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I says one and two is three, four and five is seven - Unknown vocalist for the Nashville Washboard Band, Kohoma Blues

Author Topic: In Search of the Blues - Marybeth Hamilton  (Read 4424 times)

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Offline Marshcat

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In Search of the Blues - Marybeth Hamilton
« on: February 01, 2007, 05:04:41 AM »
Has anyone out there read this book? I listened to an interview with the author on Oneword radio the other day about her allegedly 'revisionist' account of the origins of the Delta blues, then found a presentation by her at:

http://www.kexp.org/learn/popcon_hamilton.asp

I'm trying to decide whether to order the book...

Any insights wlecome!

Marshcat

Offline Stuart

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Re: In Search of the Blues - Marybeth Hamilton
« Reply #1 on: February 01, 2007, 09:51:07 AM »
Thanks for the tip, Marshcat. Looks like the stateside release date is July 2007--October 2007 in Canada. I guess it is already available in Great Britain, so perhaps our members there can give us some crit re: the content.

eddie

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Re: In Search of the Blues - Marybeth Hamilton
« Reply #2 on: April 01, 2007, 11:15:02 AM »
I'm new to the site and as this is my first review and I'm English I hope you will bear with me should I overstep some lines.

In Seach of the Blues; softback, at least mine is, 197 pages of content and 48 of notes and stuff.
Subtitle - Black Voices, White Visions
price - ?12.99, can $34.95

Six chapters -
One - The delta revisited , (intoduction)
Two - Impartial Testimony, (Howard Odum)
      His attemps to record contempary black music in 1907 on a wax cylinder
      recorder.
Three - On the trail of Negro Folk Song , (Dorothy Scarborough)
       Recording the black/slave songs of the happier days of the plantation.
       and her collision with the current black culture.
Four - Sound Photographs of Negro Songs , (John Lomax)
       collecting in prisons, Leadbelly, his split with Alan and the left wing.
Five - Been Here and Gone , (New Orleans Jazz)
Six - The Real Negro Blues , (James McLune)
       record collecting in the 1940's and Origins Jazz Library.

Chapter Two is only 19 pages, a bit skimpy, but so are facts.
It covers the then ideas of race, recording in the field generally at that time.
And the shock of meeting blacks !!

Chapter Three is more detailed but we don't get to see the lady and again facts of her journeys are sparce; it looks like she only collected between 1921 and 1924 but was still involved in white song collection at her death in 1935.
We do get a good idea of what songs she liked and how ou-of-date her views became. (30 pages)

Chapter Four starts with the John Lomax ariving at Angola State Penitentiary to discover Leadbelly and their journieys to other prision farms and New York.
John and Leadbelly break up and John and Alan part company as Alan becomes involved with the Left Wing.
This is a good place to say that the book has no index and every chapter jumps back and forward in time.
I have the impression that John only collected for a few years in the early 30s and he became sidelined, quickly losing his job with the LoC which we know to be wrong.
It could not of been difficult to have traced his travels and those he recorded !

Chapter five ! Jazz
The writer tries to tie in blues and early jazz but even she is unconviced.
It is a good read and touches on the beginnings of record collecting as well as what may have been early jazz.
The chapter ends with the collecting for Music of the South in 1941.

Chapter Six . In the mid 40s James McKune started to collect what he regarded as real country blues and over a period gathered a small group of followers who after Samuel Charters, The Country Blues, took use and redifined the term eventually reissuing delta blues recordings and starting the 60s revival.
Great fun and the only time Ms. Hamilton is working from primary sources.
Again its jumpy,
All through the book Ms. Hamilton uses the writers privilage of making up conversations and facts which she can be sure are reasonable but whole pages of this chapter are her invention; too many. If its not from the Delta, its not real blues.

Overall its a good read. Fast moving and covering - some white collecters of blues.
Stress "some". She is more interested in the collecters than the collected !
There are no conclusions drawn; but its strange that the first collecter recorded contemporary music, the second, song from sixty years earlier, the third, old songs from those locked in prision away from modern life.

