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Sunday, September 18, 2011

From Blues To Indie: The Impact of Recording Technology on Artists and Audiences

Deep Blues
by Robert Palmer
p. 1981
Penguin Press

      Before I get started- a recent post of mine inspired some minor controversy on a social media website, and I'm not going to get into it, but generally, the point of view of this blog is meant to be difficult to understand, and describing my writing as "post-post-modern" or "sarcastic" shows that the person making that statement is pretty dumb and specifically DOESN'T understand my blog: My blog is neither post-modern nor sarcastic.  Saying that a specific blog post is "cryptic" or "confusing" is appropriate, and intended on my part.

    I've been reading about the Blues lately, Robert Palmer's 1989 opus Deep Blues comes highly recommended (Cover Blurb: "A lucid..entrancing study. - Greil Marcus.") and the fact that my mass market copy is in its tenth printing and is itself twenty years old is a testament to Deep Blues being a very successful book about the Blues, indeed.  The super-header to Deep Blues is "A Music And Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta"that super-header tells you all you need to know about where Palmer is coming from: He takes the Blues seriously and writes from a point of time well after Blues had been revived and adopted as a primary influence by million copy selling rock bands of the 60s, 70s and 80s (and 90s, and 00s and forever as long as rock existed as a popular music genre.)

    Palmer is participating in what Lawrence Levine described as "the sacralization of culture" in his pioneering work of cultural history, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America.  The sacralization of culture is the process by which religious concepts are transferred to non-religious art forms so that the Art form becomes a new type of religion, with people who appreciate that art form becoming "believers" and people who don't appreciate the art form becoming "non-believers."  The sacralization of culture is a process at the heart of the opposing concepts of High Brow and Low Brow, and Deep Blues was actually published a year before Highbrow/Lowbrow, so Palmer must be forgiven his ignorance.

   The sacralization of blues was achieved only in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.  Blues emerged as a distinct art form only in the early decades of the twentieth century.  Importantly, Blues was one of the first new musical genres to emerge AFTER the invention of the phonograph and the associated playback technology.
      This is an important point, particularly in light of the fact that for 30 years after the emergence of Blues, it was widely considered "low culture" unworthy of the sacralizing treatment being given to Opera, Symphonic and even Marching Band music recordings from the same period.  The generational gap between Blues actually happening and the sacralization process being applied is what I would call the original sin of popular cultural studies.  Specifically, that while the entire intellectual universe of popular culture studies emerged in the middle part of the twentieth century, it steadfastly ignored one of the most artistically significant music genres of the middle part of the twentieth century.

    When it comes to the impact of recording technology on the Blues, Palmer adheres to a the conventional viewpoint of a sacralizer of culture: Records and Records Company are something between a necessary evil and a blood sucking parasite.  At the same time, many of Palmer's primary sources are interviews conducted in the 1960s and later by writers and intellectuals who traced the history of Blues with recordings that had been neglected for a generation.

   Does this sound familiar?  It certainly should to listeners and artists who perform "indie" music in the present day.   This dynamic of the 60s Blues revival, with both commercial and intellectual aspects: rooted in the recording technology that allowed this music to survive among communities of Artists and small audiences for 30 years, is something that lays at the heart of every indie band/label trying to produce music today.

   I certainly don't need to list any of the numerous post-punk cycles that ape this original Blues revival sacralization, but the original process- what happened to Blues, is the cycle that is most interesting.  A major move in the Blues specific sacralization process is the listing of pre-American African influences on the Blues.  Palmer fairly represents a state of the art take on this theme in Deep Blues- you get analysis of West and East African vocal and instrumental traditions.

   As Palmer moves closer to the roots of Blues, he appropriately talks about the social and economic conditions of the Mississippi Delta area, noting the fact that the Delta was a newly settled area, and after the Civil War it had a great deal of (relative) social and economic mobility.  That was also the case in the other geographic area where the Blues emerged: East Texas.  There, the petroleum industry provided a spur to African American migration and economic prosperity.

     In both the Delta and East Texas, writing about the Blues BEFORE recordings started being made is pretty impossible, because few people- Artists, writers, etc were paying attention.  In fact, I would wager that 95% of the pre-recording information about the Blues is derived from interviews of Blues Artists that took place 30-50 years AFTER the recordings themselves were made.

   This generational gap between the emergence of blues and the appreciation/sacralization of the blues is a phenomenon sorely in need of an explanation, but you won't find it in Deep Blues.  I have an explanation that I have derived from reading Highbrow/Lowbrow, Deep Blues and Looking Up At Down.   My thesis is that recording technology allowed Artists and Audiences to become self-conscious outside of the process of sacralization.  In fact, recording technology, and specifically the shellac/vinyl 78/33/45 record is at the heart of a process of culture creation that has particular power at the "Low" end of the High-brow/Low-brow continuum.

  For relatively well off but often illiterate African Americans living in the time between the invention of the phonograph and the beginning of the great depression, Blues records were a powerful cultural transmitter.  Before the Great Depression,  Blues Artists derived little financial benefit from recorded music, but the records were sought after by the artistic community itself, and helped create demand for Artists in other communities.  Almost all of the Blues artists interviewed in Deep Blues describe the process by which they learned about developments in their own art form- by a combination of listening to early blues records and seeing the artists perform.  The recordings created a consciousness among the Artists and Audiences that had been previously lacking.

    This a process that would be replicated among teenagers during the first flourishing of rock and roll, a period where emerging Artists were able to successfully assimilate both what they had seen live with what they had heard on recordings.  Like the Blues, it is unlikely to impossible that Rock and Roll would have emerged without recording technology creating a shared consciousness between Artists and Audiences.

   The creation and improvement of the phonograph qualitatively changed the relationship between Artist, Audience and Critics.  Specifically, it allowed economic success (number of sales) to replace artistic success (via critical approval) as a value criterion.  Recordings allowed specific Artists to persevere entirely outside of the realm of critical approval by creating a long term Audience for live performance.  After the Depression, World War II and thirty years of critical ignorance, recordings allowed Blues to be "revived" by white intellectuals and musicians.

  The positions of the contemporary Indie Rock Artist is exactly that of the Bluesman between 1933-1945, only instead of the twin shocks of the Great Depression and World War II we have the MP3/Streaming formats and our own recent Housing Bubble Recession.  It was 20-30 years in the wilderness, and the revival came too late for most of the original Artists, but Blues came back and today it's an integral part of Popular Music.  There are books like this one, indie labels like Fat Possum, and Artists like Eric Clapton are Knights of the British Realm.  Things worked out OK for the Blues, once it got sacralized, but the length of the time that the process took is proof that the critics who were developing modernist art theory had gaping holes in their field of vision.

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