You are on page 1of 9

UNKNOWN BARDS

The blues becomes transparent about itself

By John Jeremiah Sullivan


Discussed in this essay:
American Primitive, Vol. II: Pre-W ar Revenants (18 9 7 -1 9 3 9 ). Revenant Records.
$31.98
Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention o f the Blues, by Elijah Wald.
Amistad. 368 pages. $14.95 (paper).
In Search o f the Blues: The White Invention o f Black Music, by Marybeth Hamil
ton. Perseus Books. 309 pages. $24-95.

ate in 1998 or early in 99


during the winter that strad
dled the two I spent a night
on and off the telephone with a per
son named John Fahey. I was a junior
ed ito r a t th e O x fo rd A m erica n
magazine, which at that time had its
offices in Oxford, Mississippi; Fahey,
then almost sixty and living in Room
5 of a welfare motel outside Portland,
John Jeremiah Sullivan is a contributing edi
tor o f Harpers Magazine. He is writing a
book about a lost episode in the history o f
early America.

Illustration by Jennifer Renninger

Oregon, was himself, whatever that


was: a channeler of some kind, cer
tainly; a pioneer (as he once de
scribed his great hero, Charley Pat
ton) in the extemalization through
music of strange, weird, even ghastly
emotional states. He composed in
stru m e n ta l guitar co lla g es from
snatches of other, older songs. A t
their finest they could become har
monic chambers in which different
dead styles spoke to one another. My
father had told me stories of seeing
him in Memphis in 69. Fahey trot

ted out his Blind Joe Death routine


at the fabled blues festival that sum
mer, appearing to inhabit, as he ap
proached the stage in dark glasses,
the form of an aged sharecropper,
hobbling and being led by the arm.
He meant it as a postmodern prank
at th e exp en se o f th e a ll-w h ite ,
authenticity-obsessed, country-blues
cog n o scen ti, and was at the tim e
uniquely qualified to pull it. Five
years earlier hed helped lead one of
th e little bands o f en th u siasts, a
special-ops branch of the folk revival,
that staged barnstorming road trips
through the South in search of sur
viving n o ta b les from th e prewar
country-blues or folk blues record
ing period (roughly
1925-1939).
Fahey was some
one whose destiny
followed the track of
a deep inner flaw,
like a twisted apple.
He grew up comfort
able in Washington,
D.C., fixated from an
early age on old gui
tar playing, finger
picking. A fter co l
lege he went west to
study philosophy at
Berkeley, then trans
ferred at a deciding
moment to U C L A s
folklore program, a
degree from which
equipped him nicely
to do what he want
ed: h u n t for old
bluesmen. He took
part personally in the
tracking down and
dragging back before
the public glare of
both Booker T. Washington Bukka
W hite and, in a crowning moment,
Nehemiah Curtis Skip James, the
dark prince of the country blues, a thin
black man with pale eyes and an alien
falsetto who in 1931 recorded a batch
of songs so sad and unsettling its said
that people paid him on street comers
not to sing. Fahey and two associates
found him in a charity hospital in Tu
nica, Mississippi, in 1964, dying with
cruel slowness of stomach cancer. W e
know youre a genius, they told him.
People are ready now. Play for us.

REVIEWS

85

I dont know, he supposedly an


swered. Skippy tired.
Id been told to get hold of Fahey
on a fa ct-c h e ck in g m atter. T h e
magazine was running a piece about
G eesh ie W iley (or G e e ch ie or
G itchie and, in any case, likely only
a nickname or stage moniker meaning
that she had Gullah blood, or that her
skin and hair were red-tinted). Shes
perhaps the one contem porary of
Jamess who ever equaled him in the
scary-beauty department, his spiritual
bride. All we know about Wiley is what
we dont know about her: where she
was born, or when; what she looked
like, where she lived, where shes
buried. Sh e had a playing partner
named Elvie Thom as, concerning
whom even less is known (about Elvie
there are no rumors even). Musicians
who claimed to have seen Geeshie
Wiley in Jackson, Mississippi, offered
sketchy details to researchers over the
years: that she could have been from
Natchez, Mississippi (and was maybe
part Indian), that she sang with a med
icine show. In a sadistic tease on the
part of fate, the Mississippi blues schol
ar and champion record collector Gayle
Dean Wardlow (he who found Robert
Johnsons death certificate) did an in
terview in the late Sixties with a white
man named H. C. Speir, a onetime
music-store owner from Jackson who
moonlighted as a talent scout for prewar labels dabbling in so-called race
records (meaning simply music mar
keted to blacks). Speir almost certain
ly met Wiley around 1930 and told "his
contacts at the Paramount company
in Grafton, Wisconsin, about her he
may even have taken the train trip
north with her and Elvie, as he was
known to have done with other of his
finds but although at least two of
Wiley and Thomass six surviving songs
(or sides, in the favored jargon) had
been rediscovered by collectors when
Wardlow made his 69 visit to Speirs
house, they were not yet accessible
outside a clique of two or three afi
cionados in the East. Wardlow didnt
know to ask about her, in other words,
although he was closer to her at that
moment than anyone would ever get
again, sitting half a mile from where
shed sung, talking with a man whod
seen her face and watched her tune
her guitar.

