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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Looking Up At Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture

BOOK REVIEW
Looking Up At Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture
by William Barlow
p. 1989
Temple University Press


   The story of the Blues is interesting on a number of levels that have nothing to do with the fact that most white rock and rollers trace large portions of their style, music and performance on the Blues.  First, the Blues are interesting because it was one of the modern musical forms that emerged in tandem with the invention of phonograph.  Second, Blues are interesting because there was a thirty year gap between the first artistic and cultural flourishing of the Blues and the appreciation of that flourishing by the music industry, music consumers and music intellectuals.

   Looking Up At Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture is a well rounded look at the historical facts that trace the emergence of Blues as a genre.  The bare facts of that emergence should be known to almost all modern music fans: After the Civil War white planters moved into the area south of Memphis and cleared huge areas for cotton plantations.   Slavery was now unconstitutional, but Delta planters still used African Americans for field labor, and those laborers were kept in a state of quasi-slavery. BUT- and this was important- the economic circumstances of the Delta area meant that African American field laborers did pretty ok by the standards of the time, and there was mobility- the spread of plantation agriculture meant that labor was always in demand.

   From this new found mobility and relative economic well being, musicians were able to travel between plantations and ply their art form.  What is funny, and this is a fact that Barlow gives short shrift to, is that we probably wouldn't know ANYTHING about the Blues without the records that were released in the 20s and 30s.  This is because of the 30 year gap between the blues recordings of the 20s and 30s and the post World War II blues revival.  Basically, all Blues history consists of people listening to 30-50 year old recordings and then trying to reconstruct how it went down.  Make no mistake, Blues records sold before the Great Depression laid waste to the record business, but white intellectuals didn't hail Blues as a major new art form.  The records came out, black people bought most of them, and then everyone forgot about the Blues until after World War II.

     After World War II academics, intellectuals and fans wrote the history of blues based on the recordings.  From the recordings, these interested individuals were able to go back and locate the still living musicians and from there locate and name artists who either didn't record or whose recordings were "lost" from lack of attention.

  Most of the institutions that supported the spread of blues between 1890 and 1933 were either criminally owned night clubs, gambling dens, houses of prostitution or some combination.  Once the Blues became "known" outside of its historic home in the Mississippi Delta and East Texas, it spread via traveling musicians- generally moving in a band between Atlanta to Chicago, hotspots being Atlanta, Memphis, New Orleans, Houston, Kansas City, St. Louis and Chicago.

   By the onset of the Great Depression, Blues had established itself as a down market alternative to Jazz, though with little of the white interest and critical acclaim that jazz generated.  And then... nothing.  No records, no books about blues- nothing- until the close of World War II.  

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