Monday, March 10, 2014

I Thought I Heard James McKune Say: A Review of In Search of the Blues by Marybeth Hamilton


In the Beatles mockumentary “All You Need Is Cash” – tracing the story of the “prefab Four,” the Rutles – the narrator (played by Eric Idle) looks to discover the “black origins of Rutle music.”  To do so, he travels to the Mississippi River in Louisiana, “the cradle of the blues,” or, as he explains,  “black music sung mainly by whites”.  What he finds are the musicians Blind Lemon Pye, who it turns out only became a musician because of the Rutles; and Ruttling Orange Peel, who claims the Rutles visited him and stole his music – as did Frank Sinatra, the Everly Brothers, and Lawrence Welk.  The narrator can only conclude that “we seem to be rather wasting our time here . . . still, pretty, isn’t it?”

Marybeth Hamilton, in In Search of the Blues (2008), acknowledges this absurdity in the search for the origins of music like the blues.


In purporting to reveal a music’s beginnings – the moment of emergence, when we can see it in its pure, unadulterated, natural state – stories of musical origins are always social and political fables. (p. 188)

Certainly, with musical forms (like blues, or jazz, or rock ‘n’ roll) reflecting a gradual development rather than a sudden invention, fashioning an origin story out of a complex set of cultural systems is naturally selective, and purpose-driven.  In addition, with blues and jazz, the development lies largely or completely outside the popular recording industry, meaning documentation is limited.  

So it should not surprise us that recent scholarship on the blues has been characterized by revisionism, by the puncturing of myth (see a summary of these in Christian O’Connell, “The Color of the Blues: Considering Revisionist Blues Scholarship,” Spring 2013).  Deconstruction is by now a longstanding genre in scholarly writing, and the myths of the blues are ripe for deconstruction.  Along with Elijah Wald’s Escaping the Delta, Hamilton’s book is the most prominent of these works.  For Hamilton, the origins of the blues in the Mississippi Delta are a myth; instead, the origins – or, at least the origins of the myth, or the origins of our conception of the blues – are to be found in the song collectors, record collectors, critics, and enthusiasts of the blues and African-American music generally over the first two-thirds of the 20th century.  But is Hamilton’s narrative correct?  How does she deal with the fact that, in her own words, “stories of musical origins are always social and political fables”?




Hamilton’s strength is as a storyteller: she is a good stylist, and her book is a quick and engaging read.  But, on closer inspection, the breezy style is prized over accuracy.  When you slow down and actually mull over the quick-moving sentences, mistakes crop up everywhere.  The first blues recording, the years of the decline and disappearance of the 78 rpm record, the years that Jelly Roll Morton made his seminal Victor recordings, the name of the woman who played the first blues Morton ever heard, the date of Morton’s final Library of Congress session – all of these are in error.

Other problems are more serious.  Hamilton’s inconsistent definitions of the blues – the “signature AAB verse form” (p. 27); the “so-called blues chord progression or an AAB rhyming scheme” (p. 167) – are incomplete and suggest a lack of intimate knowledge of the form: What about blue notes?  And, while the AAB pattern implies (but does not make explicit) a 12-bar blues (which she never discusses), what about verses of other lengths (8 measures, 16 measures), which were especially typical in early blues like the ones Howard Odum collected?  Meanwhile, there is more than the one line of evidence she suggests (song collections) for the date of the origins of the blues – she is entirely unfamiliar with recent work by Abbott and Seroff and Muir, among others, discussing “proto-blues” sheet music from the first decade of the 20th century and the early vaudeville setting for the blues.  Not surprisingly, then, she is also confused about the relationship between blues and jazz.  Hamilton claims (p. 167) that the blues revival of the 1960s invented the distinction between blues and jazz, and that beforehand these terms were used interchangeably.  While the blues revival might have invented the idea of blues as a music genre or style (as jazz is), among the several definitions of the blues that appear to have been in circulation prior to 1960, none of these was “jazz”.  Most commonly, blues were seen as a song form, not a style like jazz at all – in other words, the very definition that Hamilton alludes to but fails to grasp in discussion of verse form and rhyming scheme, etc.  Certainly, Jelly Roll Morton, an articulate theorist of music, always saw them as quite distinct, contrary to Hamilton’s claims about him: after all, Morton recognized blues as a type of folk song he heard growing up, while he himself invented jazz in 1902!