86

HARPERS MAGAZINE /NOVEMBER 2C08

at many ciphers have le r as


large and beguiling a presence
as Geeshie W iley. Three : :
the six songs she and Elvie Thomas
record ed are am ong the g rea ter:
cou n try -b lu es perform ances ever
etched into shellac, and one of therm
Last Kind Words Blues, is an essen
tial work of American art, sans qual
ifiers, a blues that isnt a blues, tha: is
something other, but is at the same
time a perfect blues, a pinnacle.
Some have argued that the song
represents a lone survival of an omer, already vanishing, minstrel style:
others that it was a one-off spoor, an
ephem eral hybrid th at originatea
and died with W iley and Thomas,
their attempt to play a tune they'd
heard by a fire somewhere. The vers
es dont follow the A -A -B repeating
pattern common to the blues, and
the keening melody isnt like a n
other recorded example from that cr
any period. Likewise with the song's
chords: Last Kind W ords Blues '
opens with a big, plonking, menac
ing E but quickly withdraws into A
minor and hovers there awhile (the
early blues was almost never played
in a m inor key ). T h e serp en tin e
dual-guitar interplay is no less star
tling, with little sliding lead pans,
presumably Elvies, moving in ana
out o f co u n te rp o in t. A t tim es ::
sounds like four hands obeying a
single mind and conjures scenes or
endless practicin g, the vast bore
doms of the medicine-show world.
T he words begin,
The last kind words I heard my daddv
say,
Lord, the last kind words
I heard my daddy say,
If I die, if I die, in the German War.
I want you to send my money,
Send it to my mother-in-law.
If I get killed, if I get killed,
Please dont bury my soul.
I cry, Just leave me out, let the
buzzards eat me whole.

The subsequent verse had a coup.e


of unintelligible words in it, either
from mumbling on Wileys part or iren
the heavily crackling static that cetr.es
along with deteriorated 78-rpm discs.
One could hear her saying pretty c.ear
ly, W hen you see me coming, leer
cross the rich mans field, after which

: mended Ace she might be saying, If


1 e r r bring you flowers,/Ill bring
: _ i re cronniere?]. That verged on
r. rrserse: more to the point, it seemed
r m e .: marie. But the writer of the
. ece 1 - as tact-checking needed to
_ _: re me m e, and my job was to work
ear :r prove to the satisfaction of
me r sees that this couldnt be done.
L is Ed Asmara, in those days keep
er : : the sacred B. B. King Blues
.-re s : e a: Ole Miss, who suggested
e r r a e r r g Fahey. Actually, what I
marm he said was, John Fahey knows
F in ally a fro n t-d esk atten d a n t
sgreed c: rut a call through to Fa
re s morn. From subsequent read
ing. 1 gather that at this time Fahey
was m ak in g th e w eekly re n t by
sea -u r g i n g and re s e llin g rare
. assical-m usic LPs, for w hich he
m m have developed an extraordira n eve. the profit margins being
a i m - : im p ercep tib le. I pictured
ram prune on the bed, gray-bearded
arm possibly naked, his overabunu arr carpus spread out like somemam,: that only got up to eat: thats
n.rer. iewers discovered him, in
the rew profiles I d read. Ide was
hampered at this point by decades
:: ad'diction and the bad heart that
~ : _m .ell him two years later, but
e e r before all that h e d been fa
rt : asIt cranky, so it was strange to
m : ru n ramblingly fam iliar from
th e m o m en t h e p ick ed up th e
pr. r e . A friend of his to whom I
mrer uescribed this co n v ersatio n
mm F t course he was n ice you
drunk want to talk about h im
Farev asked for fifteen minutes to
. : s r eatbox hooked up and locate
mm rape with the song on it. I called
bum r ace a: the appointed time.
"M ar." he said, I cant tell what
sue s saving there. Its definitely not
-No guesses?
NahA
:. e swirched to another mystery
urd a couple of verses on: W iley
smgs. My mother told me, just be: : r e she died/Lord, [precious?]
aa_purer, dont you be so wild.
"rum . i dont have any fucking
mead Fahey said. It doesnt really
ruarrer. anyway. They always just

That seemed to be the end of our


experim ent. Fahey said, G ive me
about an hour. Im going to spend
some time with it.

took the tape the magazine had


loaned me and went to my car.
O utside it was bleak n o rth M ississippi cold, w ith the wind
unchecked by the slight undulations
of flatness they call hills down there; it
formed little pockets of frozen air in
your clothes that zapped you if you
shifted your weight. I turned the bass all
the way down on the cars stereo and
the treble all the way up, trying to iso
late the frequency of W ileys voice,
and drove around town for the better
part of an hour, going the speed limit.
T h e problem words refused to give
themselves up, but as the tape ran, the
song itself emerged around them, in
spite of them, and I heard it for the
first time.
Last Kind Words Blues is about a
g h o st-lo v er. W h en W iley says
kind as in, The last kind words I
heard my daddy say she doesnt
mean it like we do; she doesnt mean
nice; she means the word in its older
sense of natural (with the implication
that everything her daddy says af
terward is unnatural, is preternatural).
Southern idiom has retained that us
age, in phrases involving the word
kindly, as in I thank you kindly,
which and the OED bears this out
represent a clinging vestige of the pri
mary, archaic meaning: not I thank you
politely and sweetly but 1 thank you in a
way thats appropriate to your deed.
Theres nothing kind, in the every
day way, about the cold instructions
her man gives for the disposal of his re
mains. T h ats what I mean about the
blues hewing to idiom. It doesnt make
mistakes like that.
Her old man has died, as he seems
to have expected the first three
verses establish this, in tone if not in
utterance. Now the song moves into
a n o -m a n s-lan d : sh e s lo st. H er
mother warned her about men, re
member, just before she died. The
daughter didnt listen, and now its
too late. She wanders.
I went to the depot, I looked up at the
sun,
Cried, Some train dont come,
Gon be some walking done.

