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I could DIE doin' this" - Yank Rachell encouraging Dan Smith on Night Latch Blues

Author Topic: Book review of Cohn, Lomax, Calt & Wardlow, et al  (Read 4372 times)

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Offline outfidel

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Book review of Cohn, Lomax, Calt & Wardlow, et al
« on: January 11, 2007, 11:21:18 AM »
a friend e-mailed me this 1994 article from the New York Review of Books, for which you need a subscription to read online

THE GENIUS OF THE BLUES
By Luc Sante

Nothing But the Blues: The Music and the Musicians
edited by Lawrence Cohn
Abbeville Press, 432 pp., $45.00

The Land Where the Blues Began
by Alan Lomax
Pantheon, 539 pp., $15.00 (paper)

King of the Delta Blues: The Life and Music of Charlie Patton
by Stephen Calt, by Gayle Wardlow
Rock Chapel Press, 341 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Searching for Robert Johnson
by Peter Guralnick
Dutton, 83 pp., $15.00

Love in Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson
by Alan Greenberg
Da Capo, 252 pp., $13.95 (paper)


See the attached PDF for the full review
« Last Edit: January 11, 2007, 11:24:03 AM by outfidel »
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Offline waxwing

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Re: Book review of Cohn, Lomax, Calt & Wardlow, et al
« Reply #1 on: January 11, 2007, 09:40:35 PM »
And, as reported on the 'Shed, looks like King of the Delta Blues: The Life and Music of Charlie Patton is being reissued. Now don't all of us feel silly for paying upwards from $50 on ebay for our copies? I do.

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Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Book review of Cohn, Lomax, Calt & Wardlow, et al
« Reply #2 on: January 11, 2007, 11:38:41 PM »
And, as reported on the 'Shed, looks like King of the Delta Blues: The Life and Music of Charlie Patton is being reissued. Now don't all of us feel silly for paying upwards from $50 on ebay for our copies? I do.
Relatively speaking the $14.95 I paid for it in 1988 seemed like a huge sum of money for a paperback.  ;D  The Skip James six years later of similar pagination was the same price.

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Book review of Cohn, Lomax, Calt & Wardlow, et al
« Reply #3 on: January 12, 2007, 05:48:45 AM »
Hey Wax, has it been mentioned anywhere else that the Patton book is being reprinted? I know that Wardlow was talking about (but not completely sure of) a revised edition of Chasin' That Devil Music. Perhaps that has confused someone?

It would be great if the Patton book did indeed come back into print. Despite its faults (rather judgmental of other players, as noted in the article Outfidel posted), it deserves to be in print.

And I paid $14.95 like BH.  :P

Thanks for that article, Outfidel!

Offline dj

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Re: Book review of Cohn, Lomax, Calt & Wardlow, et al
« Reply #4 on: January 12, 2007, 06:14:41 AM »
Quote
Despite its faults (rather judgmental of other players, as noted in the article Outfidel posted), it deserves to be in print.

I'd agree that the book should be in print, though it has some rather large faults which Uncle Bud failed to mention - it's pretty disorganized and lacks a discography and sessionography.  Actually, the best work on Patton is the collection of essays that comes with the Revenant boxed set.  Though at a $150 list price, it's unfortunately rather a specialist item.
   

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Book review of Cohn, Lomax, Calt & Wardlow, et al
« Reply #5 on: January 12, 2007, 07:41:26 AM »
Yes, the temptation of those essays in the Revenant set may just force me to buy it one day, despite having old Yazoos, new Yazoos, Catfish and JSP sets, not to mention some Documents. Right now it's going for $194 Canadian on Amazon. Unfortunately, at that price, I'd feel a lot more silly than Waxy paying through the nose for the Calt book, just to get the essays (and stickers of course). But I suppose I owe it to myself.  :P

It is strange there's no discography in Calt. Same omission is made in the Skip James book.

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Book review of Cohn, Lomax, Calt & Wardlow, et al
« Reply #6 on: January 12, 2007, 10:29:45 AM »
It would be great if the Patton book did indeed come back into print. Despite its faults (rather judgmental of other players, as noted in the article Outfidel posted), it deserves to be in print.
Here's a lengthy feature review from Blues & Rhythm 45, July 1989 p 20-21:

Chris Smith reviews "King Of The Delta Blues", Steve Calt and Gayle Wardlow's long awaited rundown on Charlie Patton, which also runs down everyone else...