I passed over the introduction because an anomaly occures; this is the story of collecters, not blues music. In fact Ms. Hamiltons writing on the music itself shows a lack of background knowledge. (sorry).
The last chapter seems to say that only Delta Blues is real country blues  "the land where blues were born"

You have to read it because for all its faults it is a good read, and the notes can lead us to further information.

Offline blueshome

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Re: In Search of the Blues - Marybeth Hamilton
« Reply #3 on: April 03, 2007, 06:23:13 AM »
I just bought it at the weekend to have some bedtime reading at the EBA Gloucester event.

It contains some interesting information and links as Eddie says - worth reading.

Offline uncle bud

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Re: In Search of the Blues - Marybeth Hamilton
« Reply #4 on: April 03, 2007, 09:33:10 AM »
Welcome Eddie! Thanks for sharing your thoughts about the book.

Offline Chezztone

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Re: In Search of the Blues - Marybeth Hamilton
« Reply #5 on: September 02, 2008, 12:31:21 PM »

Marybeth Hamilton, In Search of the Blues
review by Steve Cheseborough
     Marybeth Hamilton has dug up some good stories, and makes some good insights. But then she takes it too far.
    The stories are about white non-musicians obsessed with African-American music (she uses "blues" in the title and many other places in the book, but really the subjects are obsessed with plantation melodies, jazz and various other African-American musics as well as blues). Her point is that these obsessives, with their strange approaches (Dorothy Scarborough relied on elderly white ex-slave owners' recollections of black song) and personalities (James McKune ended up drunken, homeless and murdered by a man he had picked up to have sex with), have helped define black music through their writing, collecting and other nonmusical activities.
     This collection of characters is interesting. They are of course not the only white nonmusicians to have made an impact on blues. Others who spring to mind, who are ignored or mentioned only in passing in this book, include Charles Peabody, the Harvard archaeologist who gave a very early documentation when he noticed his dig's workers' songs in 1902; H.C. Speir, furniture-store owner who served as the music's greatest talent scout by discovering Skip James, Charley Patton and dozens of others; the Paramount record executive (name unknown to me) who took a chance, in an era of sophisticated, orchestra-backed female blues singers, on recording the solo street performer Blind Lemon Jefferson; John Hammond Sr., who produced the Spirituals to Swing concerts in the late 1930s and reissued Robert Johnson's recordings in the 1960s; Stephen C. LaVere, who oversaw the second reissue of Johnson, on CD in the 1990s, accompanied by a photo, that led to Johnson's superstardom; Jim O'Neal, founder of Living Blues, the first magazine to focus on living musicians rather than old recordings. Hamilton tends to pick people who wrote books, and that's OK. She tells us about Howard Odum, who decided in 1907 that black song was as worth documenting as Native American song, and set out to do it; Scarborough, a Virginia-born Columbia professor who switched interest from literature to plantation song; John Lomax, who believed prisons were repositories of pure folk music; Frederick Ramsey, Charles Edward Smith and William Russell, who found heaven in early New Orleans jazz records and then in the living master Jelly Roll Morton; and McKune, high priest of the cult of collecting old 78s. 
     Where the book goes way out into silly and false territory, though, is when it confuses these people's activities with the creation of the music. According to Hamilton, Delta blues was born in a Brooklyn YMCA room in the 1940s, as McKune listened to a Charley Patton record. In case we think she's joking, she physically goes to the site and describes the building and the room, the holy site where the blues was born. She is not kidding.
    In the book's final pages, Hamilton does a mass psychoanalysis of late-20th-Century American white men, and decides that their fascination with the outlaw bluesman is part of their general escape from commitment. There lies the origin of the blues, according to Hamilton.
     Barry Lee Pearson and Elijah Wald both wrote books a few years ago that debunked the Robert Johnson myth, said he was not a big deal in his own time or in blues history. Hamilton tries to take it way further, say blues itself is not a big deal, doesn't really exist except in the twisted minds and writings of her characters. But that isn't true. There is a music known as the blues, and it would have existed whether or not Odum, Lomax, McKune and the rest of Hamilton's subjects ever noticed it. All of them did notice it, though, because they were captivated by the sound. In nearly every chapter, Hamilton describes the epiphanic moment when each of these people first heard the blues, usually on record. It was the sound, not the image of a bluesman, that captured these people. That same sound has captivated many, many people -- men and women, from all countries and eras, not just commitment-phobic late-20th-Century American men.
    But it never captured Hamilton. She never listened to Robert Johnson until the 1990s, and then she "heard very little," she says in the first chapter. A punk-rock fan, she doesn't say whether she tried listening to any blues besides Johnson. Instead she set off to try to mass-psychoanalyze the people who do hear something in the blues. Maybe she should try listening again before she writes another book.