Where does she have to get to so


badly she c a n t w ait for a n o th er
train? There's a clue, because shes
still talking to him, or he to her
one isnt sure. W hen you see me
coming, look cross the rich mans
field, if I dont bring you something,
Ill bring you something else, at least
that much was clear and part of an
old story: If I dont bring you silver,
Ill bring you gold, etc.
Only then, in the songs third and last
movement, does it get truly strange.
The Mississippi River, you know its
deep and wide,
I can stand right here,
See my baby from the other side.

This is one of the countless stock,


or floating, verses in the country
blues players passed them around
like gossip, and much of the art to
the m usics poetry lay in arrange
ment rather than invention, in an
alm o st h a ik u -lik e a p p ro a ch , by
w hich drama and even n arrativ e
could be generated through sheer
purity o f im age and in te n s ity o f
juxtaposition. W hat has W iley done
w ith th ese lin es? N orm ally they
ru n, I ca n see my baby [or my
brow nie]/from this o th er sid e.
But theres something spooky hap
pening to the spatial relationships.
If Im standing right here, how am I
seeing you from the other side? The
preposition is off. Unless Im slip
ping out of my body, of course, and
joining you on the other side. Wiley
closes off the song as if to confirm
these suspicions:
What you do to me, baby, it never
gets out of me.
I believe Ill see ya,
After I cross the deep blue sea.

I t s one o f th e o ld est d eath


m etaphors and would have been
ready to hand, thanks to W ile y s
non-secular prewar peers. Precious
Jesus, gently guide me, goes a 1926
gospel chorus, oer that ocean dark
and w ide. D one gon e ov er. T h a t
meant dead. Not up, over.
G reil M arcus, the writer of the
p iece I was fa c t-c h e c k in g , m en
tioned the extraordinary tend er
ness o f the W h at you do to me,
b aby lin e . It c a n t be d en ied .
Theres a tremendous weariness too.

REVIEWS

87

It never gets out of me, and part :


her wishes it would this long dis
ease, your memory. (The blues is a
low-down achin heart disease." sang
R obert Johnson, echoing Kokom o
Arnold echoing Clara Sm ith e ch o
ing a 1913 sheet-music number writ
ten by a white minstrel perform er
and titled Nigger Blues.) T h e re s
nothing to look forward to but the
reunion death will bring. T h at's the
narrow, haunted cosmos of the song,
which one hears as a kind of rever
beration, and which keeps people up
at night.

was having an intense tim e o f it


in the old Toyota. But when I
got back onto the phone w ith
Fahey, he was alm ost giddy. H ed
scored one: blessed. T h a ts what her
m o th er to ld h er, Lord, b le sse d
daughter, dont you be so w ild." .
cued up to the line. It seemed selfevident now, impossible to miss. 1
c o m p lim e n te d h is ear. F a h e y
co u g h -ta lk e d his way th rou gh a
rant about how they didnt care
about the words and were all illit
erate anyway.
A reflexive swerving between ec
static appreciation and an urge to
minimize the aesthetic significance
of the country blues was, I later came
to see, a pattern in Faheys career
the Blind Joe D eath bit had b ee n
part of it. Its possible he feared giv
ing in to the almost demonic force
th is m usic has ex e rte d o v er so
many or worried h ed done so a l
ready. Im fairly certain his irony me
ter hovered at zero when he titled
his 2000 book of short stories H ou
Bluegrass Music D estroyed My Life.
More than that, though, the ability
to flick at will into a dismissive mode
was a way to maintain a sense o f ex
pert status, of standing apart. You'll
find the same tendency in most of
the other major blues wonks: when
the music was all but unknown, they
hailed it as great, invincible Ameri
ca n art; w hen peop le (lik e th e
Rolling Stones) caught on and start
ed blabbering about, it, they rushed
to rem ind everyone it was ju s t a
bunch of dance music for drunken
field hands. Fahey had reached the
point where he could occupy both
extremes in the same sentence.

