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Who started the Delta blues myth?

GUEST,Joseph Scott 27 May 15 - 07:25 PM
Lighter 27 May 15 - 06:44 PM
Jack Campin 27 May 15 - 06:10 PM
GUEST 27 May 15 - 06:08 PM
GUEST,Joseph Scott 27 May 15 - 05:53 PM
Wesley S 27 May 15 - 05:45 PM
GUEST,Joseph Scott 27 May 15 - 05:45 PM
GUEST,Joseph Scott 27 May 15 - 05:40 PM
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Subject: RE: Who started the Delta blues myth?
From: GUEST,Joseph Scott
Date: 27 May 15 - 07:25 PM

The post is about trying to figure out who popularized a particular myth, the myth that we have evidence that blues music started in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta. And, basically, it seems that Alan Lomax did, starting in the 1940s and 1950s, and still actively in the 1980s and 1990s, but he had plenty of help from others.

Writers since roughly Charters 1959, while discussing blues origins, have often remembered to throw the Yazoo/Mississippi Delta a bone, choosing to throw that bone illogically rather than not throw it at all (Charters, Oliver, Palmer, Oakley, Gioia), because none of them could do so logically, because they had no actual evidence that blues music started in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta. And, given when they were writing, it apparently only occurred to them to do throw that bone _at all_ (rather than throw that same bone to Alabama or wherever) because Alan Lomax had already popularized the idea that early blues music had a special relationship to the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, an idea Alan couldn't support with evidence either, but liked the sound of as of about 1947, and as of about 1993.

In contrast, early writers interested in blues all bear the signs of not being influenced by or independently hitting on the same idea there as Alan did.


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Subject: RE: Who started the Delta blues myth?
From: Lighter
Date: 27 May 15 - 06:44 PM

No worse organized than what I write.

And Joe's point is clear: there's no more evidence to attribute the "birth of the blues" to the Mississippi Delta than to places as far afield as Indiana and Tennessee.

In fact, whatever the truth may be, there seems to be little enough evidence (as distinct from assertion) to locate the birthplace of the blues in any region narrower than the American South and the Ohio Valley.


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Subject: RE: Who started the Delta blues myth?
From: Jack Campin
Date: 27 May 15 - 06:10 PM

It would be rather easier to follow what you're saying if you stated your own ideas about how blues started and relegated the refutations of other theories to footnotes. As you're presenting it, it's not easy to see the point.


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Subject: RE: Who started the Delta blues myth?
From: GUEST
Date: 27 May 15 - 06:08 PM

The way I heard it was not that the Delta was the only source of the blues, but that it was the first source that caught the attention of mainstream culture, when rural singers from the Delta started moving into New Orleans in large numbers to work on the docks. Once it got their attention, people looked around and found there was a lot more of that kind of music and in a lot of locations.


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Subject: RE: Who started the Delta blues myth?
From: GUEST,Joseph Scott
Date: 27 May 15 - 05:53 PM

I wrote that myself today.


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Subject: RE: Who started the Delta blues myth?
From: Wesley S
Date: 27 May 15 - 05:45 PM

Where was this article cut and pasted from?

Or are you saying you wrote it yourself?


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Subject: RE: Who started the Delta blues myth?
From: GUEST,Joseph Scott
Date: 27 May 15 - 05:45 PM

"as if House wasn't five years old at the most when Elbert Bowman heard blues in Tennessee"

This should read "three years old at the most."


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Subject: Who started the Delta blues myth?
From: GUEST,Joseph Scott
Date: 27 May 15 - 05:40 PM

The title "Who started the Delta blues myth?" is shorthand for the real title of this post, which is "Who is to blame for the myth that we have evidence that blues music originated in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta?"

Short answer: Alan Lomax, it seems. (I found out today that that's a conclusion Vic Hobson and I have both come to independently. So maybe we're both right.) But it's interesting to look at who else has participated in popularizing the myth.

Hobson has written, "[T]he belief that the Mississippi Delta is the birthplace of the blues is so pervasive that we rarely if ever question why this is popularly believed. With the exception of Alan Lomax in the _The Land Where the Blues Began_ (1993) there are few authorities on the blues who have... openly stated this belief...." I don't know who Hobson believes are "authorities on the blues" rather than just writers on the blues whom Hobson personally does not consider "authorities." And Hobson apparently believes that Alan Lomax was an "authority" on blues music (whatever that quite is), a belief that I wouldn't say I share!

In any case, it's fair to say that it is the "blues writers," not their readers, who _are_ to blame for this myth. (Contrast, say, the myth current among many people -- if you read youtube comments, for instance -- that Robert Johnson was one of the earliest blues recording artists. That's an example of a myth for whom "the people" at large trying to share notes with each other _are_ squarely to blame, not "the blues writers," who know about Lemon Jefferson, etc.)


