In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Another Technical Note
  2. La Ligne Maginot
  3. Actress Notes
  4. Technical Day
  5. Peripheral Explanation
  6. More Immigration Links
  7. Another Graphic Detournement
  8. Peripheral Artists (5): Mikhail Vrubel
  9. Illegal Update

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« More Elsewheres | Main | Guest Posting -- Mark's Teaching Company Choices »

December 03, 2004

Francis Davis on the Blues

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

A couple of months ago I took The Wife to a blues festival in the Mississippi Delta town of Helena, Arkansas. Its official name is the King Biscuit Blues Festival, but locals and veteran festivalgoers refer to it in fond shorthand. They say things like, "Hey, are you headin' over to the Biscuit?" and "The weather's even worse than it was at last year's Biscuit!" Well, The Wife and I headed over to the Biscuit despite the rain, and we had ourselves a great time.

We'd had our first encounter with the Delta two years ago, passing quickly through it during our first spin ever through the (non-New Orleans) South. Though we both fell in love with more or less the entire south, we tumbled hard for the Delta.

Have you ever been? It's a mysteriously wonderful place -- unremarkable in most ways, flat, and dirt poor. When you're driving along and first awake to the fact that you're now in "the Delta," you may wonder what the fuss is all about. But the place seeps into you. (It seeps into many people, in any case.) I'm anything but a superstitious or woo-woo guy, yet it didn't take long -- as in a half an hour -- before funny and marvelous things started happening to my thought processes. My time-sense shifted, and various guardians that normally supervise my brain's workings dissolved in the hot air.

My thoughts were swimming. The world seemed like an endlessly braiding and unbraiding quilt of interwoven stories and songs. I had the feeling that if I went out into the middle of any of those nondescript cotton fields and turned over any old rock, ghosts would emerge and would start singing songs and telling stories. Everything seemed to mingle in fragrant, beguiling, sexy, and somewhat frightening ways. The Wife felt the intoxication as strongly as I did, and we decided then and there that we wanted more Delta in our lives.

Which is why I arranged for us to head to the Biscuit. The festival was about as fun as could be. Well, I shouldn't be so cowardly: I found it not just fun but entrancing -- easygoing, rewarding, and deep. Doing the Biscuit isn't just about the music, not by any means. It was a total gestalt -- the people, the food, the pace, the vibes, and more: the whole easygoing, drunk-on-soulfulness thang of it. The food, by the way, is almost all fried. Delicious -- but it took us a couple of weeks to recover from it.

The Wife and I stayed at a beautiful b&b in Clarksdale, a onetime cotton town of around 20 thousand people that's often referred to as the home of the blues. Given the number of blues greats who were born or who lived there, or who (in Bessie Smith's case) died there, Clarksdale is sometimes said to be the birthplace of the blues. Clarksdale-ites include Son House, T-Model Ford, Pinetop Perkins, and John Lee Hooker. Muddy Waters lived for a while in a cabin outside town; Robert Johnson's Crossroads, where he sold his soul to the devil, isn't far away. The soul stars Sam Cooke and Ike Turner were born in Clarksdale. The actor Morgan Freeman hails from Clarksdale, too, and he has plowed some money into his beloved hometown, helping fund both a high-end soul-food restaurant -- first class! -- and a bar-restaurant-nightclub. There's an enjoyable, small Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, too, which makes the town's status in blues-lore semi-official.

Clarksdale is a divey town with a deteriorating economic base, aside from blues tourism; the cotton business is off, soybeans aren't doing so well either, and manufacturers keep closing up shop. It has a few pretty blocks -- Tennessee Williams lived on one for a stretch as a kid. But most of Clarksdale is poor and rundown, if picturesque and soulful. Still, if you know where you're going (we didn't, and we still don't), you can find a handful of genuine juke joints in town -- unofficial, no-regular-hours, drinkin'-and-dancin' places where you might (or might not) hear some legendary musicians. You might also encounter some mean drunks with knives, or so we were warned; if you want to visit a juke joint, it's apparently best to go in the company of someone who knows his way around, and has been accepted.

Novice Biscuit-goers (and weenie bluesfans, to be honest) that we were, The Wife and I kept to the main streets. It was fun, though, listening to veteran bluesfans talk about their own adventures. Good lord, but the stories in the South go on and on, don't they? This is something that can drive my hard-driving big-city Wife crazy with impatience; me, I can sit in the kitchen for hours and listen to people's stories unwind. Who needs Faulkner or Flannery O'Connor when you can listen to Miss Lillie telling you how to get to the store?

