“… that peculiar hard core [of folk song lovers] who seem to equate authenticity with artistic merit and illiteracy with charm.” — Tom Lehrer
Today I came across two interesting links on Arts and Letters Daily. The first is a review by Adam Gopnik of a biography of Kingsley Amis, who wrote the brilliant “Lucky Jim” and some execrable later books. It talks of Lucky Jim’s “bracing contempt for culture and higher education” and cultural pretences; but continues:
Hating pretentiousness is a bracing sentiment in “Lucky Jim,” but it jumps easily to the philistinism of “Pseuds Corner” in Private Eye, where not just babies but whole generations of first-borns get tossed out with the bathwater. It is a very good thing to have a built-in bullshit detector, but a bad thing when the bullshit detector crowds out the rest of your brain; that’s why they call it being narrow-minded. You quickly reach the stage where anything ambitious, complicated, or merely foreign gets spat on along with the things that are genuinely phony. Pretense and ambition are different words for the same thing, and a writing without pretense pretty soon becomes a literature without ambitions, content to congratulate itself on its own insularity. Blimpishness is not a step away; it is all you have left.
The second link is a review of a book by Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor, “Faking it: the quest for authenticity in popular music”, and connects directly — especially in the sections on the folk blues — with the Tom Lehrer quote above, and indirectly with the Amis article.
But let me preface with why I found it interesting. I find the blues fascinating as a style in jazz and in rock. Whether it’s Louis Armstrong singing “Basin Street blues”, or the Modern Jazz Quartet playing “Willow weep for me”, or the Allmans playing “Statesboro blues”, it’s all up there with some of the most amazing music I’ve ever heard. But when a “peculiar hard core” of people say “the blues”, they don’t mean these people. They mean a particular subcategory of musicians, mainly from the Mississippi Delta in the 1930s and 1940s — people such as Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson — and their successors into the electric blues era of the 1950s, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, B B King, Willie Dixon and others.
Some of the electric blues is fun, in the way rock and roll is fun. But it gets way too repetitive for my tastes. And as for the acoustic blues — not only can’t these people hold a tune (nor could the electric guys), they can’t even keep time! This is music?
It was especially strange to me since the blues had been clearly defined as a genre since at least the early 1900s, and people like Bessie Smith had made masterly recordings of blues songs by the 1920s. (These recordings are still available.) Why the regression, then, into a crude “delta blues” in the 1930s?
Messrs Barker and Taylor have the answer, and it stunned me. Here are some quotes from the review.
Leadbelly, Barker and Taylor reveal, was by necessity a master of “faking it”, a sophisticated musician of cosmopolitan taste limited to a repertoire of “Negro” songs and told by his manager to perform in prison garb. That manager was John Lomax, one of the early 20th-century giants of what has come to be known as “roots music”. “The music that was, for Lomax, the most authentic,” write the authors, “the most black, the most free from ‘white influence’, was the most primitive.” That doesn’t mean Leadbelly was primitive, only that Lomax and, decades later, Cobain decided to believe that he was, the better to break the bonds of artificiality they felt modernity and celebrity imposed. Leadbelly was a tool. This shifty truth comes to us by way not of postmodernism, but of old-timey Marxist analysis. In 1937, the novelist Richard Wright, profiling Leadbelly for the Daily Worker, declared his coerced performances “one of the greatest cultural swindles in history”.
But that’s not quite right, either. Wright recognised Lomax’s manipulation of Leadbelly (who later successfully sued Lomax), but he assumed there was a genuine Leadbelly behind the music, a real black expression minstrel-ised by the white man. In fact, many of Leadbelly’s songs came from white folks, who’d learned them from black musicians, who’d composed them with African inflections as reinterpreted by white musicians eager to add “floating” rhythms to the marching beat of Scots-Irish reels. The strongest argument of Faking It is for the endless “miscegenation” of music. Great popular music is always a collage of cultures, while the quest for authenticity all too often functions as a means of policing racial boundaries.
Jazz is a collage of cultures that emerged as a coherent style in the 1910s, and as a respectable art form in the 1920s. Jazz musicians took the blues well beyond the crude 3-chord format it started with: particularly with Charlie Parker and others in the bebop era, the standard 12 bars of a blues “chorus” became a maze of substitutions on those basic 3 chords.
Meanwhile, the “folk blues” actually regressed on what Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith had already achieved. The Delta blues, it seems, were a mistaken step backwards in the quest for “authenticity”. And who were responsible? Not the musicians: it was the record companies, the same people who are responsible for Britney Spears today. And it was marketed to people whose finely tuned “bullshit detectors” (to use Gopnik’s phrase) steered them away from the pretentiousness of “serious” twentieth-century music, and into quite another form of bullshit.
The review continues:
Consider the case of Mississippi John Hurt, the subject of the book’s longest and most powerful essay. First, there’s his name: Mississippi was an add-on from the record company. Then there’s his reputation as a patriarch of the Delta blues: Hurt wasn’t from the Mississippi Delta and he insisted he wasn’t a blues musician. And then there is the problem of his blackness, thought by the white fans who rediscovered him in the 1960s to be pure and profound (“Uncle Remus come to life,” write the authors). When Hurt was “discovered” the first time, he was performing for black and white audiences backed by a white fiddler and a white guitar player who also happened to be the local sheriff. He recorded blues because the record company insisted he do so. Meanwhile, Jimmie Rodgers, a white musician who happened to be a bluesman, recorded what came to be known as “country” music because the blues were reserved by the market for black men. One more twist: when Harry Smith included two of Hurt’s songs on his great Smithsonian Folk Anthology, most listeners mistook the black musician for a white hillbilly.
The term “folk” itself presents more problems. Until 1949, country music was simply “folk”, as was much “black” music. Racism was the centrifuge that separated them…
Fascinating stuff. I think I’ll buy the book (which also apparently has caustic comments on the authenticity of contemporary musicians, from John Lennon to Nirvana).
(PS – That’s post number 100.)
Addendum: The second review, and my review of the review, may give the impression that the folk blues musicians were all sophisticated musicians with wide interests and influences who got pigeonholed by John Lomax. This may have been true of Leadbelly and John Hurt, and not true of others like Robert Johnson. That is to say, there really was a “Mississippi Delta blues” style in the 1930s, which should have remained in that place and that decade, but was pushed by the record companies and later picked up by aspiring rockers; and because it existed, black musicians like Leadbelly were straitjacketed into it, while whites like Jimmie Rodgers were forcibly labelled into other styles.