Thursday, December 29, 2011

Unknown Bards by John Jeremiah Sullivan





Rarely did James McKune attempt published aesthetic statements of any kind, but when he did he repeated one word. Writing to JVM Palaver in 1960 about Samuel Charters’s then recent book, The Country Blues, McKune bemoaned the fact that Charters had concentrated on those singers who’d sold the most records, such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Brownie McGhee, whose respective oeuvres McKune found mediocre and slick. McKune’s letter sputters in the arcane fury of its narcissism of minor difference, but the word he keeps getting stuck on is great. As in “Jefferson made only one record I can call great”(italics McKune’s). Or, “I know twenty men who collect the Negro country blues. All of us have been interested in knowing who the great [his again] country blues singers are not in who sold best.” And later, “I write for those who want a different basis for evaluating blues singers. This basis in their relative greatness.”



When I saw that letter in Marybeth Hamilton’s book (In Search of the Blues), it brought up the memory of being on the phone with Dean Blackwood, John Fahey’s partner at Revenant Records, and hearing him talk about his early discussions with Fahey over the phantoms project. “John and I always felt like there wasn’t enough of a case being made for these folks’ greatness,” he’d said. “You’ve got to have their stuff together to understand the potency of their work.”



Before dismissing as na├»ve the overheated boosterism of these pronouncements, we might ask whether there’s not a simple technical explanation for the feeling being expressed or left unexpressed in them. I believe that there is and its this:




The narrative of the blues got hijacked by rock ‘n’ roll, which rode a wave of youth consumerism to global domination. Back behind the split, there was something else: a deeper, riper source. Many people who have written about this body of music have noticed it. Robert Palmer called it Deep Blues. We’re talking about strains within strains, sure, but listen to something like Ishman Bracey’s “Woman Woman Blues,” his tattered yet somehow impeccable falsetto when he sings, “She got coal black curly hair.” Songs like that were not made for dancing. Not even for singing along. They were made for listening, for grown-ups. They were chamber compositions. Listen to Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground.” It has no words. It’s hummed by a blind preacher incapable of playing an impure note on the guitar.




We have again to go against our training and suspend anthropological thinking here; it doesn’t serve at these strata. The noble ambition not to be the kind of people who unwittingly fetishize and exoticize black or poor white folk poverty has allowed us to remain the type who don’t stop to ask if the serious treatment of certain folk forms as essentially high – or higher – art forms might have originated with the folks themselves.




If there is a shared weakness in these two books (Elijah Wald’s Escaping The Delta: Robert Johnson and The Invention of The Blues, and Hamilton’s The White Invention of Black Music), it’s that they’re insufficiently on the catch for this pitfall. “No one in the blues world was calling this art,” says Wald. Is that true? Carl Sandburg was including blues lyrics in his anthologies as early as 1927. More to the point, Ethel Waters, one of the citified ‘blues queens” whose lyrics and melodies had a funny way of showing up in those raw and undiluted country-blues recordings, had already been writing self-consciously modernist blues for a few years by then (for instance, “I can’t sleep for dreaming…,” a line of hers I first heard in Crying Sam Collins and took for one of his beautiful manglings, then was humbled to learn had always been intentionally poetic).



Marybeth Hamilton, in her not unsympathetic autopsy of James McKune’s mania, comes dangerously close to suggesting that McKune was the first person to hear Skip James as we hear him, as a profound artist. But Skip James was the first person to hear Skip James in that way.



The anonymous African American people described in Wald’s book, sitting on the floor of a house in Tennessee and weeping while Robert Johnson sang “Come On in My Kitchen”, they were the first people to hear the country blues that way. White men “rediscovered” the blues, fine. We’re talking about the complications of that at last. Let’s not go crazy and say they invented it, or accidentally credit their “visions” with too much power. That would be counterproductive, a final insult even.




from Pulphead Essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, N.Y, 2011

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