Some of the guests at our B&B were in town for their fifth Biscuit. Midwestern and whitebread as they were, they'd been bit just as hard by the Delta as we had. One guy has gotten so good at blues harmonica that he's now welcome to jam with the pros at the juke joints. One of the women had sold her house in the midwest and was looking for a place in the Delta to settle. They knew a lot of people in the Delta and in the blues scene, and they told us that they considered their blues acquaintances to be truer friends than their own people back in the midwest.

I'm hoping to pull together a few more thoughts and links about the south, the Delta, and the music. Time will tell. For now, I'll confine myself to some minor musing about the blues. Since the Biscuit, I've been on a blues kick: burning CDs to Itunes, flipping through books about the blues, feeling nostalgic for the Delta, and wondering why authentic (or at least straightforward) blues music is so hard to come by in NYC.

Two main hunches/theories/tips/observations so far.

  • One concerns a personal puzzle: although some of the art-things that have moved me most deeply through my life have been live blues performances, I seldom listen to the blues on recordings. Sometimes, sure: but I don't generally make a habit of it. I've just never been one of those all-blues 24/7 people. How to account for this?

    Hanging at the Biscuit helped me understand why. It's that the blues isn't just the sounds. Not by a long shot. Isolated and abstracted from everything else -- the people, the food and drink, the scene, the visuals, the personalities, the stories -- the sounds of the blues, while still fab, lack a lot. This is true of many different kinds of music, of course. But it seems -- to me at least -- to be far more true of the blues than of any other kind of music-performance mode. Opera, jazz, country, chamber music: I get a lot out of all of them in person, and I get a lot out of all of them on disc too. But the blues? Not nearly as much. I probably wouldn't have much interest in the blues if it weren't for experiencing the scene live.

    Which makes me think that those old cliches have something to them -- the ones about how the blues isn't a musical form but a way of being and feeling, an entire way of life in fact. You don't visit the blues merely to listen to the musicians. You're there for the vibes, the friendliness, for the flavor of the south itself. You're there to have a four-dimensional experience -- and that eerie, impossible-to-nail-down fourth dimension is an essential part of the experience. The CD version reduces the blues to one dimension only -- the sounds.

    I think this hunch of mine is substantiated by the way that, for many bluesfans (at least at the Biscuit), the blues becomes their world. As far as I could tell, for many bluesfans finding the blues is like finding where they always belonged; they feel like they've finally found their way home. They go to the festivals and the juke joints; they practice an instrument themselves; they know the faces, the legends, and often many of the performers. Since few blues performers are big stars in the pop-music sense -- and since few blues perfomers, even great ones, can support themselves via their music alone -- it's a very unpretentious scene. Performers are accessible and happy to chat with you; you're among friends, all of whom are here because we love the blues. The blues becomes not just a passion for many bluesfans; it becomes an all-embracing imaginative universe.

    In the Delta, even cloddish me could sense this "feels like comin' home" tug. The Delta is seedy, it's sweaty, it's poor. But it's also some kind of paradise. The blues can offer everything you might want from an involvement in the arts:- friendship; emotional and intellectual stimulation; vision and belief; ecstasy and solace; welcome. Yet the blues paradise is a very earthy paradise -- and "earthy" is its own reward too.

    The blues seems to have everything and nothing to do with race. As a commercial thing, the blues is dependent on the white audience, so we were happy to see that maybe a quarter of the audience at the Biscuit was black. On the other hand, when The Wife and I visited local black stores and restaurants, the sounds in the air were usually hiphop and TV soap-opera soundtracks, not blues. For the Helena locals, the blues seems to be good largely for attracting blues tourists.

    One night we stopped by Morgan Freeman's music hangout, where a couple of pale English bluesman were performing. They were sweet, likable, and proficient. They also clearly didn't have the blues. Their music was studied; it wasn't "lived." At the Biscuit, on the other hand, all the performers (on the various stages as well as busking on Helena's sidewalks) were effortlessly living the blues. I started to gather that the blues is more like a frequency to be found than an exalted state to be aspired to. All the true blues person has to do is tune into it. And this living-the-blues thing held whether the performers were black, creole, white, or (in one case) Asian.

