Diann Blakely's Reviews > Visualizing the Blues: Images of the American South

Visualizing the Blues by Wendy McDaris
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Jun 16, 2012

Read in June, 2012

If you missed “Visualizing the Blues,” an exhibit and symposium that ran in 2000 at Memphis’ Dixon Gallery and Gardens, the catalog serves as the best substitute. The exhibit itself had admirable range, covering photography in the rural Deep South from Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, and William Eggleston to Huger Foote (Shelby’s son), Maude Schuyler Clay, and Birney Imes.

Many widely known blues critics served on the symposium’s various panels: Scott Baretta, editor of LIVING BLUES magazine; David Evans, author of BIG ROAD BLUES; Peter Guralnick, author of FEEL LIKE GOING HOME: PORTRAITS IN BLUES AND ROCK'N'ROLL, and Howard Stovall, director of the Feel Like Blues Foundation. The keynote speaker was William Ivey, the former director of Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, who served as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. A stellar cast, indeed, and one that shone all the more brightly for the inclusion of (then) octogenarian Albert Murray, the cultural critic, memoirist, and novelist who became lifelong friends with Ralph Ellison during their undergrad days at Tuskegee. Murray was among the first to limn the blues’ influence on American culture as a whole, and many of his ideas were developed and refined by his correspondence with Ellison, which has recently been published under the title TRADING TWELFTHS.

Less popularly known, but equally important, are the younger and/or more scholarly cultural historians slated for the symposium’s various panels. Berkeley’s Leon Litwack, who penned the preface for WITHOUT SANCTUARY (please see my review here: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...), the collection of archival lynching photographs and “postcards," will undoubtedly posit some of the hardcore historical ugliness that underlay the blues. Jon Michael Spencer, whose THE BLUES AND EVIL, a compelling mytho-religious study published by the University of Tennessee Press, brought much to the panel entitled “Culture of the Spirit”; as did Princeton University’s Albert Raboteau, author of THE INVISIBLE INSTITUTION: SLAVE RELIGION.

Both the content and the structure of the symposium—which included music on Thursday and Friday nights, a tour and reception at Memphis’ Civil Rights Museum, a photography workshop, a talk on the exhibit by curator Wendy McDaris, and optional excursions to the Mississippi Delta—resulted in a truly cross-cultural, cross-racial, and cross-disciplinary event. Furthermore, the combination of specificity and breadth indicated by the schedule means that substantial offerings will be on hand for the musicologist, the cultural scholar, the socio-racial theorist, the photographer, and the art historian, as well as the most casual blues fan. While the “Visualizing the Blues” exhibit ended in October 2000, the catalog is a worthy souvenir through which I've leafed--then stopped and stared--many, many times in the past dozen years, and guess what has been playing in the background, but not loudly enough to diminish the art's effect?

(first published in the NASHVILLE SCENE/Village Voice Media)

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