and the Early Traditions of the Blues
By Paul Oliver.
228 pp. Basic Civitas. $24.95
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Reviewed by David Cohen
Blues music, in its early days, was often regarded as vulgar and primitive, not worthy of serious attention. Later, the early musicians came to be regarded as creators of folk art who had been exploited by the business.
In recent years, there's been a countercurrent that claimed these musicians were just like any other of their era, folks who played what they did simply because it could earn them money.
Blues scholar Paul Oliver doesn't opt for sexy theories or easy explanations. He has spent decades documenting the music, and Barrelhouse Blues, his latest work, is designed as a response to The Negro and His Music, a 1936 work by the noted Harlem Renaissance figure Alain Locke.
Oliver examines how Locke classified music according to style and geography. In an effort to answer questions Locke raised, Oliver focuses on recordings that record-company representatives made on location in the South in the 1920s and 1930s.
Location recording was a widespread practice before World War II, and it yielded some amazing material. Robert Johnson, the most mythologized of blues figures, recorded in 1936 and 1937 in Texas. He shows up briefly in Barrelhouse Blues when Oliver contrasts his work with that of the obscure Harold Holiday as part of a lengthy parade of musical characters.
Oliver focuses on a multitude of genres, several of which he calls "proto-blues" - music that helped the blues develop its distinctive flair. He divides religious music from what he and Locke call "seculars," and then further splits the music into very precise categories. Chapter 9, for instance, deals with spirituals, sea shanties, levee camp hollers, and call-and-response songs as sung by various work groups, including prisoners.
Most of these, at least to Oliver, have some relation to the blues, but the distinctions he makes can be befuddling: "The call and response principle was embedded in the African American song tradition and helped shape the blues, not so much as a vocal form but in the relationship of sung line and instrumental response characteristic of blues expression. There is no direct connection between the two idioms."
All this seems maddeningly arcane at times, particularly since Oliver also has a tendency to do too much guesswork. He explains numerous things he can't possibly know by saying "presumably" or "probably." Simply put, he alternates between being too academic and not academic enough.
Why read this book, then? Because Oliver has genuine and abiding affection for this music, and he quite ably examines songs and artists forgotten by time within the context of making larger points. There is, for instance, Cleosephus "Cleo" Gibson, who recorded the risque "I've Got Ford Engine Movements in My Hips" in Atlanta in 1929. Oliver connects her to vaudeville, then uses that link as a jumping-off point to discuss male-female vaudeville teams.
In discussing the field recordings, two key questions pop up. One of them is how the locations and performers chosen by the various companies influenced the music's future.
While it's not clear how certain locales came to be chosen at the expense of others, it is clear those decisions had consequences. No field recordings, for instance, were done in Florida and very few in Arkansas. The omission of certain regions means some local styles were to remain obscure.
A second question is handled less directly. Did the representatives from the record companies influence what was recorded and how it sounded? This is a key question, particularly when discussing the legacy of someone like Johnson, whose repertoire included non-blues songs but who recorded only blues. If that were a choice made for him, if he were the tool of a music mogul's notion of what would sell, one might view his legacy differently.
Oliver has one former talent scout, Sam Ayo of Texas, address this topic, but Ayo's words leave room for interpretation. Oliver, however, with his diligent research, makes it clear that the South was a patchwork quilt of styles - and that a great many of these were captured in their true forms. "What is truly significant is the individuality of blues singers and instrumentalists, and the originality or poetry of their personal expression," he writes.
Ultimately, Oliver's book serves as a reminder of the strains and disparate personalities that make up the culture of blues music, as well as the hit-or-miss nature of who and what came to be recorded for posterity. The book is a little dry and clumsy, but that somehow fits a writer who doesn't fall back on slogans or simple theories.
Detailed and deeply felt, Barrelhouse Blues is quite the education.