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Usually it'll sound better if you don't rehearse it - Doc Watson plays with Earl Scruggs, The Complete Earl Scruggs Story

Author Topic: Broadcasting The Blues  (Read 1575 times)

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Offline Bunker Hill

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Broadcasting The Blues
« on: February 18, 2007, 04:21:23 AM »
Paul Oliver's book Broadcasting The Blues, mentioned elsewhere on WC, reminded me of the feature review given it by Blues & Rhythm. I'm reproducing it here as a matter of information rather than as a platform of debate of its content. If folk want to go down that route fair enough, but I won't be participating.

D.J. Define My Blues
Paul Oliver conducts a masterclass in the history and ubiquity of the blues. As he carves his name in his desk-lid, Neil Slaven hangs on every word.

I come from a generation for whom the blues was still a vast unexplored territory when Blues Fell This Morning was published in 1960. We thought ourselves intrepid for seeking out a music so alien to our English experience and we revelled in its strangeness. It took an effort to locate the places where the then-small stock of blues records was available. Each purchase expanded our pitifully limited knowledge but even then some of the sounds we encountered seemed outlandish, near impossible for our teenage ears to savour. (It caused a rapid turnover in girlfriends, too.) Lucky, then, that Paul's book arrived to explain the sometimes mysterious terminology in blues songs and make sense of the social pressures through which the music was inspired.

Back then, one read BFTM for information and enlightenment, unappreciative (at least at my house) of the quality of language through which they were imparted. Broadcasting The Blues, which performs much the same function, underlines again the finer points of Paul's writing, the sharp focus of his sentences and their concision. While the rest of us beat about the literary bushes, slaves to the subordinate clause, his paragraphs pass elegantly in review as if they're Trooping The Colour on Horseguards Parade. See what I mean? Of course, writing for broadcast imposes restrictions of its own but the clarity of Paul's prose, the density of the information provided and the ease with which it flows are an object lesson to all those who aspire to write about blues.

These 29 scripts were broadcast between August 1956 and December 1997 but are mainly from 1987 and 1991. They're divided into four sections after 'Introduction: The Development Of The Blues': 'Before The Blues', 'Blues How Do You Do?', 'Meaning In The Blues' and 'Documenting The Blues'. Given his oft-declared preference, Paul explains in his Preface, 'I have rearranged the programs (it's an American publication) so that the sequence of their content is, in broad terms, chronological'. Thus the Introduction comes from January 1967, while the eight programmes (this is England, after all) that follow in 'Before The Blues' derive from November and December 1987. And so on.

The ten-page Preface is essentially a curriculum vitae of Paul's blues-related career, from first hearing two black servicemen singing while they worked on a US Army camp in Suffolk during WW11, through the writing of BFTM, Conversations With The Blues, Screening The Blues, The Story Of The Blues, the sleevenotes gathered in Blues Off The Record, to the broadcasts and compilations that accrued. He notes, 'though it may seem surprising, several of the earliest books on the subject were written in Europe - not only in Britain, but by French, Dutch, Belgian, German and Scandinavian authors, too'. This is as close as Paul will come to commenting upon such travesties as the total absence of his books from the first two editions of the All Music Guide To Blues (I've not seen the third), which only acknowledge him as editor of the Blackwell Guide To Recorded Blues. No such reticence here; this bias is an insult to his industry. It's as if a concerted effort is being made by some colonial wallahs to reinvent blues scholarship by ignoring what others achieved before they took an interest. The inclusion of warm endorsements by David Evans and Scott Dirks on this book's back cover and a thumbnail biographical sketch citing him as 'a world-renowned authority on the blues', is no more than his (belated) due. Huff, puff.

Doubts that Broadcasting The Blues might be superfluous if you own Paul's other works should be discounted. While acting as a primer for those who want flesh on the backbone of their interest in blues, this is also an aide-m?moire for those longer in the tooth; a valuable reminder of the what, where and when of a century of blues. There's always something to learn; in my case, why track-lining railway-workers were called 'gandy dancers' (don't say 'I knew that!') and also that Texas barrelhouse pianists like Buster Pickens fashioned a quiff of hair on their foreheads so sawmill owners knew they were musicians and not mill hands. (Who among you knew that?) Not essential information, perhaps, but fascinating and the sort of detail ever present in these essays.

