The Construction of the Blues Tradition

Posted Monday June 1, 2009 by John Gunders in |

I don’t mean to boast, but I got a rare gig on Saturday, and my blues three-piece got to come out of the lounge room and play in front of an actual audience of actual people. Actually, we were supporting a 50s-60s covers band who were doing a fund-raiser for the local church’s Girl Brigade group, so the presence of a lot of impressionable nine-year-old girls in the audience was slightly amusing considering the songs in our set:

“Undercover Agent for the Blues”, Tony Joe White (“I was blinded by the blackness of her long silk stockings”; “She kept on getting kinkier”)

“I’m a Stranger Babe”, John Lee Hooker (“Don’t drive me from your door / Let me stay the night with you”)

“In the Midnight Hour”, Wilson Pickett (“Oh babe I’m gonna hold you / Do all the things I told you”)

OK, unlike a lot of blues, these are suggestive rather than overt, and I’m sure no one could understand my vocals anyway, but an old bluesman (I can’t remember who it was, but he was interviewed in one of the PBS documentaries introduced by Martin Scorsese) claims that the only real blues songs are about “S. E. X.”

This intersected nicely with an article I was reading the day before, which had the thesis that what we understand as the blues tradition was carefully shaped by blues scholars to elide the raunchy, explicit songs that were popular at the time:

The 1920s and 1930s saw the release of hundreds of raunchy blues recordings by male as well as female singers: ‘Handy Man’, recorded by Victoria Spivey and Alberta Hunter; ‘Kitchen Man’, recorded by Bessie Smith and Sara Martin; ‘I Got the Best Jelly Roll in Town’, recorded by Lonnie Johnson; ‘Tight Like That’, recorded by just about everybody. All those songs found a ready audience, but none more sensationally than ‘Empty Bed Blues’. By virtually everyone’s reckoning, it was one of the biggest hits of Bessie Smith’s career, and, given Smith’s central place for the era’s blues audience, it must be ranked as one of the definitive blues hits of the inter-war years. (133)

However this “commercial” music was an embarrassment to the scholars who saw it as “‘a burlesque of African-American sexuality’, more minstrel-show caricature than authentic blues” (134). Preferable was an obscure itinerant bluesman who was little known outside the Mississippi delta, and only managed a handful of recordings before his death in 1938 aged 27. That was of course Robert Johnson, whose short life is now the subject of much mythology; inductee into the “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” and named among Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.

All this isn’t really surprising to anyone who has looked at the hypocritical constructions of authenticity that surround most genres of popular music, but it is interesting that in spite of Johnson’s undoubted genius as a guitarist, it took the prudish disapproval of the scholars, who wanted to suppress what they dismissed as inauthentic, to elevate him to the legendary status that he now enjoys:

With its unabashed appeal to audience laughter, its salacious delight in sheer physicality, Smith’s song fairly trumpets its inauthenticity at least in the eyes of blues commentators since the late l950s, the opening years of the blues revival, when white Americans and Europeans discovered the music, and, through blues festivals, LP anthologies, specialist magazines and book-length blues histories, gradually reclaimed a music that African-Americans were leaving behind. (134)

It is important to remember that all genres and periods are constructed retrospectively, and that there is always a hidden agenda—even if it is only a taste issue. And it was probably good for rock music that Robert Johnson’s reputation outgrew Bessie Smith’s, because his influence led directly to people like Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and gave us bands like Cream and Led Zeppelin.

And I can’t imagine what I would have ended up singing to the little girls if modern blues had owed its heritage to Bessie Smith…

Reference: Hamilton, Marybeth. “Sexuality, Authenticity and the Making of the Blues Tradition.” Past & Present 169 (2000): 132-160.

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