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New Morning  

 

HIPSTERS, FLIPSTERS &
FINGER POPPIN’
DADDIES!

 

 

by C. P. Lee
 

 

 

Two Blue 

Briefly recapping the last piece – the Blues first appeared in recorded form in 1915, was mainly popularised by women singers and it wasn’t until the mid 1920s that what we might call ‘Country Blues’ started appearing on record. It is this form that eventually became most familiar, leading to ‘Chicago’ or ‘Electric’ forms. In terms of live music, the Blues was only one part of a wide repertoire employed by ‘Musicianers’, as itinerant and semi-professional musicians were known. It could be argued that what we call ‘Blues’ today is simply a White construction that was imposed in the 1920s firstly by record manufacturers, then secondly by White audiences (consumers) from the 1960s onwards. 

When WC Handy stopped off at that Mississippi railway station and heard the ragged figure on the platform fret his guitar with a knife blade and sing about ‘where the southern cross the dog’ a whole template of obfuscation was drawn up. Firstly, and something I will look at in more detail further on, was the concept of ‘itinerant poverty’, secondly, the musicianer, whoever he was, would never have called what he was doing ‘The Blues’. As Son House said – “The old songs they used to sing way back yonder, weren’t none of them pertaining to no blues.”  

The most common term used to describe this kind of field music was ‘Reels’ when played with accompaniment (up ’til the turn of the century that would have been provided by a fiddle or banjo), or ‘Holler’ when it was unaccompanied.  ‘Reel’ of course also applies to White (though by no means exclusively) dance tunes, usually of European origin. There’s ample evidence to show that Blacks and Whites frequently shared tunes without regard to origin. 

‘The Blues’ when it first appeared was ‘Pop’ music and was formed structurally out of elements of Ragtime, Minstrel and Vaudeville. As Pop it was hot and many musicianers adopted the phrase to describe anything that they were playing in order to appear ‘with it’. These elements show through in the recordings we have of artists like Henry ‘Ragtime’ Thomas, Furry Lewis and Mississippi John Hurt. They also ring clearly in the structure and attack of Charlie Patton and Son House. But even those artists would have remained equivocal in describing themselves – they wanted to earn a living and sticking to one name or style would have been commercial suicide. That came later when a demand had been created by the industry. Later it would be a demand created by the Second Folk Revival and it was a demand for ‘authenticity’, which takes us back to the template of the itinerant, poverty-stricken Southern agricultural worker who ‘happens’ to play the Blues … and once again, not sticking to that template would have been commercial suicide. 

Black audiences weren’t quite so demanding – When Muddy Waters played Black club gigs in the 1950s he’d warm up the crowd with Pop standards before moving on to the down home stuff. When Lonnie Johnson tried that in London in 1950 he shocked his audiences (as we saw in the Blues Is Bunk article. Lightnin’ Hopkins is said to have changed from his suit to a pair of overalls before going on stage at the Newport Folk Festival. When touring Europe in the 1960s, Big Bill Broonzy left his backing band at home and played acoustic guitar because that’s how the audience perceived him, as a rambling kind of rail-hopping hobo, share-cropping Blues man – not the successful, guitar-playing Chicago businessman he actually was (he owned a chain of grocery stores).
 

Robert Johnson  

Mode of dress has always been a paramount part of the artist’s trade, particularly the musicianer, one’s hipness was measured by one’s style of dress, one’s success by the cut of one’s gib.

There are only two known photographs of Robert Johnson, the first appears to be a photo-booth shot and as we only see head and shoulders it’s hard to tell how he’s turned out, but the other picture, shown here, is a semiotic masterpiece.

Johnson is in a photographer’s studio and posed seated on a carpet covered dais, guitar across his lap, the fingers of his left hand in an A major seventh chord on the guitar neck. He’s wearing an impeccable double-breasted, pin-striped suit. His shoes are shined to perfection and he sports a silk tie round his neck. His shirt has a tab collar and a handkerchief peeks out from his breast pocket. All this is set off by a snap-brim trilby perched at a jaunty angle atop his head.

Whatever else he might be Johnson is a dandy through and through.


All this is at variance with the popular concept of the Blues musician in worn-out bibbed overalls sitting on the back porch of a run-down shack, wailing at the world and all its worries. Johnson looks like a hot young guitar slinger who’s as at home in the town as he is at a juke joint on Stovell’s Plantation. Maybe, we can surmise, he looks like this because he sold his soul to the Devil? … This story is one of the most enduring myths of poplore and is, thanks to Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCullough’s Robert Johnson – Lost & Found (University of Illinois Press 2003), now thoroughly examined and debunked. Without going too deeply into it, the whole thing started in 1946 when Jazz critic Rudy Blesh wrote a review of Johnson’s Hellhound On My Tail, in which he spoke of the music in the following terms – ‘the implacable, slow, pursuing footsteps – are full of evil, surcharged with the terror of one alone among the moving, unseen shapes of the night…’ and so on.
 

In 1959, Samuel B Charter’s seminal book, The Country Blues, stoked up the hyperbole, Charter’s adopting a position often chosen by Dylan interpreters, that Johnsons’ lyrics must be autobiographical therefore Hellhounds and Me And The Devil Blues, were somehow indicative of a Demonic pact. Charter’s continued this theme in his 1973 volume, Robert Johnson. This time he had an anecdotal aside from musician Son House which posited that Johnson had become such a good guitar player because he’d sold his soul to the Devil. From this slight remark Greil Marcus, Peter Guralnick, Robert Palmer and others have published reams of text linking Johnson to the occult. Pearson and McCullough argue that the myth of Satanic intervention is (A) a racist one because it denies that a Black artist could become a virtuoso without occult assistance, (B) rubbish and (C) prevented proper research into Johnson from having been carried out. 

In his Robert Johnson And The Invention of the Blues – Escaping The Delta, Elijah Wald has tackled (C) and produced a fascinating biography that argues plausibly that Johnson’s importance has been blown out of all proportion by White critics. It’s not to denigrate Johnson’s musicianship or talent, but it’s a plain and simple fact that Johnson’s music meant next to nothing to the Black community (he died too soon to have any great impact, plus his ‘Country’ style was on the way out), but meant an enormous amount to the emerging Rock scene in the 1960s. 

Dylan recently said that he was taught how to play lead guitar by Lonnie Johnson. Some of us may feel that was unfortunate, but what is important is that Dylan has the perspicacity to perceive the links and the chains that bind us all to the old times and use them to bring something new to the table. It’s all part of his ‘electronic grids’ and ‘mathematical music’ – it’s all part of the patchwork quilt of Americana …


1975 – The Bottom Line, New York – Muddy Waters and BD

 
 
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