By Marybeth Hamilton (Jonathan Cape)
Marybeth Hamilton did not go down to the crossroads in search of the blues. She went there to turn clichés upside down. Her groundbreaking book doesn’t pretend to be a history of the genre; instead Hamilton goes in search of those who originally went in search of the blues. She describes the early song-collectors, ethnomusicologists and record obsessives, and examines how their work evolved into an accepted, party line on how the blues came down from the Delta. All had different agendas but one thing in common: they were after an authentic voice, one that existed before sheet music or the wax cylinder.
Her earliest Livingston to explore the unmapped Southern musical jungle is white sociologist Howard Odum who in 1906 ventured out to record “coon songs”. He accidentally recorded the blues in a condition regarded by collectors as the Holy Grail: in its natural state, before record companies got to it. But, appalled by the licentiousness and degradation he witnessed, Odum transcribed his cylinders then threw them away.
Twenty years later, Dorothy Scarborough followed in Odum’s footsteps. She was a daughter of the Confederacy, nostalgic for the days when the plantation was allegedly a source of transcendent singing. She was much more comfortable transcribing the memories of elderly whites who had learnt to sing and dance from their beloved black mammies. Scarborough was appalled by WC Handy – he commercialised the blues – and turned down the opportunity to be the first musicologist to hear Leadbelly.
Instead, John Lomax exposed Leadbelly’s “pure” blues outside the prison walls, and with his son Alan – who discovered Muddy Waters – the Lomaxes became the century’s most famous ethnomusicologists. But for all the good they achieved, their methods are now regarded with scepticism. Lomax senior was paternalistic and wanted to keep Leadbelly’s music uncontaminated (no Gene Autry songs, please). Lomax junior was more of a political activist – he fled the US during McCarthyism, the FBI on his tail – but he still gave himself the copyrights to traditional songs.
Hamilton portrays John McKune as the original record-collecting misanthrope, always looking for a 78 that was primeval, authentic and preferably unknown. McKune championed Charley Patton over the romanticised Robert Johnson but, like the latter, he died mysteriously: his body was found gagged, bound and naked, his legendary record collection nowhere to be found.
Hamilton describes how McKune’s acolytes – the 1960s “blues mafia” – lead to the Delta blues enjoying its “most authentic” status, despite the evidence that 1940s Delta jukeboxes were playing 78s by Count Basie and Fats Waller rather than local bluesmen.
Scratch a folkie in search of the authentic and a feud quickly rises to the surface. Hamilton shows the Delta blues became far more popular long after its 1930s heyday, thanks to the white evangelists – although their uncompromising, hypocritical attitudes would have banished blacks to reservations, as long as the music stayed pure. In just 200 dense, fascinating pages, Hamilton’s intellectual rigour causes us to reconsider the evolution of the 20th century’s most influential musical style. - Chris Bourke