Offline uncle bud

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Re: In Search of the Blues - Marybeth Hamilton
« Reply #6 on: September 02, 2008, 05:48:00 PM »
Thanks Chezz for the thoughtful review. The more I hear, the more I wince...

Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: In Search of the Blues - Marybeth Hamilton
« Reply #7 on: September 02, 2008, 08:58:32 PM »
Ditto, thanks for the well reasoned review Chezz. Its amazing what gets published these days.
My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.
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Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: In Search of the Blues - Marybeth Hamilton
« Reply #8 on: September 03, 2008, 06:47:09 AM »
I found it one of the most exasperating books I've read in a long time. Promised so much and delivered so little. As for the psychobabble at the end, w-e-l-l.

To paraphrase Chezztone - she should try listening before she writes.

Offline blueshome

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Re: In Search of the Blues - Marybeth Hamilton
« Reply #9 on: September 03, 2008, 10:15:30 AM »
On the other hand .............we (& me) probably could do with some psychotherapy given our overwhelming fanaticism for this wonderful music.

Offline DavidCrosbie

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Re: In Search of the Blues - Marybeth Hamilton
« Reply #10 on: June 19, 2019, 06:32:51 PM »
Well, I think it's a terrific book!

Sixty years or so ago, I discovered Blues, Jazz and Folk Music. With the acquisition of a record player, I stared buying LPs and reading what i could find to help me understand. Marybeth Hamilton explains why people like Alan Lomax and  Rudi Blesh and Frederick Ramsey were writing as they did, and how much journalists and sleeve-not writers were drawing on the pronouncements of William Russell and Charles Edward Smith.

By the time I read Sam Charters' The Country Blues, I' d been indoctrinated with the doctrine of the timeline Field Hollers⇒Country Blues⇒Classic Blues⇒Jazz⇒Swing.  Over subsequent years, I read more informed and informative books and articles ? but always with that early mindset as a reference point.

I remember the shock of the Origin Jazz Library LPs. Amazing tracks, scarcely any by artists that had been on reissues. One with the provocative title Really! The Country Blues. (Meaning 'Charters got it wrong!') Two whole LPs of the totally unknown Charley Patton. (Charters had been nagged into briefly mentioning his name, but nobody had dared put out a commercial reissue.)  Men and women we now see as giants. How did all this happen so suddenly? Hamilton makes sense of it with the chapter on James McKune and his 'Blue Mafia' acolytes.

For those who are interested, she also casts light on the professional career of Leadbelly, the study of Folk Music and the resulting Revival, as well as the record-collecting phenomenon and New Orleans Jazz Revival movement.

All the 'discoveries' were fuelled by and fed into intellectual debates on the music of 'the people', and a growing awareness of the true status of African Americans ? whether in Harlem or the Delta. I think Marybeth Hamilton does a great job of tying together so many threads.
« Last Edit: June 19, 2019, 08:58:37 PM by DavidCrosbie »

Offline DavidCrosbie

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Re: In Search of the Blues - Marybeth Hamilton
« Reply #11 on: June 19, 2019, 08:47:51 PM »

     Where the book goes way out into silly and false territory, though, is when it confuses these people's activities with the creation of the music. According to Hamilton, Delta blues was born in a Brooklyn YMCA room in the 1940s, as McKune listened to a Charley Patton record. In case we think she's joking, she physically goes to the site and describes the building and the room, the holy site where the blues was born. She is not kidding.

