Friday, January 23, 2015

Blues as a Sustainable Music

    Writers have lamented the impending death of blues for nearly 100 years, yet as Mark Twain supposedly quipped when told that his obituary had been published, the death rumors appear to have been exaggerated. Endangerment and unsustainability are built into the idea of blues and many other musics, yet somehow they’ve managed to persist in one form or another. Is there a lesson of resilience here?
    Writing about blues in the 1920s, the folksong collector Dorothy Scarborough predicted that blues would be gone when the current generation of singers passed away. Like most of this writing about endangerment, hers distinguished between an authentic blues and a transformed, popularized version: the folk blues versus the kind of blues being sung from the vaudeville stage for cheap entertainment. Today, of course, we think of this vaudeville blues as equally authentic, and we honor the contributions and innovations of such vaudeville blues singers as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey along with their downhome blues cousins like Charley Patton and Son House who were making commercial 78 recordings right along with the vaudeville singers, but whose songs met Scarborough’s criteria as folk songs.
    I write about it from personal experience as a blues musician, experience that goes back to the blues revival of the 1960s. The occasion now is a project for a vinyl record scheduled to be released this year or next, containing some recordings that I made at the 1969 Ann Arbor, Michigan Blues Festival. This, coupled with a revised chapter on blues for the 6th edition of Worlds of Music, the introductory textbook in ethnomusicology that I’ve co-authored with several other ethnomusicologists and which has been in print since 1984, has turned my thoughts back to a music that has been with me all my life; for I must have first heard it from my father, who played blues as an amateur jazz guitarist.
    The generation that performed at that 1969 festival has, mostly, disappeared; and the same can be said about the 1970 festival, except for a few (myself included) who were quite young then. And yet the blues is still around, as a niche music like so many other niche genres (classical, jazz, and so forth) that once had greater claim on the popular imagination, not to mention the pocketbook. Recordings keep blues alive, of course, but so do concerts and festivals, while young musicians are still learning to play it; and if fewer now make a living from it, or listen to it, nevertheless blues persists, and recognizably so, in a variety of older and newer incarnations. It seems to be an example of a sustainable musical genre.
    Both older and newer incarnations were apparent in the 1960s when I was a part of the blues music culture. Most of my participation took place in Minneapolis, where I was a graduate student, and where, in addition to my academic studies, I played blues guitar, eventually joining Lazy Bill Lucas’s blues band. Bill represented the older incarnation within the blues revival; born around the time of the first World War to a family of African American sharecroppers in Arkansas, he migrated with them gradually north, looking for better living conditions, eventually landing in Chicago during its blues heyday, and performing with some of the better known musicians of that era, such as Big Bill Broonzy, Willie Mabon, Big Joe Williams, and Snooky Pryor. With his blues partners Mojo Buford and Jo Jo Williams, he moved to Minneapolis in the early 1960s, where they thought there would be less competition among musicians for jobs. And there was; but the audience was smaller as well. Nevertheless, they stayed; and as the Sixties wore on, and the audience for blues began to shift demographically to include a much larger percentage of white people, Bill’s popularity grew along with the blues revival. The newer incarnations were apparent in some of the younger blues musicians, whether forming their own bands or, like me, joining with some older groups. I was well aware, then, of death knells for blues that had already been sounded for more than forty years; but like most of my contemporaries, I thought even then that the rumors of impending death were exaggerated.
    Our band was invited to play at the second (1970) Ann Arbor Blues Festival; we went and as band leader Bill earned more money from that appearance than from any other, before or since. At the first festival, in 1969, I was only a spectator. I went with some other musicians and we sat in the audience, some sleeping in a car and some in a tent during the morning hours, and eating sandwiches and drinking beer from coolers. The festival lasted three days and nights, and featured most of the prominent blues singers and blues bands of the day, including Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, B. B. King, Big Mama Thornton, Fred McDowell, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Son House, Luther Allison, Jimmy Dawkins, Freddy King, Albert King, Magic Sam, Lightnin' Hopkins, Bobby Bland, John Lee Hooker, and the list went on and on.
