Wednesday, July 17, 2013

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

Second part of the excerpt from the chapter entitled "Hey, Hey", taken from Joe Gioia's The Guitar and the New World. In the previous part the author pointed out the two early 20th century seminal accounts from which all blues historiography emanates, Charles Peabody's and W. C. Handy's, and how from there its origins have been linked to slavery or even to Africa without any solid evidence to prove it.

Thanks to Joe Gioia and his publisher for granting permission for me to translate this text and publish it here. The complete excerpt is readily available on line at the UTNE Reader website.


If the music was, as Handy said, “familiar throughout the southland,” then its origin may well be much earlier than the late nineteenth century, to a time when the Delta was still the haunt of Indian, panther, and bear. Historically, the ubiquity of the music has been credited to itinerant musicians in the minstrel and medicine shows that toured the rural south, playing to black and white audiences, from the 1840s until the Great Depression. Increasing rail connections in the same period, where track miles more than doubled in the South between 1880 and 1890, are also considered an influence.

But we must guard against mistaking catalyst for cause. While increased communication between once-isolated communities undoubtedly helped musical styles evolve, it does not explain why Handy felt the music was at once so familiar and so weird.

By 1925, as Elijah Wald relates in his fine book Escaping the Delta, the blues was already a national pop music fad, having begun a few years earlier as a haunting song style of certain female vocal entertainers, mainly, but not exclusively, black: big stars like Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter, Sophie Tucker, and Bessie Smith. If Scott Fitzgerald can be taken as an authority, the blues captured a national mood of sadness and drift among the nation’s youth in the wake of World War I. The success of blues records encouraged companies to seek out similar material from a variety of artists.

With the advent of the electronic microphone in 1925, the old harsh, nasal style of singing, useful at a time when singers had to be heard in noisy places, gave way for subtler vocal effects, including quietly sung phrases, spoken asides, and falsetto vocals. In his book Deep Blues, the writer Robert Palmer notes specifically that falsetto singing is an African effect. Bantu vocalizing, he wrote, “includes whooping, or sudden jumping into falsetto range, which seems to derive from the pygmies who were the area’s original inhabitants.”

In raising the idea of an indigenous geographic influence on musical style, Palmer never considers what connection Peabody’s ditchdiggers, with whom he begins Deep Blues, may have had with the original inhabitants of Coahoma County. Neither does he mention that falsetto singing is also a feature of Native American music, where it represents the voices of spirits.

One senses something in Palmer’s writing that the author can’t quite name. Consider his description of Muddy Waters, born McKinley Morganfield, on the occasion of Waters’s first recording session, in a shack in Stovall in 1940, for the song collector Alan Lomax: “Muddy was a vigorous twenty-six-year old,” Palmer writes, “with high cheekbones and cool hooded eyes, features that lent him a certain Oriental inscrutability.”

The question of North America’s original, or indigenous, inhabitants hardly ever comes up in popular histories of American music, the assumption being that the land inhabited by the European arrivals, and their slaves, had been mainly clear of earlier people and empty of song. Africa and the British Isles were seen as the only possible sources of the music that evolved from that place and time. The possibility that the musical traditions of indigenous peoples might be central to American harmony has never been articulated, much less considered at length.

This is pretty remarkable, not only because so many of the musicians—black, white, and brown—had pronounced Native American roots, but by the given historical details of the settlement of the North American continent. Professor Peabody’s reactions to the workmen’s songs—“monotonous” and “weird,” he said—is pretty much how Europeans described American Indian music. That Peabody may have been closer to the mark when he said the music sounded Asian is, for many, counterintuitive.

Between 1600 and 1840, three cultures—Native American, African, and European—each with a highly evolved choral tradition, came to encounter one another, in war and peace, by choice and under duress, in the old and new settlements of the vast American interior east of the Mississippi. To assume that only one of these cultures predominated in how the music evolved, or that another had no influence whatsoever, flies not only against logic but also in the face of any practical knowledge about how musicians work.

Consider also how connected to the specific landscape the Indigenous tradition would have been. If any musical style prevailed, it was probably the one that reflected the strangeness of the new land to those who had only recently, either by force or choice, arrived there; one that also reflected the despair, the blues, of those who saw the old way of life die.

Our accepted history says the blues is of African origin, and that any blue notes heard on early country music records, and there are a lot of high and lonesome twangs, got there by way of black musicians that the white musicians heard.

But something about that accepted history doesn’t add up. After almost half a century of extensive research and, beginning in the 1960s, a wave of associated books, blues antecedents in Africa remain undocumented. Though certain traditions of musicianship, along with the banjo, can be traced there, nobody’s proved that the regular rhythms, tonic intervals, vocal techniques, and the individual let-me-tell-you-how-things-are-with-me at the heart of blues music are originally African. Contemporary writers, such as Bruce Cook, Francis Davis, Elijah Wald, and Marybeth Hamilton, have maintained for over a decade that the origin of the blues is empirically unknowable, that the idea that the blues is even a distinct musical form is a nostalgic social fiction created by white songcatchers and record collectors.

Hundreds of blues songs were recorded in the 1920s and ’30s by black and white rural musicians from one end of the South to the other, the tip of an aural history that stretches back into the acoustic past, the music of churches, dance halls, political campaigns, neighborhood socials, minstrels, and medicine shows.

And given the ubiquity of the music across the South, and the flexibility of its form, we might consider if, rather than being transmitted from blacks to whites, the blues had been gained commonly by both; and that what we now call blues and country music are divergent branches of a single root, one indigenous to North America.

The blues—the popular twentieth-century song form—came first from the blues, a way of feeling in music. The flattened notes and vocal swoops, those high and lonesome sounds, sung by some as a hoot and by others like a yodel, were heard in Texas and Oklahoma, Virginia and Tennessee. Those sounds varied, of course, from region to region, depending on what different people wanted to hear, but not so much as to be unrecognizable.

There was, indeed, something like a shock of recognition when phonograph records finally let people at one end of the South hear music from the other. Black people in Arkansas enjoyed country stars like Jimmie Rodgers and Uncle Dave Macon. One mountain musician, Roscoe Holcomb, years later recalled first hearing a blues record by Blind Lemon Jefferson, a black man from Texas, and feeling something inside himself set free.

In 1929, some Creek musicians from Oklahoma, Big Chief Henry’s Indian String Band, recorded a novelty record called “Indian Tom Tom,” a sprightly, two-and-a-half-minute number with a bouncy Native American chant backed by a swinging fiddle and guitar. What’s so interesting about the song is not the melding of two putatively unrelated styles, but how easily the older form fits into the newer one.

So there might be something wrong with our history. The hidden story of American music is spread, like dinosaur bones in the Gobi, in plain sight across a landscape of old 78s. And if those bones have not been noticed, it’s because people decided they shouldn’t be.

(go to part III)
(back to part I)

Big Chief Henry's Indian String Band — “Indian Tom Tom”
Recorded in Dallas, Texas, on October 14, 1929
(ten days before the Crash of 1929)

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.

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