Marybeth Hamilton freely admits that the description of McKune discovering Patton is a fantasy.

Quote from: note to page161
if you had been walking past the building: In this opening section I have tried to imagine a pivotal event from three sentences. James McKune wrote in 1961 "I first heard Charley Patton in a beat [battered] record early in 1944. At first he seemed too primitive to me. By the end of that year I told a few friends that he was the greatest blues singer I have ever heard". In 1944 McKune had not yet attached his circle of acolytes, and so far as I know he never told anyone  about how he came to collect race records, Yet while much of this section is by necessity imagined, throughout I have tried to build upon facts, playing around with chronology where necessary.

Moving from fantasy to certainty, she writes

Quote from: page 167
...It was there at the Williamsburg YMCA, in a single room sometime in th mid-1940s, that the Delta Blues was born.

Born, that is, in the imagination of one of the YMCA's long-term residents, an impassioned record-collector named James McKune.

This is not in the least bit silly or false. She is arguing that the Delta Blues as an aesthetic concept derives from the imagination of McKune.

In Escaping the Delta Elijah Wald made a similar claim ? except that he derives the concept from John Hammond listening to Robert Johnson in 1937. He'd intended to feature Johnson in the ground-breaking Spirituals to Swing concert at e the end of 1938, only to learn of Robert's recent sudden death.

Quote from: Elijah Wald
Unwilling to give up completely on his original choice, he played two Johnson records for the Carnegie Hall audience: "Walkin' Blues" and "Preachin' Blues". Since, aside from the African field recordings, the rest of the concert was devoted to live music, this demonstrates the extent to which Hammond considered Johnson a uniquely great artist, for whom there was no substitute.

At the time, this was an extremely unusual position?indeed, I am tempted to suggest that Hammond was the only man on earth who held it. Not even Johnson's friends and playing partners would have described him as America's greatest blues singer; they were proud enough to consider him the greatest young player in the Delta. Furthermore, had they been inclined to make a broader case for his supremacy, they would never have based it on two Son House covers that were among the most archaic numbers in his repertoire. Hammond, though, was specifically looking for a "primitive" blues sound, and the tracks he played at "Spirituals to Swing" defined what several decades later would become known as the Delta blues style.

More generally, Wald identifies a perception among white urban listeners to Blues

Quote from: Wald
In the process, blues would come to be classified as a black folk form, and a new aesthetic developed that defined 'true' or "deep" blues by its resemblance to the traditional hollers.

In the 1920s, most white people still thought of blues as racy pop music, but this new aesthetic would gain more power with each passing decade, and has helped shape the modern perception of blues as a black folk style, nurtured not in the publishing houses and studios of New York and Chicago, but in the most isolated regions of the deep South. This is the process by which Mississippi has come to be singled out as the music's unique heartland, and a handful of unquestionably brilliant but relatively obscure Delta artists were crowned kings of the blues pantheon.

Neither Wald nor Hamilton are denying that there were people (men mostly) singing and playing blues in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta in the first half of the last century. Wald says how brilliant some of them were, because that's what he's writing about. Hamilton doesn't tell us whether or not she became a fan because that's not what she's writing about.

Both of them are saying that an actual group of actual musicians in an actual geographical region is not the same as the mythical abstraction The Delta Blues.

As BB King said (quoted by Wald)

Quote from: BB King
Scholars ... like to talk about the Delta bluesmen and how they influenced each other. They break down the blues according to different parts of Mississippi and say each region gave birth to a style. Well, as a Delta boy, I'm her to testify that my two biggest idols?guys I flat-out tried to copy?came a long way from Mississippi. Blind Lemon was from Dallas and Lonnie [Johnson] from Louisiana. I later learned about  Delta bluesmen like Robert Johnso and Elmore James and Muddy Waters. I liked them all, but no one moulded my musical manner like Blind Lemon and Lonnie.
« Last Edit: June 20, 2019, 07:32:44 AM by DavidCrosbie »

 


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