Eight years ago "Blues Unlimited" published an exchange between the authors of this book and David Evans, the former accusing the latter of unethical suppression of their manuscript, the latter defending himself. Now we have an opportunity to find out what the fuss was all about, with the publication of a book that, even in advance of reading it, can safely be adjudged an important contribution to blues literature, using as it does the first significant field research on Patton, carried out as long ago as 1965 to 1972.

Calt and Wardlow's book combines biography and musicology, as its subtitle implies, and biographically it is a valuable and fascinating account, with a quantity of detail that almost makes the reader cry 'Hold! enough". Chapter 2's character study "Portrait of the Artist As A Well-meaning Woofer" paints a subtle and convincing picture of a man who was as complex and contradictory as most of us, and the detail of Patton's movements and many alliances with women is skilfully marshalled. In establishing the wider context, Calt and Wardlow also do an excellent job of conveying the oppressive, limited character of plantation life in its isolation and boredom; their account of the barrelhouse culture that was a respite from such a life is equally well done. down to Willie Moore's detail that barrelhouses were painted green. "There's a house over yonder, painted all over green, Some of the finest young woman lord, a man 'most ever seen", sang Patton in Moon Going Down" (Paramount 13014).

There is also much valuable information about musicians who were active in the Delta in Patton's time, much of it newly published, I think. The accounts of Kid Bailey and Mattie Delaney (really Doyle, apparently, and disguising her identity to elude her Baptist father) are fascinating, and the evidence fort here having been two Willie Brown's is convincing. (Apart from which, there seems to have been three Robert Johnson's and two Bo Weavil Jackson's, while Willie Brown can't have been the most uncommon name in the South). I've long felt that Memphis Minnie's nom-de-disque was misleading - we don't see Kansas Joe as an example of Kansas blues - and Calt and Wardlow's account of her playing with Willie Brown is confirmation that she properly belongs to the Delta tradition - or rather, since the authors are vehemently opposed to the notion that there could be such a thing (see below), perhaps "the Delta milieu" is a more neutral term.

The historical and biographical research is supported by some remarkable photographs, including a studio portrait of the young Henry Sims, the Chatmon family (mother, father and eight children, with Bo, Lonnie and Sam all recognisable) and, of course, the "other" portrait of Patton.

This shows him as a young man c. 1908 and has been so heavily retouched that, but for the distinctive cauliflower ears, the picture could be of a Sicilian dandy. (The ears also show incidentally, that either this or the Paramount catalogue photo was printed in reverse). Also supporting the main text area are the usual notes, sources, discography and chronology; selected lyric transcriptions - good, but not perfect, as is usual with Patton's very difficult diction -- with vocal melodies ad tablature; a "glossary of song expressions" that tells us rather more than we need to know ("police (n) In black speech, a policeman").; and "Charlie Patton And The Scholastics", which I'll come to.

The extensive analysis of Patton's music seems to be to be an admirably clear account (albeit necessarily couched in technical terms) of what made Charlie Patton so special as a musician - such things as his rhythmic flair, notably in the integration of different vocal and instrumental accenting patterns; his ability to improvise behind the vocal line; the percussive force of his singing; the variety of pitches he uses, and his use of them to generate excitement, which the authors compare to the practice of present day soul singers; his extension of sung notes into instrumental responses, and the converse habit of beginning the instrumental response earlier than normal, underneath the vocal line. The musical analysis, indeed, is the best written part of the book, probably because the technical language employed gives the authors little opportunity to indulge in thesaurus regurgitation, before their next collaboration I recommend a look at George Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language", in the hope that it will convince them to write "we don't know how he spent his money" rather than "the trajectory of his...income remains unaccountable".

