“SENSUAL AS A GOAT?” Hamilton portrays early blues chroniclers as unaware of their own racist bias.
In Search of the Blues
| By Marybeth Hamilton | Published by Basic Books | 320 pages, $24.95
Demystifying the origins of the blues has become a cottage publishing industry. Volumes have been written about the lives of such legendary figures as Leadbelly, Skip James, Muddy Waters, and Charlie Patton, as well as the collision of African and European cultures that birthed the genre.
Author Marybeth Hamilton comes to the fold as a welcome nay-sayer. She claims that one of the accepted cornerstones of blues history — that the music’s earliest recorded rural practitioners were part of a shared and exclusive style, Delta blues — is not only wrong but the result of distortions by white middle- and upper-class song hunters who cast themselves as the discoverers of this music and built a mythology around it. She contends, as did Elijah Wald in Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, (2004), that the so-called forefathers of the music were diverse artists for whom blues was just one part of a popular repertoire necessary to please audiences of the day.
In Search of the Blues also contends that field scouts like sociologist Howard Odum (the first to canvass Mississippi with a recording machine in search of African-American songs) and folklorist John Lomax, as well as New York socialite Dorothy Scarborough and the obsessive record collector James McKune, all developed the Delta mythology because they viewed the music and its makers through a racism-tinted prism that continues to color perceptions about the blues.
Hamilton teaches American history at the University of London’s Birkbeck College and does commentary for the BBC. The book opens as she’s on her own Mississippi odyssey, looking for signs of the Old South’s gothic decay as it’s been portrayed in so many books about the land where the blues began. She finds one in the ruins of a railroad bridge along a desolate highway. As she photographs the clusters of swamp-sunk timbers, she realizes that the stark primitivism of the landscape — still obvious in rural Mississippi — provided the mostly Northern and Western blues hunters of the 1920s though 1960s with a subliminal framework for viewing the musicians they found. “The region’s first boosters, in the early twentieth century, portrayed it as a place outside history.”
Later, while exploring Smithsonian song hunter John Lomax’s visits to Southern prisons to search for musicians, she writes, “The convicts as Lomax described them were a kind of human landscape, fierce and insensible, but no more aware of their own rugged beauty than were Arctic glaciers or desert crevasses.” Describing the profile of Leadbelly silhouetted against the moon, Lomax wrote of seeing “his black, black face shining like a bronzed statue.” Lomax also wrote that “I can find no little feeling for beauty in him. . . . He is sensual as a goat, and when he sings to me my spine tingles and sometimes the tears come.” Hamilton comments, “For Lomax, Leadbelly’s sheer animalism made the delicate nuances of his voice all the more haunting, an emotional response so deeply ingrained in him that he could not see the questions it was beginning to raise.”
Hamilton believes that it’s time to re-evaluate our perceptions about the music’s roots. She’s probably right. The notion of African-Americans as savages is still part of the marketing plans of some labels. Fat Possum has made a point of calling the criminal records of its artists to the attention of journalists and documentarians. The label put a cartoon of R.L. Burnside brandishing a belt near two women on the cover of his A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, and it photographed a child pointing a gun outward for T-Model Ford’s Pee-Wee Get My Gun. One could argue that such tactics have helped propel the artists into better lives. But Hamilton would have us ask ourselves whether anyone’s short-term profit or notoriety is worth the promotion of such stereotypes.