Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, Charley Patton — we are all familiar with the story of the Delta blues. Fierce, raw voices; tormented drifters; deals with the devil at the crossroads at midnight.
In an extraordinary reconstruction of the origins of the Delta blues, historian Marybeth Hamilton demonstrates that the story as we know it is largely a myth. The idea of something called Delta blues only emerged in the mid-twentieth century, the culmination of a longstanding white fascination with the exotic mysteries of black music.
The prehistory begins around 1900, when a group of obsessive white men and women set out to track down those voices. For the would-be race scientist Howard Odum, this meant combing remote Mississippi’s back roads with a cylinder phonograph to capture the obscene melodies of vagrants and field hands. For the plantation-bred folklorist Dorothy Scarborough, it meant finding elderly white Civil War veterans to recreate the croonings of mammies and nursemaids. For the Texas banker turned song hunter John Lomax and his teenage son Alan, it meant prowling Southern penitentiaries and unearthing a double murderer, Leadbelly, whose rough, ragged, melancholy vocals evoked the anguish of the chain gang.
Many of these early recordings turned up in a single room of a Brooklyn YMCA, in the hands of a reclusive collector names James McKune. McKune had heard something pure and primal in the voices of Charley Patton and Robert Johnson, the prized items in the collection of scratched, battered 78s that he stored in a cardboard box under his bed. When the secret stash of recordings came to light in the 1960’s, collectors used them to invent the idea of the Delta blues — the “authentic” voice of black America, so unlike the impure popular black music of the time which emanated from corporate record labels.
In In Search of the Blues, Hamilton makes the case for how the Delta blues was created not by blacks but by white pilgrims, seekers, and propagandists who headed deep into America’s south in search of an authentic black voice of rage and redemption. In excavating the history of an immensely popular musical form, Hamilton reveals the extent to which American culture has been shaped by white fantasies of racial difference.#
Hamilton participates in a May 23, 2008 conversation about her book with Jerry Jazz Musician contributor Paul Hallaman.
“…Mine is not a conventional blues history. I make no attempt to cover the ground mapped in Robert Palmer’s canonical Deep Blues, with its focus on the development of a musical style and lines of artistic transmission (Charley Patton begets Son House begets Robert Johnson begets Muddy Waters). In such a history, quite rightly, the protagonists are black. My central characters are white. All of them set out to find an undiluted and primal black music. Behind that obsession lay an emotional attachment to racial difference that extends back at least to the mid-nineteenth century, to abolistionists’ enchantment with the peculiar power of black singers, their uncanny ability to allow their white listeners to experience an unimagined transcendence, a level of emotional intensity otherwise out of their reach.
“The folklorists, critics, and collectors I’ve written about were all searching for that vicarious ecstasy. All were born in the era of segregation; in different ways, all felt imaginatively tied to the South. Throughout their lives, they made racial assumptions that were hackneyed, condescending, and often offensive. Yet as I read their words, tracked their obsessions, and revisited their journeys, I came to appreciate what they have left us, the reservoir of recovered music, the chain of knowledge and expertise. In time, I learned to admire the sheer fortitude it took to engage with an art form that few whites of their generation respected. Even as they feared black modernity, they struggled to cope with it and sometimes transcend their racist beginnings.”
– Marybeth Hamilton
Screamin’ And Hollerin’ The Blues, by Charley Patton
PH Your book is a story about a few men and women in search of spellbinding voices and a yearning for real black music, but you actually began this as a book about Little Richard .
MBH Yes, that is what I thought I was doing. I was interested in Little Richard as a kind of offshoot of an earlier book I wrote about Mae West, where I had put a lot of research into the roots of her performance style and underground performance traditions. She had also written a play set in Harlem that featured an interracial romance between a white prostitute and a black boxer, and when I was researching the context of her writing the play and on Harlem during the 1920’s and 1930’s, I was struck by the elaborate extent that the African-American — and to some extent the gay white community — was visibly and formatively present there. I had always been a Little Richard fan, and I have been interested in his roots as a performer, how he ran away from home at age 13 and joined a minstrel show as a female impersonator, and how he portrayed a very openly gay, very camp female impersonator. I was struck by how there seemed to be a role for that within the rhythm and blues circuit. In the process of researching him, I learned that wherever he toured during the early 1950’s, he would introduce himself as “Little Richard, King of the Blues — and the Queen Too!” That phrase stuck with me, and I wanted to understand how it was that Little Richard would categorize himself as a blues performer, yet no historians of the blues included him in their cast of characters. This got me thinking about categories that did and didn’t count as authentic blues, where they had come from, who decided which blues artists were “in” and which were “out,” and where to draw the lines. Through this circuitous route, I was taken to the folklorists and record collectors I eventually wrote about.