FALLACIOUS PROPOSITION

Where I begin to part company with Calt and Wardlow is in the conclusion they draw from Patton's greatness, that he was, as their title says "King of the Delta Blues". It's self-evident that Patton was a vastly talented man, who brought the blues a great many original ideas; but Calt and Wardlow go beyond their excellent description of what was special about Patton to the fallacious proposition that iinot as good as Patton" means "no good at all". Woody Mann is quoted as saying that "it's unfair to label him a Mississippi bluesman... He's more interesting, more lively, and more complex than any Mississippi bluesman". But this is to define the Mississippi blues as "blues that's not as good as Charlie Patton's", and automatically to place Patton outside the influence of his musical environment.

Calt and Wardlow have no qualms about doing so; Tommy Johnson, Skip James, Son House and Willie Brown are all rubbished for not playing "as well as" Patton. Willie Brown has a chapter all to himself, poor man, in which his rhythm and tuning are comprehensively trashed; yet it's possible convincingly to analyse "M&O Blues" as a deliberately ambitious piece, harmonically and rhythmically adventurous (of Titon, "Early Downhome Blues", pp 149-52). A similar circular argument asserts that "(Patton's) music assumes that his listeners are jaded by blues, and will thus applaud the novelties he brings to the idiom". No evidence from those listeners is cited to support the view that blues was old hat by 1928, and the jadedness seems to be the authors'; because they find Patton the only meritorious Delta bluesman, it is assumed that Mississippi blacks in Patton's day did too, and for the same reasons.

Calt and Wardlow view the interaction of Delta blues musicians as competitive, commercial, and driven by a search for crowd-pleasing novelty, and their view of Patton as the most successful, ie "best" at this Darwinian struggle, results in a distorted picture of Patton's fellow artists. Some questions that are never addressed are: Does Tommy Johnson's (or Son House's, or whomever's) music succeed in fulfilling Johnson's (or House's or whomever's) artistic intentions? Even if they are imitating Patton, and not getting it off perfectly, does it matter? Would they have been seen by their audiences as failures? Does it even matter that that couldn't tune their guitars "correctly", as if the standard of the trained musician is the determinant of "correctness", rather than the requirements of their audience and their music.

Witnesses' opinions are evaluated, not as good or bad evidence of the aesthetic values of the culture from which Patton came, but according to how far they establish Patton as a heroic originator, and the rest as incompetents. No doubt Son House's running down of Patton was disingenuous, but if H.C Speir's view that "his tastes were their (blacks') tastes" was groundless, of what value is his negative assessment of Kid Bailey, except as support for the authors' own position?

ATTACK ON PATTON STUDIES

The flaw at the heart of this book seems to me to be the assumption that music can be studied independent of its cultural context and, worse, that it can be created independently of its cultural context. These ideas underlay "Charlie Patton And The Scholastics", which attack the Patton studies of Robert Palmer (convincingly), John Fahey (fairly convincingly) and David Evans (abusively).

It's for Evans, not me, to respond in detail to Calt's and Wardlow's arguments; I will note only that the unremitting sarcasm with which those arguments are delivered is unlikely to win support, irrespective of their merits. Calt and Wardlow make some telling points, and lead me to think that Evans has over-estimated the role of tradition at the expense of individual creativity in the same way, though not to the same degree, that Calt and Wardlow overplay the post-Beethoven notion of the creative artist as alienated, romantic loner. What Calt and Wardlow don't, in my view, succeed in doing, is to invalidate Evans' view that there existed, in Patton's day and subsequently, folk traditions within and upon which the creativity of individual blues musicians operated.

Why, if that were not so, did Charlie Patton choose blues as the matrix for his achievements, rather than inventing a new music altogether? The answer has to be that Patton, like all great artists, was a man of his time, place and culture; that culture being almost entirely an oral one, with mass media productions like blues records only having an impact towards the end of Patton's life, it seems safe to assert that tradition played an important part in maintaining it and determining the limits of creativity within it. It won't do to view Delta blues as Shakespeare's "toad, ugly and venomous", with Patton as the ?precious jewel in his head".

Despite its conceptual shortcomings, and some turgid writing, this book is a most important study, both historically and musicologically, and it is regrettable that it has taken so long for it to be published; now that it has, no lover of the blues can afford to overlook it.

Offline dj

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Re: Book review of Cohn, Lomax, Calt & Wardlow, et al
« Reply #7 on: January 12, 2007, 11:28:21 AM »
For those interested in David Evans's view of patton, his biographical essay makes up the bulk of the book bound into the Patton Revenant set.

