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The Genius of Blues

Charlie Patton’s biographers, Calt and Wardlow, are singularly unimpressed by the search for the deep origins of the blues and seem to view as sentimental any approach to the music that is geared to anything but individual talents. They do not mince words. John A. Lomax, they write, was “obtuse and unimaginative,” an “ideologue” whose researches were determined by his “idee fixe…to document the survival of the ‘field holler’ and work song.” They judge Lomax Sr.’s spending four days recording convicts at Parchman Farm in 1933, while ignoring Patton, who was still alive nearby, to have been the height of irresponsibility. To appreciate their indignation in context it is important to realize that we are lucky to have any recordings of Patton, or of any other early blues artist, at all. The first wave of recordings of Delta musicians does not precede 1927, peaks around 1929, and gradually peters out during the early years of the Depression. The commercial recordings made by black Mississippians during this period were made possible by just two men, the only two talent scouts in the state who took any interest in the blues, Ralph Lembo of Itta Bena and H.C. Speir of Jackson. There is no question that each possessed an exceptional ear, and that Speir in particular took extraordinary chances on difficult and unobvious talents, but nevertheless the potential for artists to slip through the cracks was large.

The recording companies presented their own set of obstacles. Country blues records were generally intended for sale only to black people in the South, and they were not engineered, manufactured, or marketed with the greatest care. One of the chief producers of “race” records in that period was Paramount, a division of the Wisconsin Chair Company of Port Washington, Wisconsin (and no relation of later companies bearing the same name). The Wisconsin Chair Company went “race” only because the sound quality of its records was so inferior that white record store owners would not stock them. The records were so cheaply made that they would sometimes wear out after just fifty plays; at the then-exorbitant price of 75å¢ a throw this was a thankless proposition. Small wonder, then, that the records have become such rarities. Since unsold records were destroyed, only the very biggest hits have survived in appreciable numbers. Numerous are the legendary sides known today only as listings in company catalogs. Only one copy is known to exist of a major Son House number, “Preachin’ the Blues,” and its condition is so bad that even on digitally remastered CDs it is barely listenable.

Charlie Patton was sufficiently popular in his own time that all the records that were issued under his name have survived in at least one or two reasonably good copies. The unissued titles, however, are gone forever, as are the master recordings, so that what we are left with is the equivalent of a great painter’s entire corpus being known exclusively through black-and-white photographs. And Patton, scarcely a household word even these days, was without question a great artist, a fully conscious experimentalist and a highly sophisticated formal innovator, a genuine modernist despite the fact that he hardly ever lived outside plantations in Sunflower and Bolivar counties, Mississippi. His life was both hectic and constricted:he played music, took up with women, got into fights, migrated around a patch of the Delta. He survived having his throat slit at a house frolic in 1933, only to die of heart failure the following year, at the age of forty-three. He was tremendously influential—nearly every Delta bluesman of the Twenties and Thirties attempted some variation on his “Pony Blues”—but for all that inimitable. Among his breakthroughs:

He was seemingly the only blues guitarist of the age who could completely rearrange material. He recorded the only blues song (Screamin’ and Hollerin’) with a basically improvisatory melody, the only dance blues without a constantly repeating melody (Pony Blues), and the only dance song that had appreciable instrumental variations (Screamin’ and Hollerin’, with its three bass lines).

His singing sounds rough, unpolished, except on the numbers where he nearly croons, so that the roughness had to have been deliberate. He enjoyed turning out variations on the blues trick of making the guitar take over the vocal part. According to a contemporary: “He had one piece he used to play a stanza out of every song he played, each song; put it together, and make a song out of that”—i.e., he constructed a song from fragments of his repertoire. Patton was an entertainer at house frolics and juke joints, remembered by some of his contemporaries chiefly for his “clowning,” playing the guitar behind his back or over his head, if not for his propensity for getting in trouble, getting thrown in jail, getting ejected from plantations, and yet as an artist he made dense, intricate, difficult work.

Calt and Wardlow are appropriately tough in their defense of Patton. They are alert to the many reductive ways Patton has been or can be lumped or dismissed or even praised. They will simply not accept any guff about his having been a folk musician, part of a tradition, a participant in collective creation, etc. They have done the research, invested the legwork, subjected the evidence to analysis, refused to indulge in airy generalities. Unfortunately, they also seem to feel that Patton cannot be given his due without every other Delta musician being correspondingly brought down several pegs. Perhaps none was the equal of Patton, but all have their value: Tommy Johnson had a delicate, sinuous delivery with a hypnotic edge; Son House was intense, passionate, single-minded; Skip James was simply ineffable, suggesting his structures with the most minimal strokes; Howlin’ Wolf’s voice was, in the words of Sam Phillips, “where the soul of man never dies.” All of them are variously dissed by Calt and Wardlow; Wolf is called a “parasite.”

Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Burnett) is the outside man in this series, the late bloomer. A contemporary of Robert Johnson’s and a resident of Dockery’s Plantation, where Patton spent much of his life, Wolf farmed with his father until he was nearly forty. He moved north not long after becoming a professional musician and came into his own in Chicago in the 1950s. For others, the spin of the Delta policy wheel was not as fortunate. Patton died of heart failure at forty-three. Tommy Johnson hung on until the age of sixty despite a bad drinking problem, but never recorded again after the early 1930s. Skip James and Son House both disappeared from view, James after a single recording session in 1931, House after having been lost and found a couple of times. Both were tracked down by enthusiasts in the 1960s and along with a number of other elderly blues artists were able to ride the fads of that era and live out their lives as professional musicians. Many others are just names, such as the leading musicians of the generation before Patton: Henry Sloan, D. Irvin, Mott Willis, Cap Holmes, Jake Martin, Jack Hicks; or Robert Johnson’s teacher Ike Zinneman. Or there are those who recorded only three or four sides, which hint at things we’ll never know: Garfield Akers, Rubin Lacy, William Harris, Elvie Thomas, George “Bullet” Williams, Louise Johnson, Freddie Spruell, Kid Bailey.

The 1960s came too late for them. For those aged blues musicians who benefited from the revival, the experience must have nevertheless been disconcerting. When a collector showed up at the house of Mississippi John Hurt in 1963, saying, “We’ve been looking for you for years,” Hurt, who thought his visitor was an FBI agent, said, “You got the wrong man! I ain’t done nothing mean.” The Sixties revival came about as a result of the conjunction of the civil rights movement, the coffeehouse folk scene, and the efforts of a generation of enthusiasts, particularly the collectors who canvassed door-to-door in black neighborhoods in the South, looking for rare Gennett or Black Patti or Paramount 78s. Half of the books considered here are direct products of that tendency—Calt, Wardlow, and Lawrence Cohn (whose Roots and Blues reissue series on CBS/Sony draws heavily on his personal collection of 78s) were especially prominent in blues-connoisseur circles of the 1960s. The books benefit from the passion and the scholarship that the collectors brought to their pursuit, but at least in the case of Calt and Wardlow they do not altogether avoid the thirst for ownership prevalent in that crowd.

Calt and Wardlow’s defense of Patton against all comers is understandable, given his true stature and the neglect and distortion his reputation has suffered, but their monomania begins to sound proprietary. If they were writing about a Romantic poet or a Surrealist painter it would sound just as proprietary, but here there is no getting away from the fact that they are whites writing about a black figure, marginal in his own day. Of course, all these books were written by whites; the amount of black writing on the blues is minuscule, and the few pieces that come to mind, by Albert Murray or Sterling Brown, for example, are mostly concerned with jazz. Even Amiri Baraka’s Blues People has little to do with the blues per se (it is a tract, from the perspective of the early Sixties, on the sociology of black music). The reasons for this absence are complex: the disrepute of the blues in the 1920s and 1930s, the variously rustic, passé, unenlightened, non-progressive tinges it acquired later on, at least in the eyes of certain black intellectuals.

The white fascination with the blues, especially the country blues, has always been vulnerable to accusations that it represented a kind of colonial sentimentalism. While perhaps unjust, this notion was certainly borne out by some of the grotesqueries of the 1960s and 1970s, when pimply devotees of “de blooze” misunderstood the music in a colossal way, unable to distinguish between tribute and ridicule. Affected Mississippi accents and pointless guitar noodling were the norm among suburban epigones. “They got all these white kids now,” the ever-generous Muddy Waters told Robert Palmer. “Some of them can play good blues. They play so much, run a ring around you playin’ guitar, but they cannot vocal like the black man.”^8 Other white enthusiasts were, instead, tormented by guilt. In Nothing But the Blues, Bruce Bastin writes: “At the time of the death of the eccentric but undeniably brilliant Guitar Shorty from North Carolina, a friend remarked that she would be glad when she could no longer hear music like his, as it would mean that the social context that gave rise to it was gone.”

In one stroke, this deeply fatuous statement lays bare all the ambivalence that attends the blues in the United States, an ambivalence in which Alan Lomax’s book, in particular, is drenched. If the blues is a form of music based on human suffering, then enjoyment of the blues is tantamount to enjoyment of suffering. The only appropriate attitude for listening, therefore, is guilt. And if the blues is the direct result of the racism of past decades, then it must follow that subsequent forms of black music, indeed of black culture, are likewise the results of racism, since racism has only changed in its manifestations. And if this is so, then black culture is one-dimensional and exists solely in response to white culture.

This is why the apparently academic question of where and when and how the blues began is important. The blues was not a reaction or a spontaneous utterance or a cry of anguish in the night, and it did not arise from a great mass of people like a collective sigh. It was a deliberate decision arrived at by a particular artist (or artists) through a process of experimentation, using materials at hand from a variety of sources. It was taken up by others and expanded to encompass anguish as well as defiance, humor, lust, cruelty, heartbreak, awe, sarcasm, fury, regret, bemusement, mischief, delirium, and even triumph. It grew to be the expression of a people, but not before it had become as diverse and complicated as that people. It, too, ranges beyond the monochrome of its name.

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