88

HARPERS MAGAZINE /NOVEMBER 1 O' -

~e'd gotten as far as I had with [a

r.ruere?], which remained the


m a tte r a t hand, so we adjourned
_ . :t. C am e back, broke off. This
vent on for a cou ple o f hours. I
: ui-dnt relieve he was being so pa
rterre really. Then at one point, back
:n the car. after many more rewindmgs s 'm e fibers at the edge of my in
nermost ear registered a faint L near
m e r e g in n in g o f th a t last word:

mc-L-tl Boltered? A scan through the


C ED led to bolt, then to bolted,
arm at last to this 1398 citation from
jm i i ae Trevisas English translation

: Bartholomeus Anglicuss ca. 1240


Latin encyclopedia, De proprietatibus
tenon ( On the Order o f Things): The
m ure of the mele, whan it is bultid
arm aepartid from the bran.
X iley wasnt saying flowers; she
was saving flour. T h e rich mans
norm, w hich she loves you enough to
steal tot you. If she cant get it, shell
ret r t.ted , or very finely sifted, meal.
a ren vou see me coming, look cross
the rich mans field.
I t . don't bring you flour,
Fli bring you bolted meal.
ra h e y was s k e p tic a l. I never
heard of that, he said. But later, af
ter saving goodbye for what seemed
the iast time, he called back with a
changed mind. Hed rung up people
in th e interim. (It would be fun to

mow w hom youd be tra cin g a


err precious little neural pathway
m the r.n-de-siecle American mind.)
Cr.e of his sources told him it was a
C ivil X ar thing: when they ran out
r flou r, they started using bolted
c .m m e a l. H ey, he said, maybe
we'll put you in the liner notes, if we
car, get this new thing together.

he new thing was still in de

velopment when he died. On


th e phone we talked about
R e v e n a n t, the self-described raw
m u sics" label h e d co-founded in
1 9 9 6 w ith a T exas lawyer named
D ean Blackwood. Revenant releases
are like Konstruktivist design proj
ects in their attention to graphic de
rm.. with liner notes that are de fac
to transcripts of scholarly colloquia.
rah ey and Blackwood had thought
up a new release, which would be all
about prewar phantoms like Wiley

and Thomas hand mature new, supe


rior transfers ot the pair's six sides).
T he collections only delimiting cri
teria would be th a t n o th in g b io
graphical could be known regarding
any of the artists involved, and that
every recording must be phenom e
nal, in a sense almost strict: some
thing that happened once in front
of a microphone and can never be
im itated , merely re-exp erien ced .
They had been dreaming this proj
ect for years, refining lists. And Id
contributed a peck of knowledge, a
little ants mouthful of knowledge.
A lm ost six years passed, during
which Fahey died in the hospital from
com plications follow ing m ultiplebypass surgery. I assumed, with other
people, that hed taken the phantoms
project with him, but in October of
2005, with no fanfare and after ru
mors of R ev en an ts having closed
shop, it materialized, two discs and a
total of fifty songs with the subtitle
Pre-War Revenants ( 1897-1939).
Anyone interested in A m erican
culture should find a way to hear this
record. Its possibly the most impor
ta n t arch ival release since Harry
Sm iths seminal Anthology o f Ameri
can Folk Music in 1952, and for the
sam e reason: it rep resen ts less a
scholarly effort to preserve and dis
seminate obscure recordings, indis
pensable as those undertakings are,
th an the chartin g o f a deeply in
formed aesthetic sensibility, which
for all its torment was passionately,
selflessly in communion with these
songs and th e n u a n ces o f th e ir
artistry for a lifetim e. Listening to
this collection, you enter the keep
ing of a kind of Virgil.
To do it right entailed remastering
everything fresh from 78s, which in
turn meant coaxing out a transna
tional rabbits warren of the so-called
serious collectors, a community wide
spread but dysfunctionally tight-knit,
as by process of consolidation the
major collections have come into the
keeping of fewer and fewer hands
over the years. T h e serious blues
people are less than ten, one who
contributed to P re-W ar Revenants
to ld me. C o u n try , sev en . Jazz,
maybe fifteen. Most are to one degree
or another sociopathic. Mainly what
they do is nurse decades-old grudges.

A terrifically complicated bunch of


people, but, for reasons perhaps not
totally scrutable even to themselves,
they have protected this music from
time and indifference. The collectors
were first of all the finders. Those
trips to locate old blues guys started
out as trips to canvass records. Gayle
D ean W ardlow b ecam e a pestcontrol man at one point, in order to have a legitimate excuse to be walk
ing around in black neighborhoods
beating on doors. Need your house
sprayed? Nah. G ot any weird old
records in the attic?
omething like 60 percent of the
sides on Pre-W ar Revenants are
SC O , single copy only. These
songs are flashbulbs going off in im
mense darknesses. Blues Birdhead, Bay
less Rose, Pigmeat Terry, singers that
only the farthest gone of the old-music
freaks have heard. I got the mean
Bo-Lita blues, sings the unknown Kid
Brown (Bo-Lita was a poorly under
stood M exican game of chance that
swept the South like a hayfire about a
hundred years ago and wiped out a
bunch of shoebox fortunes). Theres
a guy named Tommy Settlers, who
sings out of his throat in some way. I
cant describe it. He may have been a
freak-show act. His Big Bed Bug and
Shaking Weed Blues are all there is
of whatever he was, yet he was a mas
ter. Mattie May Thomass astonishing
W orkhouse Blues was recorded a
cappella in the sewing room at a wom
ens prison:

I wrasslc with the hounds, black man,


Hounds of hell all day.
I squeeze them so tight,
Until they fade away.

