Where Did the Blues Begin?
The biggest debate in blues circles these days is, “where did the blues begin?” Ever since the blues revival of the 50s and 60s, the answer has been “the Mississippi Delta.” But in recent years, more than a few blues buffs have argued, that while the Delta is where the harshest form of blues indeed gelled, there is very little evidence to suggest that blues started there. Further, Delta blues in its heyday was almost universally ignored by African-Americans around the nation. Even in the Delta itself, the local strand of blues, usually made by a lone singer-guitarist, was not accorded more status than other forms. The Delta became The Home of the Blues, according to this argument, only when Anglo blues revivalists focused on Skip James, Charley Patton, Son House and especially Robert Johnson as the true creators of blues tradition. And earnest Anglo fans have perpetuated this notion every since.
Two new books take up the argument. In Texas Blues: The Rise of a Contemporary Sound (Texas A&M University Press) Dallas folklorist/historian Alan Govenar makes his case for the piney woods of east Texas, which to this day remains the region of the Lone Star State most similar to the rest of the South. That notion is seconded by Paul Oliver, the pioneering English blues collector/researcher, in his Foreword. After all, Texan Blind Lemon Jefferson, who hails from the farmlands on the western edge of the piney woods, was the first real singer-guitarist blues star, selling thousands of records while influencing everyone from Robert Johnson to B.B. King. And folklorists wrote of hearing what came to be recognized as blues verses in Texas several years before their colleagues did so in Mississippi. But Govenar will state with certainty only that the blues “wasn’t born in one place,” while also noting, “People generally believe that the blues emerged in the 1890s.” Meanwhile, the very title of jazz pianist and cultural critic Ted Gioia’s Delta Blues: the Life and Times (of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music (W. W. Norton and Co.) would seem to support the claims made for Mississippi bluesmen. Indeed, Gioia takes the search all the way back to Africa, as do most Delta researchers, though he also concludes that doing so “raises far more questions than answers.” He also notes that in Africa there was nothing analogous to work songs, the African-American form immediately preceding, and most like, Delta blues. And wisely concludes that “we don’t know” the whos, whats, whens and wheres of the birth of the blues.
The two men take radically different paths to come to essentially the same conclusion. Gioia’s book is nearly all text, synthesizing the research that came before him and adding a little of his own, to come up with his complex, nuanced history. Disappointingly, he breaks little new ground, leaving one to wonder if Delta blues research is basically finished, if in fact there’s no new information out there still to be discovered. (Fortunately, the huge volume of new information about Johnson, including the unearthing of various relatives, in the last few years suggests that there’s more to come.) But in many ways the meat of his book is a series of chapter-length profiles: Charley Patton, a true star and a true innovator; Son House, torn by the polar opposites within; Tommy Johnson, elegant, stately and self-destructive; Skip James, the most otherworldly of them all; Robert Johnson, whose myth derives from his songs and not just from the tall tales surrounding him; John Lee Hooker, postwar electric boogie mysterioso; Howlin ‘Wolf, the very personification of the “Smokestack Lightnin’” he sang about; and B. B. King, the first major Delta artist whose sound is not tied to the geography that spawned him (he got some chops from his cousin, acoustic bluesman Booker “Bukka” White, but his music derived much more from Texans Jefferson and T-Bone Walker, father of the electric blues). Within these chapters Gioia works in shorter takes on other pivotal characters such as Furry Lewis, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup and Geeshie Wiley, as well as blues figureheads from record man H.C. Speir to folklorist Alan Lomax. And these profiles — all of them, really — just happen to rank with Peter Guralnick’s and Robert Palmer’s as the most stunningly descriptive and beautifully written you’re ever likely to encounter. Which certainly goes a long way towards making up for the lack of new material.
Govenar’s text is all oral histories, based on interviews, many conducted by him over the last 30 or so years, with both the biggest starsâ€”Lightnin ‘Hopkins, Walker, Lead Belly, Albert Collins, Gatemouth Brown, Amos Milburn, Stevie Ray Vaughan — and total unknowns — Osceola Mays, Willie Willis — often getting pretty much the same play, along with a handful of execs and club owners. This is the virtue and the drawback of the folklorist: what matters is that this music exists, not whether it’s particularly good or important in any way, and Govenar documents it all. The virtue and the drawback in oral history, of course, is that it’s always revealing to hear history told by those who participated in it — but it can get awfully repetitious from interviewee to interviewee, and the speaker might also have a faulty memory, an ax to grind, or a personal myth to hone. In a 600-page coffee-table book, a reader can get weary. Ah, but then he’s got all those pictures to look at. They’re smashing: Al “TNT” Bragg’s 60s promo shot from Peacock Records; Govenar’s candids of Alex Moore at home; and well-chosen archival photos of African-American work life and night life through the decades. If you have any interest in Texas blues in particular, those photos tell the music’s story as well as do the musicians, and as well as Gioia’s prose tells the story of the Delta blues.