In all of this, Hamilton’s relationship to facts reminds me of the great 19th-century historian Jacob Burckhardt, who wrote to a young scholar:


One really only needs to use such facts as are characteristic of an idea, or a vivid mark of a time.  Our nervous strength and our eyesight are too precious to waste on the study of external facts of the past, unless we are archivists, county historians or something of the sort.


This statement is of course just a single moment in the longstanding tension between those positivist historians focusing on the “event” and those focusing on generalizations of  “cultural history”.  But, surely, our picture of the past consists of a mosaic of such “mere facts” (as Burckhardt dismissed them); with too many facts wrong or missing, the picture becomes distorted, or simply unintelligible.  In this case, we are talking about fundamental questions: When, where, and how did the blues develop? What is the relationship between blues and jazz?  What are the blues?  And yet these are issues that Hamilton largely fails to understand.  So, what explains her apparent indifference to facts?


The answer lies, I think, in Hamilton’s final chapter (“The Real Negro Blues”).  As many reviewers have correctly noted, this chapter – in which she gives her version of the events leading to the blues revival of the 1960s – forms the heart of the entire book.  It begins with an extended story of how an obsessive collector named James McKune discovered the country blues.  At the end of the 10-page account, Hamilton announces that


all that is simply a plausible story based on speculation and inference. (p. 210)


In other words, the entire story is essentially made up.  Here, Hamilton’s ultimate goal becomes clear: it is not to explain how the blues were “invented,” but rather to invent and substitute her own alternative mythology of the blues.  In fact, Hamilton has already hinted that this is where her sympathies lie.  In writing about the authors of Jazzmen and explaining the factual errors in their account of the origins of jazz, she writes,


The truth they aspired to was poetic, not literal, conveyed not by solid nuggets of information independently verified by outside authorities, but by color, by atmosphere, by the quality of feeling that the tales evoked. (p. 177)

Hamilton indicates that this is meant as a defense of Jazzmen’s authors.  Clearly, for her, poetic truth is a perfectly acceptable goal for critical scholarship.  In step with the times, Hamilton thinks that the search for origins is a poetic fantasy; but, instead of abandoning the search for origins, Hamilton embraces the poetic fantasy, constructing her own origin myth.  And herein lies the key to understanding her indifference to facts: it is a mistake of the reader, a mistake of assigning genre.

Reading In Search of the Blues in this light, we are forced to confront the question of Hamilton’s reliability: do her mistakes of fact result from sloppiness – an indifference to the facts – or are they deliberate?  Can we trust her?  When we read (p. 233) that Columbia’s Robert Johnson LP compilation King of the Delta Blues Singers was released in 1963 (it was really 1961), we can only question her motives.  After all, this redating allows her to give greater primacy to the blues LPs released by one of her circle of blues revivalists on his Origin Jazz Library label (which she always refers to mistakenly as “Origins Jazz Library”, pp. 229-232). 

This understanding of Hamilton’s goals puts the literary quality of her prose in a new light.   Her breezy style, then, is not merely for drawing the reader in, but is tied to the subjective nature of the work as a whole.  So is her use of introductory clauses, with facts thereby related in passing – but at the same time bestowing an air of authority.  Her heavy use of descriptors further heightens the subjectivity.  While these features may not be appropriate for what we think of as “history,” for “historical fiction” or mythology they are the perfect style choices.

One of Hamilton’s literary devices is the use of a few emblematic figures to represent a large range of persons, as a type or an idea.  Unfortunately, this sort of representation opens the door to oversimplification and error – a kind of inaccurate shorthand.  Thus Victor and Gennett stand (until the final chapter) for all race record labels (even though the artists she mentions recorded widely for many other labels); Benny Goodman and Paul Whiteman stand for popular artists during the Swing Era (oddly, since Whiteman was well past the peak of his popularity).  And the country blues are constantly reduced to four artists: Skip James, Robert Johnson, Son House, and Charley Patton.  Tommy Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Ishman Bracey, and so many others are completely passed over.

