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In Search of the Blues

By Marybeth Hamilton
Basic Books ($24.95)

By Tim W. Brown

Since the colonial era, white Americans have shown interest in the music produced by
African-Americans. For example, in Notes on the State of Virginia Thomas Jefferson
praised his slaves’ talent for playing the “banjar.” During Reconstruction, Northerners
and Southerners alike struggled to describe this music, which sounded foreign to their
Western-trained ears. African-Americans themselves promoted their unique musical style
to white audiences, most famously the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who introduced Negro
spirituals to listeners internationally. By the 20th century, however, appreciation of this
music had faded as African-Americans became more interested in ragtime, jazz, and other
popular musical forms.

In Search of the Blues provides a solid overview of the efforts of several individuals who
dedicated their lives to recovering the lost folk music of African-Americans. Some, like
John and Alan Lomax, are widely celebrated. Others like Howard Odum, Dorothy
Scarborough and James McKune are less well known. But according to author Marybeth
Hamilton, all were instrumental in recording and transcribing traditional African-
American music and shaping present-day conceptions about the style known as the blues.

These collectors’ stories are practically epic in scope. They ventured into African-
American communities, inside notorious prisons, and down obscure back roads,
capturing on primitive recording equipment what remained of this music in the memories
of sharecroppers, prisoners, and itinerant musicians. In addition to encountering a basic
distrust of whites and a disinterest in old tunes, they learned that live performances were
rapidly being supplanted by DJ’s spinning “race records” in African-American bars and
juke joints across the South. Indeed, the records were often the same ones heard on
Chicago’s South Side and in Harlem.

Most important to Hamilton is the process by which a founding myth of the blues was
advanced. She writes, “the Delta blues was not born in the bars and dance halls of
Mississippi… It was discovered – or, if you like, invented – by white men and women, as
the culmination of a long-standing fascination with uncorrupted black singers, untainted
by the city, by commerce, by the sights and sounds of modernity.” (pp. 11-12) This myth
has dominated music history and criticism into the present and is prevalent in the writings
of noted authors Robert Palmer and Greil Marcus. Its greatest proponent was Alan
Lomax, who commemorated his Delta sojourns in The Land Where the Blues Began. An
ever-narrower definition of “authenticity” resulted, which defined genuine blues as sung
for personal reasons by aimless drifters who had no intentions of performing, recording,
or publishing their music.

All of which begs the question: what did African-Americans think about these white
people invading their towns, asking questions about obsolete music, and pushing
microphones in their faces? An answer is suggested in Lost Delta Found, edited by Bruce
Nemerov and Robert Gordon (Vanderbilt University Press, 2005). The source materials
for Lost Delta Found were recently unearthed after disappearing for decades inside the
Library of Congress. The book consists of sociological studies, jointly authored by Fisk
University scholars and the Library, that documented the everyday lives of African-
Americans in Coahoma County, Mississippi, circa 1941-42; John Work, a music
professor at Fisk, researched the same musical genres as Hamilton’s subjects. Hamilton
alludes to this important corrective to the blues founding myth in her endnotes, but she
ignores its implications within the body of her book.

The portrait of Alan Lomax that emerges in Lost Delta Found is decidedly unflattering.
Ostensibly a co-sponsor of the Coahoma Study as an archivist at the Library, he co-opted
(less generous observers might say “plagiarized” or “stole”) Work’s contributions to the
project, even confiscating field recordings Work had made and depositing them in the
Library in defiance of an agreement to share credit for the Study’s findings. That
Hamilton gives short shrift to this unsavory story relays the false impression that only
whites showed interest in African-American folk music. In addition, her book’s citation
methods could stand to be more robust; although phrase notes and an excellent index
appear at the end, a more formal list of works cited and numbered endnotes would be
useful.

In spite of these flaws, Hamilton has produced an important work of music history that
sheds light on obscure appreciators of an even more obscure art form. American culture is
all the richer because of what these individuals turned up—material that, as the author
amply demonstrates, could easily have been lost to history forever.