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Author Topic: Story Of The Blues Exhibition 1964  (Read 1639 times)

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Offline Bunker Hill

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Story Of The Blues Exhibition 1964
« on: March 09, 2007, 11:08:43 AM »
Was scanning a graphic in the Xmas issue of Jazz Monthly 1964 when the following caught my eye and thought I'd pass it on for posterity. Amazing to think that the book which grew out of this event is still in print today, albeit in a slightly different format to that published in 1969.

Blues fell on Grosvenor Square
A review by Jack Cooke

THE STORY OF THE BLUES is an exhibition of photographs and other graphic material designed to illustrate the development of the blues, both musically and socially, from the first glimmerings of the idiom to the universally accepted form of today. It has been organised by Paul Oliver, and is being presented at the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square in a setting of quite astounding luxury, complete with fountain, pool, excellent lighting, air conditioning, and all of Eero Saarinsen's white marble and satin finish brass.

The material in the exhibition consists mainly of photographs and is mounted on a series of panels, each panel containing a number of illustrations and a short piece of prose matched to the pictures. The first panels deal with source material: African culture, slavery, the levees, Gulf ports, sawmills in the pinewoods, things like that which, with the text give some idea of the social conditions out of which the music grew. Subsequent panels deal with just about every other aspect of the blues from that time to the present. The exhibition does not stick to a strict chronology in this matter; rather it employs separate panels to illustrate a particular aspect of blues singing and playing, so there are different panels dealing with the blues in the city, in the country, in the theatre, the different types of blues bands, the spread of the blues within the South and out of the South, all overlapping a little in time, sometimes jumping way ahead, but all advancing the action to the present when we get several panels covering the entire blues scene of today, from the brash r-and-b performers of the big cities to the still persistent rural blues.

Photographs, no matter how good, don't form an exact parallel to music, however, so all this wouldn't really give one much idea of the music if one didn't already know at least a little about it, but given that modicum of knowledge the material in the exhibition will extend that knowledge a little further. Not maybe in a direct way; what the exhibition does best is fill in the background to the music, and as well as providing a sense of historical direction through the progress of the panels it gives a background of social circumstances also, and provides a glimpse of so many of the things that figure in any discussion of the development of the form: the country jook joints, the theatres of the TOBA circuit, Smitty's Corner, Parchman and Angola; buildings and streets, railway halts, slums; an alien landscape to so many people in this country, yet strangely familiar to anyone at all familiar with the music.

The majority of illustrations, however, are of people; the vast gallery of blues singers past and present. Some of the photographs are familiar, many are not, most are good, one or two are just image-building publicity shots, but on the whole the standard is high, and the high proportion of unfamiliar material sustains the interest. There are also a couple of maps well worthy of special mention; they show the means, via road and rail, by which the music filtered through the South and into the Northern states, and they have a spectacular complexity that almost makes one long for the return of the Up The River From New Orleans myth. Another item included in the exhibition, in bulk and free to all, is a guide to the history of the blues by Paul Oliver, printed on both sides of a sheet of paper some nineteen inches long. This is not a programme or catalogue in the strict sense, since it doesn't identify the exhibits or anything like that; rather it is a parallel article, touching on the exhibition and clarifying things that might not be entirely obvious through purely photographic representation.

The exhibition has several photostated record labels and sleeves, and in this direction maybe the organisers could have done a little more. Photostats are acceptable and natural where rare records are concerned, but a display of 45 singles here and there would have lent a little actuality and graphic variety to the exhibition, and to some extent forged a link between the people in the pictures and the people looking at the pictures, as well as showing how the blues ties in with the entertainment industry in general. One other thing missing is, of course, the music itself. The exhibition as a whole would have benefitted from having a stream of blues music piped in; it would have then been possible to involve oneself a little deeper in the story being presented. As it is, it is never quite possible to break away from the American Embassy, at least for me, no matter how fascinating the material on display. However, the United States Information Service library is next door, and this might have prohibited involving sound in the exhibition. Also, there is no way of knowing Paul Oliver's terms of reference with regard to setting up the exhibition; it is after all billed as an exhibition of photographs and he may well not have had the budget or the technical resources to do any more, so all criticism in the direction of what has been omitted from the exhibition must remain purely speculative, and should not be allowed to detract from the evaluation of what we actually have.