PH Were you a blues fan when you began writing the book?
MBH I didn’t start the project out as a blues fan. I was more of a blues skeptic than anything else. Through the reading of Greil Marcus’s book Mystery Train, I had been initially introduced to the name and idea of Robert Johnson long before I ever heard him. There was something amazing about the rhapsodic edge of Marcus’s description of Robert Johnson, of the existential anguish that simmered through his music, and of this figure who absolutely towered over rock and roll and rhythm and blues music. I found some of Marcus’s description to be a little off-putting, so it took me until 1990 to get around to listening to Johnson’s music, when The Complete Recordings of Robert Johnson was released on compact disc. At that point I was bewildered because I didn’t hear this great existential drama in his music everyone else seemed to — instead, I heard a sound of scratchy vinyl transferred to CD, and a voice percolating up from beneath it. I didn’t hear the great, transformative experience that I thought I was supposed to hear, so I became interested in where the kind of resonance that Marcus and others were attributing to Johnson had come from. Not that they were mistaken in hearing that, but it seemed to me that more was going on than just a response to music, that there was a reverence for the Delta blues that was about more than just what people heard on recordings. That quest to find and to celebrate authentic black voices took me back to the beginning of the recording industry, or at least to the beginning of the commercial recordings of African American music in the 1920’s.
PH Let’s start with Howard Odum, who, as a social scientist, set out down the trail with his gramophone to study the “social and mental traits of the Negro,” and to find early songs. He was certainly an interesting figure .
MBH Yes, Odum is an interesting figure because he became a liberal on racial matters — at least in southern terms — by being a gingerly-stated opponent to segregation. While he worked for abolition privately, he was never willing to put himself on the line in public.
He was born into a poor Georgia family but was set alit by social science as a young man. He went to the University of Mississippi, where he became inspired by his professor, Thomas Bailey, to make an empirical study of folk songs. Though he never said it directly, a big event prompting this was the 1903 publication of African American scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Soul of Black Folks, which was a very eloquent and impassioned argument for racial justice. Among the things Du Bois argues is that spirituals — the sorrow songs of the slaves — are extraordinary documents of suffering and pain, as well as extraordinary political documents of protest against victimization. But he also argues that they are works of art — the most eloquent and moving folk songs ever produced on American soil — therefore, how could white America justify denying equal rights to the people who produced these songs? We know that Odum read this book because he quotes from it in his writings of 1910. He doesn’t exactly say who he is quoting, but he is quoting Du Bois. Clearly it was too threatening for him to cite it directly, but he read it and was very troubled by it.
PH This prompted him to record the songs …
MBH Yes, because he wanted to get empirical documentary evidence of what black people were actually singing. He was convinced that they were not singing spirituals — spirituals are beautiful artifacts of days gone by. Like so many other Southerners of his time, he believed that black people had deteriorated since the days of slavery, and had regressed to a kind of animal fate. So, he wanted to get objective data — much in the same way that physical anthropologists of the time were measuring heads with calipers as a way of getting objective data to show that black people were of lesser intelligence — and the way to get this data was with his recording machine. His intent was to show that black people were socially, mentally and morally inferior. So, in 1908, Odum took his recording device into the hills surrounding Oxford, Mississippi, and paid itinerant singers small change to sing into his recording machine.
In the process, several things happened, the first of which being that he was absolutely horrified by what he heard. I don’t think he was necessarily prepared for the experience of actually meeting black people face-to-face — of going into their homes and watching them perform — and he found what they sang to be completely repellent. Odum was a very upright, religious, Victorian young man, and at almost every level was completely horrified by what he heard, especially by the sexual suggestions in the music. However, at the same time, a part of him was actually compelled by it — he was too intelligent not to notice that there was a kind of artfulness in what he heard, and he became drawn into the recordings. Twenty years later, he realized that the very same songs he recorded in 1908 were now being sold commercially to a black audience on what were called “race records,” leading him to the understanding that he had actually recorded the blues long before the recording industry had. However, there is no way to hear what he recorded because he didn’t preserve the cylinders. In those days, social scientists couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to listen to the recordings later, so they scraped the recordings off the cylinders once they were transcribed.
