Tuesday, September 2, 2008

review of Marybeth Hamilton, In Search of the Blues

Marybeth Hamilton, In Search of the Blues
review by Steve Cheseborough
Marybeth Hamilton has dug up some good stories, and makes some good insights. But then she takes it too far.
The stories are about white non-musicians obsessed with African-American music (she uses "blues" in the title and many other places in the book, but really the subjects are obsessed with plantation melodies, jazz and various other African-American musics as well as blues). Her point is that these obsessives, with their strange approaches (Dorothy Scarborough relied on elderly white ex-slave owners' recollections of black song) and personalities (James McKune ended up drunken, homeless and murdered by a man he had picked up to have sex with), have helped define black music through their writing, collecting and other nonmusical activities.
This collection of characters is interesting. They are of course not the only white nonmusicians to have made an impact on blues. Others who spring to mind, who are ignored or mentioned only in passing in this book, include Charles Peabody, the Harvard archaeologist who gave a very early documentation when he noticed his dig's workers' songs in 1902; H.C. Speir, furniture-store owner who served as the music's greatest talent scout by discovering Skip James, Charley Patton and dozens of others; the Paramount record executive (name unknown to me) who took a chance, in an era of sophisticated, orchestra-backed female blues singers, on recording the solo street performer Blind Lemon Jefferson; John Hammond Sr., who produced the Spirituals to Swing concerts in the late 1930s and reissued Robert Johnson's recordings in the 1960s; Stephen C. LaVere, who oversaw the second reissue of Johnson, on CD in the 1990s, accompanied by a photo, that led to Johnson's superstardom; Jim O'Neal, founder of Living Blues, the first magazine to focus on living musicians rather than old recordings. Hamilton tends to pick people who wrote books, and that's OK. She tells us about Howard Odum, who decided in 1907 that black song was as worth documenting as Native American song, and set out to do it; Scarborough, a Virginia-born Columbia professor who switched interest from literature to plantation song; John Lomax, who believed prisons were repositories of pure folk music; Frederick Ramsey, Charles Edward Smith and William Russell, who found heaven in early New Orleans jazz records and then in the living master Jelly Roll Morton; and McKune, high priest of the cult of collecting old 78s.
Where the book goes way out into silly and false territory, though, is when it confuses these people's activities with the creation of the music. According to Hamilton, Delta blues was born in a Brooklyn YMCA room in the 1940s, as McKune listened to a Charley Patton record. In case we think she's joking, she physically goes to the site and describes the building and the room, the holy site where the blues was born. She is not kidding.
In the book's final pages, Hamilton does a mass psychoanalysis of late-20th-Century American white men, and decides that their fascination with the outlaw bluesman is part of their general escape from commitment. There lies the origin of the blues, according to Hamilton.
Barry Lee Pearson and Elijah Wald both wrote books a few years ago that debunked the Robert Johnson myth, said he was not a big deal in his own time or in blues history. Hamilton tries to take it way further, say blues itself is not a big deal, doesn't really exist except in the twisted minds and writings of her characters. But that isn't true. There is a music known as the blues, and it would have existed whether or not Odum, Lomax, McKune and the rest of Hamilton's subjects ever noticed it. All of them did notice it, though, because they were captivated by the sound. In nearly every chapter, Hamilton describes the epiphanic moment when each of these people first heard the blues, usually on record. It was the sound, not the image of a bluesman, that captured these people. That same sound has captivated many, many people -- men and women, from all countries and eras, not just commitment-phobic late-20th-Century American men.
But it never captured Hamilton. She never listened to Robert Johnson until the 1990s, and then she "heard very little," she says in the first chapter. A punk-rock fan, she doesn't say whether she tried listening to any blues besides Johnson. Instead she set off to try to mass-psychoanalyze the people who do hear something in the blues. Maybe she should try listening again before she writes another book.

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