    In those days I had made what was then a large purchase from my meager funds as a graduate teaching assistant, to buy a portable, reel to reel tape recorder, a Sony that used 5” reels which could record up to 25 minutes per side, and which ate up D-size batteries at an alarming rate. It was not a very high fidelity recorder like the Uhers and Nagras that were available to professionals for astronomical prices, but it was what would today be called prosumer gear, for the advanced amateur, with a mic of comparable quality. I had been making field recordings of music as a graduate student, and so bringing it along to record these festivals was an exciting but normal thing for me to do. I did it, recording as much of the festivals as I could afford, for tape (and batteries) were expensive. I wish, now, that I’d had the sense to try to beg or borrow some synchronized sound film equipment, but that seemed out of reach in so many ways that I didn’t give it any thought at the time.
    By the time the 1970 festival was over, I’d recorded about 18 hours of highlights from those festivals. Over the years I’ve listened back to them and wished I could have made recordings directly from the mixing board, but instead these were made from the audience and dependent on the sounds that were amplified by the mics, the PA system and the musicians’ own instrument amplifiers. Compared with the sound of studio-made recordings, their technical quality is fair at best; but they are reasonably faithful reproductions of the sound that the festival audience heard. I took one of those recordings, a song by Magic Sam, and put it in Worlds of Music, but other than that none of the recordings ever was published and few of them circulated. At the time, I was under the impression that both festivals were being recorded by professional sound technicians, targeted for issue on LP recordings soon afterwards. A sound truck from Atlantic Records was prominent at the 1970 festival, and I worried that our band’s performance might not have been up to their standard. I need not have worried, because no recordings ever were released; and years later, I was told that those professional recordings had somehow disappeared. I knew that at least one other person, John Fishel, had made recordings from the audience, as I had done, because some of his were issued by Delmark Records several years later; but until a couple of years ago when his brother and his son were in touch with me about my recordings, I hadn’t realized that ours were the only ones to survive, more than forty years later.
    Jim Fishel was in touch with me asking whether I still had those recordings and if so, what were they, and would it be possible to use one or two for a reissue project that he and his son Parker were proposing through a retro Nashville outfit, Third Man Records. They were planning to release a vinyl LP set commemorating the 1969 festival in recordings, for the niche audience for blues was also inclined toward the older formats, such as vinyl, rather than CD. In fact, back in the 1960s when LPs were current, many blues aficionados preferred the sound from the original shellac 78 rpm records. Jim and Parker were especially interested in my recordings of Son House; later, it turned out he wanted to hear what I had recorded of Freddy King. I retrieved these and digitized them, edited them, and sent them along. Parker was very pleased with the results, and it now looks as if some or all of them will make it onto the reissue. The Fishels are doing this in the right way, licensing the recordings and paying the musicians or their heirs. The music from both festivals was magnificent; and although these recordings don’t have the sound quality of those made with professional equipment, their sound quality has something in its favor that high fidelity recordings from that era do not. That is, in keeping with the retro aesthetic, they have the quality of being well worn, or broken in, with the aura of good and proper use about them. There is something in the hipster aesthetic that prefers the older analog sound (tube equipment, etc.) to the pristine sterility of digital sound. Like a black and white still photograph, these recordings evoke the historical past, which of course they now represent.
Son House. Photo ©1970 by Jeff Todd Titon.
     Recordings like this are, I suppose, one way of sustaining music, a means that I am willing to be part of. But it falls far short of the lived experience of those festivals and the sounds that I remember and which, for me, are evoked by those recordings. I do wonder at their transformation into exotic and distanced objects for a new generation of listeners, but then I remind myself that when in the 1960s I listened to recordings by Mississippi delta blues singer Charley Patton, made in the 1920s, they were similarly exotic and distanced for me. Yet for Jo Jo Williams, the bass player in Lazy Bill Lucas’s blues band, they evoked lived experience. Jo Jo had lived in the delta and as a teenager slipped out of his family’s shack to go hear Charlie Patton and Son House at the all night dance parties they played for, way out in the country on Dockery’s Plantation. When I spoke with Jo Jo about Charley Patton, he recalled those experiences for me, as I myself was able to recall the Ann Arbor blues festivals when Parker decided he wanted to interview me about them, and about the blues revival of the 1960s. Blues has shown remarkable resilience, yet its sustainability lives in the cycles of experience and memory, from one generation to the next, while the role of recordings is evocative but secondary. That, for me, is a more satisfying way of thinking about sustainability in music cultures.