In w hat is surely a trustworthy


mark of obscurantist cred, one of the
sides on Pre-W ar Revenants was dis
covered at a flea market in Nashville
by the person who engineered the
collection, Chris King, the guy who
actually signs for delivery of the rein
forced wooden boxes, put together
with drywall screws and capable of
w ithstanding an auto collision, in
which most 78s arrive for projects
like this. Th e collectors trust King;
hes a major collector himself (own
er, as it happens, of the second-best
of three known copies of Last Kind

REVIEWS

89

Words Blues) and an acknowledged


savant when it comes to excavating
and reconstructing sonic inform a
tio n from th e wrecked grooves of
prewar disc recordings. I called him a
couple of years ago, looking for de
tails of how this project had come to
life. Like Fahey, King graduated col
lege with degrees in religion and phi
losophy; he can wax expansive about
what he does. He described junk
ing that rare 78 in Nashville, the
Two Poor Boys Old Hen Cackle,
which lay atop a stack of 45s on a
table in the open sun. It was brown.
In the heat it had warped, he said,
into the shape of a soup bowl. A t
th e b o tto m o f th e bowl h e could
read the word PERFECT, a short-lived
hillbilly label. Brown Perfects are
p re cio u s. H e to o k it h o m e and
placed it outside between two panes
of clear glass co llecto rs wisdom,
handed down and allowed the heat
o f the sun and the slight pressure of
the glasss weight slowly to press it
flat again, to where he could play it.
Sometimes, King told me, he can
tell things about the records life from .
how the sound has worn away. The
copy of Geeshie W ileys Eagles on a
H alf (theres only one copy) that King
worked with for Pre-War R even an ts
had, he realized, been dug out by an
improvised stylus of some kind they
used anything, sewing needles in
such a manner that one could tell the
phonograph it spun on, or else the
floor underneath the phonograph, was
tilted forward and to the right. Sud
denly you have a room , d ancing,
boards with a lot of give, people laugh
ing. Its a nasty, sexy song: I said,
squat low, papa, let your mama see./I
wanna see that old business keeps on
worrying me. King tilted his machine
back and to the left. He encountered
undestroyed signal and got a newly
vibrant mastering.
Strangest of the songs is the very
oldest, Poor Mourner by the duo
Cousins <Sl DeMoss, who may or may
not have been Sam Cousins and Ed
DeMoss, semi-famous late-nineteenthcentury minstrel singers if so, then
the former is the only artist included on
Pre-War Revenants of whom an image
has survived: a grainy photograph of his
strong, square face appeared in the In
dianapolis Freem an in 1889. These two

90

HARPERS MAGAZINE /NOVEMBER 2008

performed Poor M ourner for the


Berliner Company in 1897- (Em ile
Berliner had patented disc, as opposed
to cylinder, recording; discs were eas
ier to duplicate.)
Dual banjos burst forth with a fre
netic rag figure, and it seems you're
on familiar if excitable ground. Bui
somewhere betw een the third and
fourth measure o f the first bar the
second banjo pulls up, as if with a
halt leg, and begins putting forward a
drone o n top o f th e first, w h ich
twangs away for a second as it it
hadnt been warned about the immi
nent mood change. Then the instru
ments grind down together, the key
swerves minor, and without your be
ing able to pinpoint what happened
or when, you find yourself in a totallv
different, darker sphere. The effect is
the sonic equivalent of film getting
jam m ed in an old p ro je c to r, th e
stuck frame melting, colors bleeding.
It all takes place in precisely five sec
onds. It is unaccountable. Chris King
said, T hat is not a function of some
weird thing I couldnt fix. I asked if
maybe the old machines ran slightlv
faster at the start. He reminded me
that the song didnt start with music;
it started with a high voice shouting.
As sung by Cousins and DeMoss I"
W hen this song comes up I invari
ably flash on my great-grandmother
Elizabeth Baynham, bom in that same
year, 1 8 9 7 .1 touched that year. There
is no degree of remove between me
and it. I barely remember her as a
blind, legless figure in a wheelchair
and afghan who waited for us in the
hallway outside her room. Knowing
that this song was part of the fabric of
the world she came into lets me know
I understand nothing about that peri
od, that very very end of the nine
teenth century. W e live in such con
stant closeness with the abyss of past
time, which the moment is endlesslv
sucked into. T he Russian writer Vik
tor Shklovsky said art exists to make
the stone stony. These recordings let
us feel something of the timevness of
time, its sudden irrevocability.

f P re-W a r R ev en an ts marks the


apotheosis of the baroque aesth e tic iz a tio n o f early b la ck
southern music by white men, which
has brought you such sentences as