Since it's mentioned in Chris Smith's review, has anyone read "Early Downhome Blues"? 

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Book review of Cohn, Lomax, Calt & Wardlow, et al
« Reply #8 on: January 12, 2007, 12:02:43 PM »
The Evans essay is actually available online as well, at the Paramount website http://paramountshome.org/. Scroll to the bottom of the page and it is reproduced in three parts.

Offline dj

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Re: Book review of Cohn, Lomax, Calt & Wardlow, et al
« Reply #9 on: January 12, 2007, 12:05:11 PM »
You don't get off that easy, uncle bud.  You still have to buy the Revenant box.   :P

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Book review of Cohn, Lomax, Calt & Wardlow, et al
« Reply #10 on: January 12, 2007, 12:38:30 PM »
Since it's mentioned in Chris Smith's review, has anyone read "Early Downhome Blues"? 
Yes both the 1977 and revised 1994 editions. It's subtitle is "A Musical & Cultural Analysis". Not having a musical/musicological bone in my body I found that aspect of it very hard going and, at the times, quite forgettable (who yelled "sacrilege"?); I experienced the same in 1994. Unfortunately this has meant that I've relegated it as a source of reference rather than something to be re-read. Blues Fell This Morning, on the other hand, has been read so many times that I can almost quote chapters in my sleep! What a sad life. :(

Back to matters in hand. Paul Oliver gave the 1977 edition of Early Downhome Blues a carefully considered and thoughtful page and a half critique in Blues Unlimited, I'll unearth the issue and maybe post his conclusions.

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Book review of Cohn, Lomax, Calt & Wardlow, et al
« Reply #11 on: January 12, 2007, 11:44:08 PM »
Jeff Titon must have been heartened with Paul Oliver's carefully considered critique of his book (Blues Unlimited 130, May 1978). If it wasn't so lengthy I would have scanned and posted here because it's a thought provoking piece which one doesn't necessarily have to have read the work to find in what Oliver says of Titon's theses early echoes of much debated topics of today. Although out of context, here's Oliver's summation:

In conclusion, Titon argues that the recording of country blues was a part of a 'powerful cultural current opposing the Jazz Age' which saw virtues in the 'simple, more substantial life'. He also sees it as freeing the record companies 'from directly confronting the image of the stylish urban black'. It's an interesting hypothesis, but not I think, correct. The urban black was very well catered for with boogie-woogie, with hokum Georgia Tom and Tampa Red, Big Bill and their contemporaries, not to mention Chicago jazz. Downhome blues records sales were proportionately small, but they spread the market into the rural districts and they met the needs of disorientated new arrivals in the city.

But, the provocative thought remains. And that's what I like about this book. It is full of fresh ideas, new approaches and substantial material. If at times Jeff Titon seems to be presenting both sides to a question till one wonders if he is really just fence-sitting, he comes out strongly and lucidly for what he believes in. His discussions of the lack of protest themes in blues, the listening habits of rural purchasers of records or the aspirations of downhome singers to improve their singing are all novel and informative. Not an easy book, but a very good one and indispensable for those who aren't afraid to take the study of blues seriously while enjoying the music.

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Book review of Cohn, Lomax, Calt & Wardlow, et al
« Reply #12 on: January 13, 2007, 02:44:23 PM »
Cheapfeet, I believe it refers to the attached hilarious photo, which I've never been able to take seriously as Patton.

mississippijohnhurt1928

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Re: Book review of Cohn, Lomax, Calt & Wardlow, et al
« Reply #13 on: February 07, 2007, 03:00:36 PM »
as I said in my other discussion of this photograph, I agree it doesn't look too much like Patton.


I think someone told me it was a painting by Patton's family or girlfriends.

Offline Randy Meadows

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Re: Book review of Cohn, Lomax, Calt & Wardlow, et al
« Reply #14 on: December 10, 2012, 10:39:20 PM »

"Eight years ago "Blues Unlimited" published an exchange between the authors of this book and David Evans, the former accusing the latter of unethical suppression of their manuscript, the latter defending himself. "

Wow!
Does anyone know which 1981 issue that would be?
That would really be interesting to read...
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