On this basis, only two points can be made; the first is that there tends to be a uniformity of size about the exhibits which gives something of the impression of a large book cut up and spread out; here again there could be ample justification on the technical side and the argument that to blow up some illustrations at the expense of others would have resulted in some worth-while material being left out is also perfectly valid. The second point is the only one, to my mind, that shows any real lack of thought on the part of the organisers. On each panel the pictures have been numbered, in an unbroken sequence that starts at one on the first panel and finishes in the several hundreds on the final panel. The captions for each panel have been typed on a sheet of paper and situated more or less centrally on the panel. This means that every time one wants to relate a photograph to its caption one has to look at the photograph and get the number, then go to the sheet of captions for an explanation. This often involves the eye in journeys of up to ten feet at a time, and in an exhibition of several hundred photographs this means that the eyes tire very quickly. There is also the danger of confusing the captions in all this to-and-fro-ing, and also a chance of wrong captions creeping in; I'm fairly certain that one mistake has been made. It's a small point materially, but it does have a considerable effect on the exhibition and the comfort of the visitor.

In the end, though, this is the only tangible thing that can be held against the exhibition; all other criticisms are to a greater or lesser degree subjective, and could be refuted quite easily. I am sure it can be no simple task to organise an exhibition of this nature. There is little in the way of precedent in the jazz world to guide any organiser of a venture like this; he must inevitably have to work largely by instinct, and he has to draw heavily from exhibitions concerning other forms of art. Obviously, in circumstances like these it is easier to criticise what has been done than actually do it. Perhaps some day Paul Oliver will be able to tell us the full story of how he persuaded the Americans to begin officially to accept this side of their own culture: for that is what he has done, and in itself it is no mean achievement.
[illustrated with photo of Oliver, Strachwitz and Lightnin? Hopkins]

Offline Rivers

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Re: Story Of The Blues Exhibition 1964
« Reply #1 on: March 09, 2007, 04:13:11 PM »
Several thoughts immediately sprang to mind.

1. What would Son and Charley have thought
2. The setting's opulence is very ironic
3. I wonder how they got the embassy behind it
4. Mr Cooke, while not actually articulating it, seems to be leaning toward some kind of personal cultural breakthrough that was to afflict people en masse later
5. '45 singles' is a bit of a giveaway

Anyway Bunker, fascinating period piece that, I was 12, living 40 miles away, just heard the Beatles.

This line really caught my eye:
"Perhaps some day Paul Oliver will be able to tell us the full story of how he persuaded the Americans to begin officially to accept this side of their own culture: for that is what he has done, and in itself it is no mean achievement."

Indeed. My observation, after being in the States for 19 months, is this. There is so much music of all genres going on all the time here, from the 'folk' level to crass commercial pap, it's dead easy for a genre to get drowned out.

Another cheese straw Vicar?

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Story Of The Blues Exhibition 1964
« Reply #2 on: March 09, 2007, 11:14:12 PM »
Several thoughts immediately sprang to mind.
3. I wonder how they got the embassy behind it
There was a department within the embassy at Grosvenor Square called "The United Sates Information Service" which was essentially there to answer prospective tourist enquiries. However there was one member of staff, whose name I can't recall, who was there solely to promote and supply information on American history and culture. The service ceased in mid-70s but it was a method by which UK blues researchers would obtain material such as birth/death certificates and the like.

PO has in the past explained how the exhibition came about but for the life of me can't locate where. He must have been a major user of this arm of the embassy. ;D
« Last Edit: March 09, 2007, 11:15:33 PM by Bunker Hill »

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Story Of The Blues Exhibition 1964
« Reply #3 on: August 13, 2009, 12:42:32 PM »
I was looking up something in Oliver's 'Story Of The Blues' which originally grew out of this exhibition and found this slip tucked into page 139.

Forty years and still in print.

(click images to enlarge)

Offline blueshome

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Re: Story Of The Blues Exhibition 1964
« Reply #4 on: August 14, 2009, 12:06:01 AM »
Much of the material used for this collection and more is in the Paul Oliver archive held by the European Blues Association and is in the process of being made accessible to members electronically. Check out the web site over the next few months for details:

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Story Of The Blues Exhibition 1964
« Reply #5 on: August 14, 2009, 12:33:21 AM »
That's good news. For 25 years it was lost to the world buried in a basement store at Exeter University. As were the all the reels of interview tapes from his 1960 trip which were the basis book for his 1965 book "Conversation With The Blues".

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