    As you'd expect, the festival was bursting with brilliant black talent. It hit me how for-granted we Americans take the existence of tons of black musical talent. What a luxury: thwappin' bassists; guitarists who make their instruments talk; drummers able to locate all kinds of nasty and funny beats; singers with voices (and stage presences) the size of all outdoors. How glorious is this -- yet how for-granted we take it too. We just assume it'll always be there, ready to perform. What would America be like if all our black musical talent decided they'd had enough of being taken for granted, and stopped playing? Even so, it was also striking how many of the black headliners had white guys in their bands. And these white guys were great; they were living the blues too.

    I'm obviously finding it impossible to capture what it means to "live the blues" in words, but I can at least report that I found the presence (or absence) of the blues so apparent that it was impossible to deny the fact; it'd have been like denying that it was raining. There it was (or wasn't), and we all knew it. We applauded that English duo for making a nice try. But many of the performers at the Biscuit were clearly living, embodying, and projecting the blues even before they started to sing or play their instrument. Some people live the blues like a fact of life; some people, no matter how much they love and admire the blues, are doomed to look at it from the outside.

  • My other blues discovery is something I've run into in the weeks since the Biscuit: a book I love, "The History of the Blues," by the jazz critic Francis Davis. (It's out of print, but copies can sometimes be bought here.) Of the half-dozen blues books I've looked at over the last couple of months, it's the one I've gotten the most out of.

    BTW, and as far as I'm concerned, the classic book about the blues -- as well as about African-American culture generally -- is Albert Murray's "Stomping the Blues," which is one of the most eye-ear-and-brain-opening books I've ever read. I'll sing a hymn to this fabulous book in its own posting. But Davis' book is beyond first-class in its own way, and I'm enthralled.

    Do you have much patience for writing about the blues generally? I don't. Much writing about the blues is so off in its own mythopoeticizing world that it brings out the prissy skeptic in me rather than the enthusiast; sad to say, but most of the blues writing I've read has put me off the blues rather than brought me in. I sometimes enjoy reading this kind of thing -- well, at one point in my life I did. But I've lost my taste for madman-critic-baying-at-the-moon stuff. Instead, I crave information, tips, and context. To the extent that I'm to be given a critic's insights and interpretations, I want them concise, snappy, and helpful.

    Davis' book fits the bill. His main theme is that the blues is a more complicated phenomenon than it's usually made out to be. The usual story makes the blues out to be two things: a pure folk music, and an offshoot of politics and sociology. It's made out to be the unmediated expression of an oppressed people contending with their oppression and craving freedom, in other words.

    Davis complexifies this picture considerably. In his version of the story, the roots of the blues extend in every which direction: not just to the field hollers of slaves, but to minstrel shows too; not just to the cotton pickers, but to professional vaudevillians as well. The book is full of concrete, vivid details. Early blues singers, it turns out, often didn't specialize in the blues; they often had considerable repertoires, with the blues being just one of the many kinds of music they performed. And, although we like to think of the blues as the music of hardworking poor folk, actual blues performers were often people who were devoted to avoiding conventional poor-people work.

    As you can probably tell from the above paragraph, Davis is good on practicalities. In one section, for example, Davis writes about the the first blues performers to be recorded. Surprisingly, these weren't solitary country-blues artists. Instead, they were women who came from vaudeville backgrounds more often than downhome ones. Why were they soon replaced by guys who accompanied themselves on the guitar? In large part because the Depression made record companies look for cheap ways to make blues recordings, and unknown guys with guitars were a whole lot cheaper to hire than well-known shobiz women with bands.

    Davis is especially strong on the impact that recording technology and economic developments have had on the art form. At the same time, he's an evocative and snappy writer when it comes to characterizing and appreciating the work of the artists themselves. They're never mere pawns of sociology, theory, or politics.

    In other words, his book suits my current tastes to a T: sensible, open-minded, and down-to-earth about the contexts the blues have existed in, but helpful, admiring, and insightful about the artists and their work. No surprise then to discover, on scanning some of the Amazon reader reviews of this book, that some of the book's reviewers dislike it. What they dislike is that Davis doesn't re-heat the old legends. They're offended by Davis' down-to-earthness; they want the myth instead. They're happy with the myth, I guess; and maybe there's no harm in that. But me, I appreciate Davis' practicality.