these, then it's only proper that the


ccdecm m appear now, as were finalIt w itnessing th e dawn o f a new
transparency in blues writing: the
sch o larsh ip o f blues scholarsh ip .
T w : good books in this vein have
been published in the past few years:
H r ah W ald 's E sc a p in g th e D elta :
b L cer Johnson and the Invention o f the
5 has and M arybeth H am iltons In
betrtr. d ihe B ines (subtitled, in its
first- British edition, B la c k V oices,
T H Visions, and in the American,
The T h - a Invention o f B lack M usic).
Both are engaging and do solid, necesxarr work. I approached them with
som ething like defensiveness, e x
pecting to be implicated, inevitably,
in th e creep y ra c ia l unease th a t
shaoews H e country-blues discourse,
which has always been, with a cou
ple rr extremely notable examples
,Zcca N eale Hurston and Dorothy
Scsstcroughh white guys talking to
m e m other about black music, and
about a particular period in the mu
s e m e that living black American
amscs mostly consider quaint.
Both new books replace hoary myths
with researched histories of far greater
m erest- Bach seek to deconstruct the
legem c f the Delta bluesman, with
his crossroads and hellhounds and
heath b*r poison, his primal expression
c f existential isolation. Both end up
com plicating th at picture instead.
W aid's book takes away the legend of
Robert Johnsons inexplicable tech
nical ability! for which, rivals whis
pered. he sold his soul, and gives us in
stead Johnson the self-aware craftsman
and student of other peoples records,
rm ludng those of Skip James, from
whom Johnson lifted the beautiful
phrase drv long so, meaning indifrerenhv. or for the hell of it. I dont
dunk the reviews of Escaping the Delta
d m appeared at the time of its publiu m m went tar enough in describing its
genius. Partly this owed to the books
marketing, which involved a vague
suggestion that Robert Johnson would
d.erem be exposed as a mere pop imi
tator. W hat Escaping the D elta really
does is introduce us to a higher level of
appreciation for Johnsons methods.
W ald puts you inside Jo h n so n s
head for the San Antonio and Dallas
sessions, and takes you song by song,
m an extremely rigorous way (hes an-

other lifelong student of the music); he


shows you what Johnson decided to
play and when and puts forward convincing reasons why, shows you what
sources he was combining, how he
changed them, honored them. Wald
is especially good at comparing the
alternate takes, letting us hear the
minutiae of Johnsons rhythmic and
chordal modifications. These become
windows onto the intensity of his
craftsmanship. By picking up certain
threads, you can track his moves. Blind
Lemon Jefferson sang, T he train left
the depot with the red and blue light
behind/W ell, the blue lig h ts the
blues, th e red lig h ts th e worried
mind. T hat was a good verse. That
was snappy. Eddie and Oscar, a poL
ished, almost formal country'blues duo
out of N orth C arolina (Eddie was
white, Oscar was black), had already
copied that. Johnson probably heard
it from them. But when he went
When the train, it left the station,
With two lights on behind,
Ah, when the train left the station,
With two lights on behind,
Well, the blue light was my blues,
And the red light was my mind.
All my loves in vain.

that was something else. Johnson


knew it was something else. He knew
how good it was, knew the difference
between saying the red lights the
worried mind and saying the red light
was my mind. After all, hes the same
person who wrote the couplet From
Memphis to Norfolk is a thirty'Six
hours ride./A man is like a prisoner,
and hes never satisfied. Part of hearing the blues is taking away the soci
ological filter, which with good but
misguided intentions we allow to de
velop before our senses, and hearing
the self-consciousness of the early
bluesmen hearing that, as Samuel
Charters put it in the liner notes to
Henry Townsends Tired o f Bein Mis
treated (1962), the blues singer . . .
feels himself as a creative individual
within the limits of the blue style.
Its an extraordinary thought-movie
Wald creates for a hundred pages or so.
If the jacket copy primed me to come
away disabused of my awe for Joh n
sons musicianship, instead it was dou
bled. Everything Johnson touched he
made subtler, sadder. He took the

m ostly co m ica l ravings o f P ee tie


Wheatstraw the Devils Son-in-Law
and smoothed them into Robert John
sons devil, the melancholy devil who
walks like a man and looks like a man
and is much less easily laughed off.
^ "W Whereas Wald wants to edu%/%/ cate our response to th e
T country blues away from nos
talgia and toward a more mature valu
ation by reminding us that all folk
was once somebodys pop Marybeth
Hamilton, an American cultural his
torian who teaches in England, looks
back instead at the old sense of aura,
asking where it came from. In Search o f
the Blues traces white fascination with
the country blues to its roots in the
mind of one James McKune, a weedy,
closeted, alcoholic N ew York Times
rewrite man turned drifter who kept
his crates of 78s under his bunk at a
YMCA in Brooklyn. Until now his tale
has been known only to readers of the
78 Q u arterly. M cK une cam e from
N o rth C arolin a and in 1971 died
squalidly after a sexual transaction
gone wrong. In the early Forties he
was among the tirst to break from the
world of hardcore New Orleans jazz
collecting, which developed in IvyLeague dorms and was byzantine with
specialisms by the late Thirties. Llamilton proves deft on the progression of
McKunes taste. He started out an ob
sessive for commercial ethnographic
material, such as regional dance songs
from Spain on the Columbia label.
He was interested, in other words, in
culturally precious things that had
been accidentally snagged and pre
served by stray cogs of the anarchic
capitalist machine.
One of McKunes few fellow trav
elers in this backwater of the collect
ing world was Harry S m ith , who
would go on in 1952 to create the
Anthology o f A m erican F olk M usic.
Smith urged McKune to send to the
Library of Congress for a curious in
dex, compiled by Alan Lomax during
his field-recording days and held in
manuscript there, of American Folk
Songs on Commercial Records. That
list is the real DNA of the country
blues as a genre. Hamilton writes:
What [McKune] read there confound
ed everything he had ever assumed
about race records. The dizzying vari-