In fact, Hamilton repeatedly conflates the country blues and the Delta blues.  She fails to acknowledge that the country blues embraced a variety of acoustic blues styles from the South, most notably the Piedmont blues centered on Georgia.  And even though it gave pride of place to the Delta blues, the blues revival had a much larger canon than Hamilton’s four Delta blues artists, or the Delta blues generally.  Between 1963 and 1966, the Newport Folk Festival not only featured rediscovered Delta blues artists like Skip James, Son House, and Mississippi John Hurt, but also blues artists from the rest of the South like Rev. Gary Davis and Sleepy John Estes.  Even British guitarist Syd Barrett renamed his band by combining the first names of Pink Anderson and Floyd Council – two Piedmont blues musicians from the Carolinas. 

Throughout the entire book, the myths of the blues (and jazz and folk) are shaped by scholars and collectors and writers – all (or almost all) white.  The musicians themselves – all black – are oddly sidelined, losing all agency.  (These disturbing issues, especially the racial one, were noted by Dave Marsh in his NYT review).  Leadbelly, for instance, is presented as the pawn first of the intensely conservative John Lomax, then of the left wing radicals of late 1930s New York.  Or, when Hamilton describes the “rediscovery” of pioneer country blues artists in the blues revival, we read:



In what seemed like an instant, the Delta blues acquired living, breathing embodiments. (p. 236)


The musicians are not even treated as real people – they are simply “embodiments” of the music.  Is this viewpoint even hers, or supposed to be that of the collectors behind the revival?  Another feature of Hamilton’s poetic style is that this is so often unclear. 

At the heart of her myth is her own tragic hero: James McKune, the obsessive collector who supposedly shaped the musical tastes of the entire blues revival.  As with the story of Buddy Bolden – the legendary (in multiple senses of the term) New Orleans cornetist who, in older histories of the music, was supposedly the first jazz musician – there is almost no documentary evidence; instead, we have simply the memories of his associates (in the case of McKune, fellow record collectors) decades later.  Or so Hamilton would have us believe.  A half-hour of searching online led me to several details of McKune’s early life; for instance, instead of coming from “Baltimore, or Albany, or North Carolina” (p. 210), McKune was apparently born and definitely grew up in Long Island City, Queens.  McKune, then, is Hamilton’s Buddy Bolden, her Robert Johnson – and she very consciously shapes his narrative, or lack of it, to highlight his mythic stature:


As much as Son House or Charley Patton, as much even as Robert Johnson, James McKune, in the end, is the enigma at the heart of the Delta blues . . .” (p. 244)


McKune dedicated his life to finding a blues voice that was intense, raw, and defiantly marginal, and he ended his days as a homeless, friendless wanderer, dying in circumstances as violent, mysterious, and sexually charged as Robert Johnson himself.  It is perhaps too pat, too easy, but not wholly unjustified, to let that image sum up his story: the record collector down and out on Skid Row, clinging fiercely to his blues vision—living the life of the alienated drifter, scorning the pull of the marketplace, uncorrupted to the very end. (p. 246)


In the final judgment, the book fails as a factual account – but to me Hamilton clearly did not intend it to be judged on these terms.  Then, what about as myth?  The power of myth is in its allure, its ability to create exciting, engaging heroes and worlds.  To this effect, let’s consider how Hamilton bookends her work.  These are the two places where she inserts herself most directly into the narrative, in the form of two pilgrimages.  She begins with a trek to retrace the steps of blues pilgrims to the Mississippi Delta – the romanticized land of wandering bluesmen, crossings (the crossing of the Southern and Yellow Dog railroads; the crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil), the land seemingly untouched by time.  Then, at the end, she matches this with her own personal pilgrimage . . . to the former Williamsburg Y, where, for a quarter century, James McKune lived in a room alone with his records.  There she discovers a boarded-up main entrance, eventually making her way into an “empty and soulless” lobby; so she steps outside, to imagine the reclusive life of a nondescript postal clerk.  The alluring images, of a journey through the mists of legend, are stripped away, now replaced by the absurd – an empty pilgrimage that will attract no other pilgrims.  And so, fittingly enough, ends her story.

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