    Davis does a little too much typing-for-the-sake-of-not-stopping, and he can be a little over-personal and over-discursive. But -- ahem -- who am I to dump on anyone for excess verbiage and excessively associative writing? (Glass houses, etc.) That said: would you even want a book about the blues to be a perfect artifact? I wouldn't. Books should generally suit their subjects. It seems sensible to me that a book about ballet should strive for formal perfection; the art of ballet itself is concerned with the ideal, after all. But part of what's great about the blues -- and certainly part of why I love the blues -- is its embrace of the messily imperfect, wild-and-wooly thing that life is.

Here are some fun and informative passages from Davis' book:

Paul Oliver, an Englishman who's probably the world's leading authority on the blues, estimates that as many as three quarters of the blues recorded since 1920 are about sexual relationships, often of an aberrant or pathological nature ...

Whites have enjoyed black music from the beginning, and there have never been very many secrets between the races in the South ... Newspaper ads of the early nineteenth century emphasized the musical abilities of slaves for sale: so far as Southern whites were concerned, Negroes gave the best return on the entertainment dollar. "Mighty seldom I played for colored," Sam Chatmon ... once explained to a BBC interviewer. "They didn't have nothing to hire you with." ...

It was usually more expedient for a company to send its representative to the Delta than it would have been to send him to, say, Dallas or Fort Worth -- likewise more expedient to bring a singer from the Delta to Chicago than to pay his fare all the way from Texas ...

Minstrels are still with us, though they now forgo the burnt cork. Mick Jagger, the most famous of contemporary minstrels, sings and struts as though trying to get in touch with his Inner Negro ...

Nineteenth-century minstrelsy can be seen as both a perpetuation of a cruel status quo and the first sign of change, a form of theater and a form of drag, an entry into a world in which black could be white, white could be black, anything could be itself and simultaneously its opposite ...

Minstrel shows provided scores of white Americans with their first taste of black music ... The appearance on stage of make-believe blacks ultimately paved the way for authentic black performers ...

The Delta's blues singers were the genre's transcendentalists, their lyrics pondering the nature of faith, the purpose of life, the inevitability of death. Something abou the Delta inspired introspection on the part of men whose lives allowed little time for it ...

This slow but steady migration from the plantations to nearby small towns [in the 1920s] occurred simultaneously with the migration that everyone knows about -- the one that brought the arrival in the North of an estimated 6.5 million blacks from all over the South in the years between 1910 and 1970, ultimately changing the complexion of America's Northern urban areas and making race a national, rather than just a Southern, issue. As late as 1940, over three quarters of America's black population was Southern ...

The nation's most chronic povery can be found here [in the Delta], atop the nation's most fertile soil ... Median family income in the Delta is half the national standard, and the median for black families is just half that of whites. The infant mortality rate is the highest in the nation, far exceeding that of many Third World contries ....

Despite its origins as folk expression and its present status as a subject for academic inquiry, the blues has always been understood by its performers and audiences to beabove all else a form of entertainment ...

The "coon" songs of the Ragtime Era, which achieved their greatest popularity more or less simultaneously with such malarky as "Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral" and "My Wild Irish Rose," helped to blacken the beat of American popular music long before rock 'n' roll ... These were the songs that George M. Cohan, Irving Berlin, and George Gershwin used as models for their own "blues," rhythm, and ragtime songs ...

Women dominated the first few years of blues recording ... Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were not only the most popular of what are now generally referred to as the "classic blues singers"; they are the only two whose reputations have survived from their time to ours. Their contemporaries haven't been as lucky, in part because the very qualities that endeared them to black audiences of the 1920s -- their glamorous wardrobes and practiced stagecraft, their mastery of jazz and vaudeville as well as blues, their sense of themselves as part of show business -- place them out of bounds to folklorists ...

The decline of the women blues vaudevillians was as swift as their ascent, hastened even before Black Friday by the introduction of talking pictures in 1927, which resulted in the construction of Deco movie palaces equipped for sound but not necessarily outfitted with runways and orchestra pits; movies were now a show unto themselves ...

It wasn't as though black audiences of the 1930s suddenly outgrew their infatuation with female blues vaudevillians. It was just that singer/guitarists from Mississippi or Texas or the Carolinas were cheaper to record. Unlike the women, they didn't require songwriters or backup musicians. They sometimes didn't even require a recording studio ...

