he was a coronet and guitar player leading a small Delta dance orchestra when one night, stuck in the train station at Tutwiler, Mississippi, about thirty miles south of Coahoma and fifteen miles outside Clarksdale,
A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly. 
Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog. 
The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard. 
Handy and Peabody are usually paired in books like this one as clear evidence of a vivid music unique to the Mississippi Delta. Handy called it “a kind of earth-born music.” Earth-born is exactly synonymous with autochthonous, which is a synonym for indigenous. Somewhat undercutting his claim to be the music’s father, and the theory of others that it originated in the Delta, Handy also said that it was “familiar throughout the southland.”

Peabody’s trenchdiggers and Handy’s depot guitarist are essential figures in a folklore describing how music rooted in African modalities and created by Mississippi sharecroppers was captured in the recordings of Delta performers, that it was part of the great black migration to the north, especially to Chicago, where it took on an electric, sexy, big-city throb that captured the imaginations of young white people as nothing quite had before. Next stop on the narrative is, inevitably, how it gave birth to rock ’n’ roll.

That broad outline is fundamentally correct. But like most broad outlines, it hides a lot. For example, after decades of looking, no one has ever discovered any musical forms in Africa that can be considered to be the clear and unambiguous roots of the blues.

The writer Francis Davis puts it succinctly in The History of the Blues: “[T]o hear the blues as a west African import creates its own share of confusion. In the absence of recorded evidence, we can’t even trace the blues back to slavery, much less Africa.” Blues historians, erring on the side of caution, date the birth of the form to the late nineteenth century, in the wake of reconstruction. As Davis notes, “Even [W.C.] Handy . . . goes on to allow that his ‘fondness for that sort of thing’ began a decade or so earlier.”

(go to part II)

Posted by permission from The Guitar and the New World: A Fugitive History by Joe Gioia, the State University of New York Press ©2013, State University of New York. All rights reserved.