REVIEWS

91

ety of musical styles, the sheer oddity


of the song titles.. . . Most intriguing
of all were Lomaxs mentions of blues
recordings [that] promised something
undiluted and raw.
A strangeness to notice here is that
McKunes discovery happened in 1942.
Robert Johnson, described on Lomaxs
list with the notes individual compo
sition v[ery] f[ine], touches of voodoo,
had been alive and recording just four
years earlier. Already he existed for
McKune as he exists for us, when we
approach him through the myth, at an
archaeological remove. T h e country
blues has its decade or so and then is
obliterated with a startling suddenness,
by the Depression, the Second World
War, and the energy of the Chicago
sound. In 1938, John Hammond, an
early promoter of American folk music
(later to become Bob Dylans first pro
ducer), put together a concert called
From Spirituals to Swing. He in
tended it as a statement on the aes
thetic legitimacy of African-American
music. Hammond sent off a cablegram
inviting Robert Johnson to come north
and be in the show, to perform at
Carnegie Hall. Its a hinge moment in
blues historiography the second act,
which would lead north and then to the
festivals, reaches out to the first, which
is disappearing with the onset of war,
and tries to recognize a continuity. But
Johnson had just died, at twenty-seven,
e ith e r o f poison or of co n g en ita l
syphilis. He was employed to pick cot
ton at the time. A t the concert they
wheeled a phonograph onto the stage
and played two of his records in the
stillness. Even the m ediation we think
of as being so postmodern, the ghost
liness surrounding the recordings them
selves as material objects, is present at
the very beginning.
McKune undertook to search out
these recordings, to know them. Hamil
ton says he once rode a bus 250 miles
from Brooklyn to the D.C. suburbs to
h ear D ick Spo ttsw o o d s re cen tly
tumed-up copy of Skip Jamess Hard
Time Killin Floor Blues. He walked
in, sat down, heard the record, and
walked back out. Those who knew him
recall his listening silently. In awe.
People are drifting
From door to door
Cant find no heaven,
I dont care where they go.

92

HARPERS MAGAZINE/NOVEMBER 2008

Spottswood was one in a circle of


adepts who gathered around McKune
in the late Forties and Fifties. They
went on to become the Blues Mafia,
the serious collectors. They didnt re
ally gather around McKune he lived
at the YM C A . But he visited their
gatherings and became the c h ef du sa
lon. (This is the same Dick Spottswood
who a few years later would play Blind
W illie Johnsons Praise God Im Sat
isfied over the telephone for a young
Jo h n Fahey w hod called up d e
manding it causing Fahey to weep
and nearly vomit.)
McKune was never an object-freak:
like Fahey who went looking for
Skip James partly in hopes of learning
the older mans notoriously difficult
minor-key tunings he wanted the
songs, the sounds, though he searched
as relentlessly as any antiquarian. His
early w ant lis ts in T h e R e c o r d
Changer magazine are themselves now
valuable collectibles. Ham ilton in
cludes the lovely detail that occasion
ally, in his lists, he would issue a call
for hypothetical records. For instance,
h e m igh t ad vertise for Blues on
black Vocalion, any with San Anto
nio master numbers; that is, records
made in the same studio and during
the same week as Robert Johnsons
most famous sessions. (Goethe look
ing for the U rpflanzel)
W h a t M cK une heard when the
record s arriv ed tra n sfix e d h im .
Hamilton shows her seriousness and
should earn the respect of all prewar
wonks by n ot reflexively dismissing
this something as an imagined prim
itiv e or rough quality. Indeed,
th o se were th e words th a t would
have been used at the time by jarr
collectors who for the most part dis
missed this music as throwaway hick
stuff, novelty songs made by people
too poor to get to New Orleans. W e
can offer conjectures, as Ham ilton
does, intelligently, about the interior
m ansions o f M cK u n es obscuran
tism about whether, say, his estima
tion of Charley Patton as the greatest
of the country-blues singers was in
fluenced by th e fact th at Patton's
records are the muddiest and least in
telligible, allowing the most to be
read into them but the rigorous at
tention underlying all of McKune's
listening stands as his defense.

arely did McKune attempt pub


lished aesthetic statements
any kind, and its odd how
keeps repeating one word. Writing to
VJM P alav er in 1960 about Samuel
Charterss then recent book, T he Coun
try Blues, McKune bemoaned the fath at Charters had concentrated o
those singers whod sold the mo
records, such as Blind Lemon Jefferson
and Brownie M cGhee, whose respec
tive oeuvres McKune found mediocre
and slick. McKunes letter is sputtering
in the arcane fury of its narcissism of
minor difference, but the word he keeps
getting stuck on is great. As in Jef
ferson made only one record I can call
great (italics McKunes). Or, I know
twenty men who collect the Negrc
country blues. A ll of us have been in
terested in knowing who the great
country blues singers are (his again),
not in who sold best. And finally, I
write for those who want a different
basis for evaluating blues singers. This
basis is their relative greatness. . .
W hen I saw that letter in Hamil
tons book, it brought up a memory of
being on the phone with Dean Black
w ood, Jo h n Faheys p artn er at
Revenant Records, and hearing him
talk about his early discussions with
Fahey over the phantoms project. John
and I always felt like there wasnt
enough of a case being made for these
folks' greatness , hed said. Youve got
to have their stuff together to under
stand the potency of the work.
Before dismissing as naive the boosterism of these pronouncements, we
might ask whether theres not a simple
technical explanation for the feeling
being expressed or left unexpressed in
them . I would submit that there is and
it's this: The narrative of the blues got
hijacked by rock n roll, which rode a
wave of youth consumers to global dom
ination. Back behind the split, there
was something else: a deeper, riper
source. Many people who have written
about this body of music have noticed
it. Robert Palmer called it Deep Blues.
W e're talking about strains within
scrams, sure, but listen to something
ake Ishman Braceys Woman Woman
Bices. his tattered yet somehow im
peccable ralsetto when he sings, She
arc coal-black curly hair. Songs like
Continued on