Before they ended, however, the women blues vaudevillians helped to change the course of American popular music, loosening up both its rhythms and its inhibitions. They introduced countless listeners in other parts of the country to the music of the rural South, simultaneously treating their fans back home to the spectacle of wealth and glamour at a time when there were no black movie stars or professional atheltes. They gave many record buyers their first real taste of hot jazz. Not least of all, their success made it possiblefor the rural male performers to record...

FWIW, I've so far caught up only with episode one of the recent Martin Scorsese-sponsored series about the blues -- but episode one was Scorsese's own episode. I loved the show. It was a little conventional, but it had a beautiful flow, amazing footage of old-timers -- watching Son House perform is something that'll make your hair stand on end, believe me -- as well as some talented youngsters. Come to think of it, I liked Scorsese's blues documentary (with a script by Robert Palmer) better than I've liked any of Scorsese's recent fiction films.

Albert Murray argues that our folk tales (B'rer Rabbit, for instance) and the blues constitute our oral tradition -- the (relatively) raw narrative material of America, something akin to the patchwork stories that Homer took and transformed into "The Odyssey." Seen this way, the blues are some of the building blocks of our culture. I buy Murray's argument entirely and, doing so, confess that I have a fantasy: a course about the blues -- everything about the blues (history, music, food, legends, economics, influence) -- that all college freshmen would be required to take. But maybe it's better that we discover some things -- such as the blues -- for ourselves.

Sandor Gulyas keeps a page of photos of Clarksdale here; he's put some photos of Helena here. Bluesweenie I may be, but even I know that Blind Pig and Fat Possum turn out a lot of first-class blues records.



posted by Michael at December 3, 2004


In my late teens, I loved sneaking off with a bunch of my friends to hear wonderful blues music at The Bluebird. It was an old run-down bar in the middle of an inner city black community, and we were middle-classed, whitebread kids acting cool. In the midst of coolness, we discovered great music and acceptance in a neighborhood that was off limits to us. My mother would have grounded me for life if she ever found out where I had been. I suppose there might have been the tantalizing element of danger, but the music is what we came back for again and again.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on December 3, 2004 10:36 PM

You sound like someone who can answer this.
There's a new Land Rover commercial with an ass
kicking blues back. I think the name of the tune
might be 'I Travel'. I also think it might be
Howlin' Wolf. Me and my brother need to know.
Any clue? Send it to my email if you know.
Thanks in advance. Steel

Posted by: Steel Turman on December 4, 2004 04:33 AM

It's a very endearing trait but I must point seems like every vacation you take is the-best-vacation-you've-ever-had. California, Sedona, the French Caribbean, a college year in the Delta. I think you get swept away with wherever you are. It's nice...but it does make you just slightly suspect as a travel agent!! I sometimes get the sense that you could go to--I dunno---Hershey, Pennsylvania, and you'd be cooing about chocolate making, and how UNBELIEVABLE it is. It seems your hardboiled New York publishing world cynicism drops off like so much armour when you get in your car and hit the accelerator! :)

Posted by: annette on December 4, 2004 05:40 PM

Pattie -- That's a great memory of teenagehood, thanks. I wish I had a similar one. Never made it to any soul or blues clubs at that age, though. Alas.

Steel -- Sounds rockin', but sorry to say that I haven't seen or heard the commercial. Howlin' Wolf's got one of the harder-to-mistake blues voices, though -- supergruff, a range of about four notes, kinda scary ... Usually, if you think it's Howlin' Wolf, it is.

Annette -- So true! I guess I can be a pretty rhapsodic guy. Here's hoping that's an endearing trait. The Wife and I are starting to plan next year's Big Vacation. I'll probably be burbling over with enthusiasm for that one pretty soon. Have you taken any trips that've thrilled you recently? Nothing quite like getting away, is there? Freshens the mind and the senses ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 4, 2004 05:51 PM

This is a brilliant and deeply felt posting, and please don't take its measure by the relative paucity of comments, Michael.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 12, 2004 01:31 PM

The "Delta" is a truly unique region, and the birthplace of much of American popular culture. Hershey, PA has candy bars.

Posted by: terry buckalew on December 22, 2004 11:10 AM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?