Some, like 'Echoes Of Africa', 'Old Country Stomp' and the two parts of 'Blues As An Art Form', adopt an overview, while 'Playing The Boards' (as in wash-), 'Declassifying The Classic Blues' and 'High Water Everywhere' have particular aspects or events as their focus. Rarely does the writer rest on his laurels: in 'Blues In Retrospect' from 1987 he states, 'I believe that our ideas on the origins of blues need closer scrutiny, and that the types of song that preceded it need examination. Moreover, I feel that the emphasis we have placed on the blues, in the past twenty-five years or so, has drawn attention from other song types that functioned in black communities in the South.' In 'Still To Be Documented', he advocates the inclusion of composer credits, a suggestion interviewee Howard Rye greets with a mixture of idealistic approval and practical dissuasion.

It ain't all sweetness and light. In the Introduction, Paul delivers his opinion of American and English white musicians whose acoustic 'imitations' were 'often grotesque caricature as crude as any minstrel parody'. As for the amplified hordes, 'They galloped through the history of the blues in search of novelty'. That's from January 1967. A year later, from the second part of 'Blues As An Art Form', he was observing, 'Now the blues shows signs of cultural decline; the florid exaggerations of its most recent forms suggests that it has already entered a decadent phase in its history'. He may not have been clairvoyant but he was certainly prescient. There's incidental topicality, too, with this from October 1987: 'In (Alan) Lomax's recollections of the (Coahoma) trip (John) Work's contribution is ignored but credit is given to "the unflappable bronze Dante" . . . (Lewis) Jones'. While on the subject of the Library of Congress, he bemoans that the majority of the Lomaxes' and others' LoC recordings remain 'unknown and unplayed', which despite Johnny Parth's efforts remains the case.

Parth's massive enterprise is the focus of the final pair of programmes, 'Creating The Documents' (October 1997) and 'Still To Be Documented' (December 1997). In these, Johnny Parth, Howard Rye and Robert Macleod are interviewed about their various endeavours and the problems encountered. With the first two, it's the discrepancies between the contents of the Document catalogue and peripheral artists, like Pete Hampton and Bert Williams, present in the fourth B&GR that haven't been reissued; with Macleod, it's the contention inherent in the translation of black patois and diction. Paul has his own problems in 'The Blues and Black Society' (February 1968), where 'Black', 'African American' and 'Negro' occur in the space of two paragraphs. Would somebody please make up their mind?

Criticisms? Matters of terminology, really. Bessie Smith's 'ability to project from the depths of her own tragic life' and 'the tormented spirit of Robert Johnson' flirt with clich? and surely neither artist was continuously tragic or tormented during their short and undoubtedly difficult lives. Maybe these are just short-cuts imposed by the exigencies of preparing a radio script. Muddy's partner's name is rendered as 'Rodgers' thrice - twice on the same page - which someone should have noticed. But this is pettifogging stuff. Most of the time, the reader's mind can sit back and relish the writer's skill, such as this from 'Blues As An Art Form, Part II': 'Most blues singers draw from a common pool of 'floating verses', which they modify and adapt to suit their personal requirements as they compose new songs. Many take on a shorthand significance with a wealth of unstated associated meaning, permitting a maximum of content with a strict economy of means.' Beats the hell out of 'legendary' and 'superb', doesn't it?

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Broadcasting The Blues
« Reply #1 on: February 19, 2007, 11:34:30 AM »
Who's the author of the review, BH? Or is it unsigned.

Having just finished this book, I'd say I agree with most of the review content. It makes for a useful survey, though is obviously thinner than Oliver's usual tomes, being based on radio transcripts. One of the amusing bits at the end of the book involves the interview with Johnny Parth, where Oliver asks him about the market for his Document complete recorded works project.

"J.P: Well, there's a couple of people who want the complete Tampa Red, but definitely no one who wants the complete records of Reverend Gates!"

Yet still he put them out. Not your typical business plan.

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Broadcasting The Blues
« Reply #2 on: February 19, 2007, 11:52:04 AM »
Who's the author of the review, BH? Or is it unsigned.
Stated thus in the editor's preamble beneath the "DJ Define My Blues" strap-line, which is quite easy to miss:

"Paul Oliver conducts a masterclass in the history and ubiquity of the blues. As he carves his name in his desk-lid, Neil Slaven hangs on every word."


Offline uncle bud

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Re: Broadcasting The Blues
« Reply #3 on: February 19, 2007, 01:30:55 PM »
Ah well, there you go. So much for careful reading...