PH So, Odum heard the blues before the commercial recording industry did …
MBH Yes, and we do get some kind of sense from him about what was being performed. What is also interesting is that we get the sense of just how powerful an instrument the recording machine would be. Odum was unsettled by the fact that these itinerant musicians he was recording were not in the least bit intimidated by this strange experience of standing in front of a machine and singing. They knew absolutely what this machine was for. Odum’s perspective was that it was a scientific instrument that would provide him his data, but from their perspective it was a tool to broadcast their voices to the world. Prior to recording a song, he said that one young man told him, “I need to say that because this song is going to be heard all the way around the world, I want to get credit for it.” So, they actually had a much more visionary sense of what this technology was capable of doing than Odum did, which in itself frightened him because it showed him that black people would no longer be merely a rural, pastoral folk — they were excited by all the possibilities of modernity.
PH Yes, and accuracy getting in the way of folklore is an issue for the documentarians When Odum returned to the subject in the mid 1920’s, he had already made the definition of “real folk blues” as opposed to what he calls “formal blues” on race records, and he wrote a book, Rainbow Round My Shoulder, which was a life history of Left Wing Gordon .
MBH That is an extraordinary story. Prompted by things that are going on in his own life, as well as the groundswell of white interest in African American culture — particularly in the northern cities that accompanied the “New Negro Movement” — he wrote this book, which turned out to be very successful. He went back to his materials from 1908 Mississippi and initially wrote two non-fiction books, The Negro and His Songs, and Negro Workaday Songs, in which he chronicles and makes sociological commentary on the songs he had been hearing. In the process of his researching and gathering new materials for Negro Workaday Songs, he claims to have stumbled upon a black construction worker singing on a construction site who he was completely entranced by. He returned the next day with a bottle of whisky and got this man to talk about his life, writing down everything he said. From this he wrote a book telling Left Wing Gordon’s life story, framing the book as a kind of black version of the Homeric hero, a wanderer expressing the spirit of his people and of his age. However, since Odum dictated the entire book to his secretary while standing in his office with his eyes closed, reciting the voices and singing the songs he remembered the workers singing to him, Gordon’s life story reads like fiction — and probably is fiction, really, although there are voices that you can identify from Odum’s field notes in it. But the really interesting thing about all of this is that the very same music Odum had described 20 years earlier as vicious and obscene was now being described as “folk-blues,” something that was haunting and endangered.
PH What was endangering it?
MBH Commercial race records. So, he was now looking back on these songs he collected as precious artifacts that the white commercial culture had seized upon, and felt that this was endangering something that was vital, and a force for a kind of social regeneration that we couldn’t afford to lose.
PH The revisionist thinking of, “Well, on second thought, these songs aren’t so bad after all,” comes up frequently in your book .
MBH That’s right.
PH Another folklorist you write about, Dorothy Scarborough, published a memoir, From a Southern Porch, which was a celebration of the old South .
MBH Scarborough was a fascinating figure. I wanted to tell her story because it was so representative of the many women who collected African American folklore during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Almost all of them were southerners, and virtually all of them were trying to resurrect and preserve what was called at the time the “Field time Negro,” the docile, missive, contented, amiable, “Mammy” or “Uncle” that they had or pretended to have had. These plantation memories, either real or imagined, were a way to elevate oneself in the southern social scene of this era.
Scarborough did, in fact, have a plantation background. She grew up in Texas, the daughter of a judge, and was a very intelligent, well-read young woman with ideas and ambitions that were virtually impossible for a woman living in the South to satisfy. So, she got out of the South as quickly as she could, leaving for Columbia University in New York, where she got her Ph.D. and a job teaching creative writing. She became a New Yorker, and almost immediately after became an avid professional southerner, full of memories of her youth, which she wrote about in her 1919 book From a Southern Porch. She then wrote a series of novels, all within a southern plantation setting.
In 1920, Scarborough was living in Morningside Heights, on the fringe of Harlem, when the first blues recording by an African American singer, Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues,” was released. It was a huge commercial success, even though it was marketed exclusively in the African American neighborhoods. Scarborough almost certainly knew of this success, because as this song and other race records began to be a force to be reckoned with on the cultural scene, she started a project to collect what she described as “genuine Negro melodies.” She took a few sabbaticals from Columbia and traveled throughout the South to collect these songs. But what was most fascinating about her was that on her journeys to the South she very rarely collected songs from “genuine Negroes.” Instead, she collected them from elderly white people like Dr. John Wyeth. He was a surgeon, had served in the Civil War, and had written a memoir called Some Favorite Scalpels about his time on the battlefields and in the operating room. He was a very elderly, very imminent man .