Billy The Bum
The Old Negro Space Program

Those U.S. State Department Blues

I just read an essay by Paul Oliver, one of the best-known historians of the blues, about why it is that much of the best and earliest work on the blues had long been done by Europeans.

Swedes, Belgians, Germans, French, Englishmen and others wrote exhaustive studies of the meanings of blues songs, compiled 2000-page catalogs of blues 78s, founded some of the first magazines anywhere devoted to blues — all of this long before America had a "blues revival."

Charles Delaunay had to write "Hot Discography" secretly, on onion skin, because he was in the middle of the Nazi occupation of France. When Paul Oliver (a Brit) wrote "The Blues Fell This Morning," Martin Luther King wrote the introduction.

In 1960 — the year "The Blues Fell This Morning" was published — Paul Oliver finally scraped up enough money to actually visit the United States, the birthplaces of the blues he loved so much. He traveled to Washington, New York, Detroit, Memphis, New Orleans, Shreveport, Dallas and various parts of Mississippi and Arkansas. He stayed with Muddy Waters in Chicago and traveled with Chris Strachwitz, who founded Arhoolie records using some of the recordings they made. The impact of the trip on Oliver's life and scholarship was incalculable.

The trip was made possible by a very small grant from the U.S. Department of State — a grant "for leaders and specialists."

I don't know whether such grants still come out of the State Department or from anywhere else in the U.S. government anymore. I do hear frequent stories of scholars having to give presentations to conferences in the U.S. via telephone or satellite hook-up due to difficulties getting temporary visas to travel here — and I mean British astronomers and Swedish music historians and the like. I often read about such incidents in left-wing rags like ... Sky and Telescope, for example. Bad times, bad times.

 

Editor's Note:  Paul Oliver's essay is in "Sounds of the South," a collection of papers from a conference celebrating the 1989 opening of the Southern Folklife Collection at Chapel Hill. It was edited by Daniel W. Patterson ... and I'm finding it really interesing. Also, thanks to reader Bill B. for, among other things, correcting my spelling of Chris Strachwitz's name.

Comments

Matthew G.

Hi Kurt

We just finished Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone and listened to the Carter CD you burned for us with a fresh appreciation.

As for the "European folk/blues revival" Tim Brookes' book, "Guitar An American Life" says " ... it was started by the House Un-American Activities Committee. The American influx started in 1950 when the radical folklorist Alan Lomax fled the United States because of harrassment by the House Un-American Activities Committee and moved to England. Undaunted by the fact that he was in a new country with very different musical and cultural traditions, he carried on championing American folk music black and white, in partnership with British Isles folksinger Ewan MacColl, who met and would marry Pete Seeger's sister Peggy. They produced a radio series for the BBC called ballads and blues that proved to be immensely popular introducing Britons to the music of Josh White, Big Bill Broonzy, Jean Ritchie, Ma Rainey and others."

He's got a lot more to say about the root causes of the "British Invasion" but suffice to say the spirit and soul of America has been on the run from the Puritans since the were kicked out of Europe and landed on Plymouth Rock (Which can't be too far from Kennebunkport.) No doubt the best of American culture today can be found flourishing in Canada, Europe, the Orient and elsewhere.

Anyway one antedote from the same chapter is a story from Ramblin' Jack who came to England Sept. 8,1955. "I went to visit a ship called Arethusa..anchored in the Medway,Rochester...we caught a train back to London. As we were standing on the station platform waiting for the train, I looked across and on the opposite platform there were some children aged about-I don't know-eleven or twelve,thirteen,fourteen years old,waiting to go to school one or two stops down the line. We were just waiting for a train, nobody's doing anything but standing around,so I thought I'd entertain them a bit. I got my guitar out of the case and played them some cowboy songs. Across the void. And the clapped and the train came, and we went our way and they went their way.One of those children was Mick Jagger. Little did I know, but I had inspired him to go out and buy a guitar"


The Celestial Monochord

Thanks, Matthew. That's interesting. I'll try to have a look at Tim Brooks' book some time.

Yeah, definitely, It seems like the Cold War's blacklist is part of the story of why the blues spent so much time in exile, and why it had to come to us from England as if it were new to us. I'd forgotten about that, and the Lomax connection is right on.

But also, Paul Oliver's story about the blues overseas in "Sounds of the South" starts even before WWII, so the Cold War can't be the whole story from beginning to end. He mentions in the essay that some Euro-blues freaks were also interested in the music of African Americans, the great USA's great underclass.

I know a lot of black jazz and blues musicians over the years went to Europe and were amazed at the respect, money, comprehension, sex, and other nice things that came their way. Some stayed permanently.

But Oliver also says that he's spent a hell of a lot of time visiting with people like himself and can't make out any trend whatsoever in their politics, class, educational backgrounds, professions, etc. They were just mostly just blues freaks, is all.

A lot of what I love about the history of "roots music" -- and the history of anything, it turns out -- is how relentlessly surprising it always turns out to be. Just when you have it pinned down and complete, some other portal to a new world opens up. It just keeps giving and giving.

Thanks again for the comment. Really interesting.

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