This is not a reconstruction of the blues, this is a reconstruction of the history of the blues as conventionally understood. Marybeth Hamilton choseThis is not a reconstruction of the blues, this is a reconstruction of the history of the blues as conventionally understood. Marybeth Hamilton chose to write a fairly compelling book about several different white researchers/song collectors throughout the 20th century who set out to find something meaningful (to them) in the rots of the music of African Americans. What they found is open to interpretation, as well as is their motivations for searching in the first place. Hamilton implies that these people were looking for something that really only existed in their own sense of nostalgia or longing for purity, that whatever they were looking for they 'found' because it was a fiction of their own making, a fiction they themselves believed.
A book about white folks interpreting black folks' culture cannot avoid discussing the implicit and explicit racism of the researchers. Alan Lomax and Frederic Ramsey come off better than the others in this book, at least in terms of racial views. Still, you get the idea that these researchers felt they were preserving something that African Americans didn't fully understand or appreciate. A kind of appropriation of even the abstract feelings about cultural representations.
I particularly liked how Hamilton wrote about these researchers relationships to technology. For example, Howard Odum, who collected songs in the first decade of the 20th century, and Dorothy Scarborough in the second, both used recording devices. Tellingly, neither emphasized the fact because, Hamilton seems to say, they were searching for vestiges of a nostalgic, pre-industrial culture. To bring technology into the discussion would have tainted what they were doing. Contrast that attitude with John Lomax who took great pride in the recording equipment he used. John Lomax was also looking for pure examples of culture, unadulterated by popular culture, but his technology wouldn't be a factor because he felt he could find subjects who were living in cultural isolation. His belief (which seems ludicrous now) was that prisoners had no opportunity to be affected by pop culture; which is why he spent so much time searching for subjects in Southern prisons.
In the chapter on James McKune (whose outsized influence is one of the major reasons the conventional history of the Blues mistakenly places its origins in the Mississippi Delta--and, probably incorrectly, places Rock and Roll as its direct descendent)Hamilton writes, after a short, imaginary vignette of the man is his room, listening to records, "Telling the story of his life means making a virtue of his unknowability and imagining him as best we can..." (p 212) What I found interesting about this is that Hamilton does do that a lot in the book: imagining her subjects as best she can. She has no problems saying that this person would have certainly agreed with this or that or that this person felt this way about something. She gets into her subjects and tells us what they felt or thought, but remember, this is a book about people who searched for something that may not have existed, so they imagined it as best they could. What was Hamilton looking for?...more
"Ireland, a Bicycle, a Tin Whistle, and a Swollen Liver" should be the actual title of this book. There is quite a bit of liver abuse going on here.
Da"Ireland, a Bicycle, a Tin Whistle, and a Swollen Liver" should be the actual title of this book. There is quite a bit of liver abuse going on here.
David A. Wilson is a professor of Celtic studies at the University of Toronto. Although born in Ireland he was raised in Canada. This is a book about him traveling through Ireland on a bicycle with a tin whistle and a leather liver searching out trad music sessions. A lot of the book is about the music, but it also touches on the stark cultural and religious divisions of the people, written by an outsider, but an outsider with access.
Some aspects of Wilson's journey bothered me a bit, though: The guy is a cyclist who spent weeks training on a stationary bicycle before his trip but never bothered to learn how to repair an inner tube? He was going on a bike trip in IRELAND, for gosh sakes, and didn't think to bring rain gear? Wilson spends a few pages lamenting how tourism, especially musical tourism is ruining aspects of the traditional session without seeming to realize that the whole ostensible point of his book was session tourism.
Still, I think Wilson is a warm writer with a good sense of humor. The history was interesting and the session descriptions were a highlight....more
This is a very comprehensively researched book attempting to trace the early roots of the music that we know today as rock and roll. Birnbaum attemptsThis is a very comprehensively researched book attempting to trace the early roots of the music that we know today as rock and roll. Birnbaum attempts to carefully analyze the music (in form,in lyrics and in performance style) to trace antecedents of milestone songs and acts. Some parts of the book, because of the depth of this tracing, does sometimes read like an Old Testament book with a lot of 'begats' going on. Birnbaum has a large section on jive talk, without clearly showing how that's important. Certainly jive is not a defining element of rock and roll.
Birnbaum comes to the conclusion, persuasively argued in the book, that modern rock and roll did not come from blues and rhythm and blues as is commonly believed so much as it comes from jazz (especially swing--described by LeRoi Jones as the least bluesy of all of jazz) and R&B. Blues was more directly linked to the British Invasion rockers and so was not injected into rock and roll until the 60s--well after the nascent form was already identifiable in America. Larry Birnbaum believes the heresy that hokum novelty acts had more to do with the development of rock and roll than Robert Johnson or any of the Delta bluesmen. I believe it now, too, after reading this book.
Some other possible heresies: 1)The blue notes and pentatonic scales that are so important to the melodic definition of the blues (and much jazz) may not be a purely African carry over. Birnbaum points out that these forms are not found in much of Western African (where most of the slaves came from) music, nor are they found in other areas of the Americas that also had African slaves. That these features are distinctly part of of African American musical tradition is not argued, but where they came from is still uncertain, according to Birnbaum.
2)The Delta was not a pocket of homogenous music in the late 19th century and early 20th century and that there is evidence that the so called pure country blues coming out of the Delta is a fiction invented by white blues fans in the 30's and 40's.
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the development of rock and roll (or blues or jazz or R&B for that matter). You may not agree with everything, but it will surely make you think.