page 94

REVIEW S
Continued from page 92
that were not made for dancing. Not
even for singing along. They were made
for listening. For grown-ups. They were
chamber compositions. Listen to Blind
Willie Johnsons Dark Was the NightCold Was the Ground. It has no woris,
Its hummed by a blind preacher inca
pable o f playing an impure note on the
guitar. W e have to go against our train
ing here and suspend anthropological
thinking; it doesnt serve at these stra
ta. T he noble ambition not to be the
kind of people who unwittingly fetishire
and exoticize black or poor-white folk
poverty has allowed us to remain the
kind of people who dont stop to won
der whether the serious treatment of
certain folk forms as essentially high- or
higher-art forms might have originated
with the folk themselves.
If theres a shared weakness to these
two books, its that theyre insufficiendv
on the catch for this pitfall. No one in
the blues world was calling this music
art, says Wald. Is that true? Carl Sand
burg was including blues lyrics in his
anthologies as early as 1927. More to
the point, Ethel Waters, one of the citi
fied blues queens whose lyrics and
melodies had a funny way of showing up
in those raw and undiluted countryblues recordings, had already been writ
ing self-consciously modernist blues for
a few years by then (e.g., I cant sleep
for dreaming. . . , a line of hers I first
heard in Crying Sam Collins and took
for one of his beautiful manglings, then
was humbled to learn had always been
intentionally poetic). Marybeth Hamil
ton, in her not unsympathetic autopsy
of James McKunes mania, comes dan
gerously close to suggesting th a t
McKune was the first person to hear
Skip James as we hear him, as a pro
found artist. But Skip James was the
first person to hear Skip James that way.
T h e anonymous African-A m erican
people described in Walds book, sit
ting on the floor of a house in T en
nessee and weeping while Robert John
son sang Come O n in My Kitchen
they were the first people to hear the
country blues that way. White men re
discovered the blues, fine. W ere talk
ing about the complications of that at
last. Lets not go crazy and say they in
vented it, or accidentally credit their

94

HARPERS MAGAZINE /NOVEMBER 1 : :

visions with too much power. That


w cdli be counterproductive, a final in
still even.

here's a moment on those discs


of Gayle Dean Wardlows in
terviews, the ones in Revenant's Patton set. Wardlow is talking
with Booker Miller, a minor prewar
plsver who knew- Charley Patton. And
vcc can hear Wardlow, who was a de
ceptively good interviewer he just
kept coming at a person in this Rain
-Ln stvle that would have made any
body feel the less awkward one in the
room and you can tell hes trying to
pet Miller to describe the ritu al of his
apprenticeship to the elder Patton.
Did you meet him at a juke join t,
asked Wardlow, or on the street?
H ot,- did they find each other? Its the
sort or question one would ask.
I admired his records, answered
Booker Miller.

November Index Sources


1 'isephE. Stiglitz (N.Y.C.); 2 Harpers reaearcn: 3,4 Center for American Progress
W ashington); 5 Office of the Mayor
at_a Alaska); 6 Timothy Moore, Uni
versity i f Maryland (College Park); 7 The
Campaign Finance Institute (Washing::r . 'Center for Responsive Politics (Washngtctt : 8 U.5. Department of Defense; 9
L S Small Business Administration; 10,11
Sew Jcnes. RAND Corporation (Arling
ton. Y=_ ; 12 Environics Research Group
. ircntc ; 13 Todd Pittinsky, Center for
FuHtc Leadership (Cambridge, Mass.);
1 4 ,1 5 X i rid Christian Encyclopedia
N-i.CL: 16 Lenworth Jacobs, Hartford
Hospital Hartford, Conn.); 17,18 Pew
Ftmm on Religion and Public Life (Washw - g t t n 19 Zogby International (Utica,
N - Y . 2 0 Tribunal Superior Eleitoral
Brasilia : 2 1 Embassy of the United States
djwtc. Ecuador); 22 Playgirl (N.Y.C.); 23
receral Election Commission; 24 Federal
Elect:en Cemmission/Manhunt (N.Y.C.);
25 The Ashley Madison Agency (Toronto);
2 6 .2 7 Parents Television Council (Los
Angeles h 28 National Center for Health
Statistics (Hyattsville, Md.); 29 Pew His
panic Center (Washington); 30 John Bak
er. Louisiana State University (Baton
Rouge : 31 Harpers research; 32 U.S. Drug
Enroccemenc Administration (Miami); 33
McKinsev Sc Company (N.Y.C.); 34,35
Xmhua News Agency (Beijing); 3 6 Emhas?.- of the Republic of Korea (Washingten : 37 \Xh.ite House Office of Media Afrairs: 38 Associated Press (N.Y.C.); 39
Associated Press (N.Y.C.); 4 0 Phil Calfy,
-Ik w_< \Moore, Okla.).