Robert Palmer, the rock writer who decided to write a book about blues -- and it sold and influenced other writers -- wrote that "Blues in the Delta... certainly is the first blues we know much about." That was a FALSE CLAIM when he wrote it. There had been a lot written even before 1935 about blues, some by keen-minded writers such as Newman White. Howard Odum had written about blues he'd heard before 1909, for example (in 1911, and again in the 1920s). Abbe Niles had written articles encouraging educated people to buy records by the likes of Rabbit Brown because they were terrific. George Washington Lee had published the successful book _Beale Street, Where The Blues Began_. Etc. Those writers all had NOT written that blues had a special relationship to the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, because Alan Lomax hadn't started popularizing that myth yet, because it wasn't the 1940s yet (Alan had never even heard of Robert Johnson yet in 1935).

When Palmer published his book
-- Willie Cornish's claim that Buddy Bolden played any blues in Louisiana by the time he stopped playing in 1907 had already been publicized
-- Roy Carew had already written about hearing a different blues in Louisiana in 1906
-- Tichener had recently republished "I Got The Blues" from 1908 by Maggio, of Louisiana (which Maggio had already said was based on a third Louisiana blues)
-- "Joe Turner" was already known to be an early relative of the folk songs about having the "blues" and known to be about events in Tennessee
-- Archie Green had already written in his well-received book that Elbert Bowman had heard blues in Tennessee by 1905
-- Handy had already written in a famous blues book about "blues" he'd heard in Indiana before 1900 and "all over the South" early on
etc.

So Palmer was just being sloppy and playing along with a myth he'd encountered somewhere -- ultimately thanks to Alan Lomax, best we know.


Sam Charters wrote in his 1959 book, "the delta has always been blues country...." Nope. And wrote "[I]f any one place could have given birth to the entire variety and richness of the blues, the delta could have done it." Compared to what a bunch of black Tennesseeans, or a bunch of black Louisianans, or a bunch of black non-Delta Mississippians (such as Crying Sam Collins, who was four years older than Charlie Patton and used a slide, or George Hendrix, who was also older than Patton, and taught Rube Lacy, who taught Son House slide), or a bunch of black Alabamans or Georgians, or... "could" have done? Is is this what we accept as passing for history, telling us what "could" have happened? Ross Russell's claim "Serious writing about the blues began in 1959 with the publication of Samuel Charter's _The Country Blues_" is ridiculous; read Newman White's footnotes before you read Charters. (Charlie Patton expert John Fahey was asked in 1979, "In your studies, did you find anything to dispel the theory that blues began in Mississippi and worked its way up to Memphis...?" "That's Sam Charters' idea, but it depends on your definition....")


Palmer was likely influenced by Giles Oakley's 1976 book, and Oakley was influenced by Charters (and likely by Oliver, see below). Oakley: "[M]any blues historians... are convinced that the blues actually originated [in Mississippi].... One of these writers is Samuel Charters who concludes that, despite the conflicting evidence, 'it was in the Mississippi delta counties that the first blues were sung.' ... By the 1890's there was a greater concentration of black people in Mississippi than in any other part of the country." So what? Is who invented jazz or rock and roll or hip hop going to magically have to do, for our convenience, with whichever state had the most black people in it?


Examples of people in general passing on the myth (or related myths):
"Indications point to MISSISSIPPI as the place where the blues began...." Foreword by Craig Morrison to _Blues_ by Dick Weissman (associate of Gary Davis, Sonny Terry, etc.), 2005.
_Deep Blues_ by Winborn quotes Son House's account of "how the blues began" as if House wasn't five years old at the most when Elbert Bowman heard blues in Tennessee, and makes the claim that "most evidence" points to blues starting in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, which is a false claim.
"The blues style was originated in the early 1900s by African Americans from the Mississippi Delta." -- _Hal Leonard Guitar Method_, 1980.
"He uses a bottleneck to slide over the guitar strings to give a distinctively blues sound. This 'bottleneck style' of guitar playing originated years ago in the backwaters of the Mississippi Delta." -- ad in _Living Blues_ for a film produced by Yale University Films, 1987.
John Giggie has written in a book with "Jim Crow" in the title: "Charles Peabody [in his 1903 article]... offered evidence of blues style of music performed by Delta blacks in Clarksdale, Mississippi." It would be interesting to know which tune(s) in Peabody's article Giggie thinks were "blues" songs and why.
"Howlin' Wolf... grew up in the Delta area where the blues originated." -- Howard DeWitt (author of numerous books), 1985.
Actor Morgan Freeman, usually a virtuously sober thinker, co-owns a blues club in Clarksdale called "Ground Zero" because, according to promotional material, "it all started here." This brings to mind a quote from W.C. Handy about his time living in Clarksdale: "Clarksdale was eighteen miles from the river, but that was no distance for roustabouts. They came in the evenings and on days they were not loading boats. With them they brought the legendary songs of the river." (Handy immediately follows that with an AAB lyric about steamboats.)
"This is the state where the musical style known as the blues began." _Mississippi_ by Rich Smith, 2010.
"Despite its proximity to the Mississippi Delta, where the blues began, New Orleans never..." _New Orleans_ by Downs and Edge, 2003.
"... Mississippi... is... the land where the blues began." Book by David Yaffe about Bob Dylan.
Etc.


Let's look at an attempt at a weaker claim (obviously motivated by the fact that the writer was working on a book with "Delta" in its title): Ted Gioia, who is primarily known for his books about jazz, wrote in his 2009 blues book, "the Delta's claim as [the blues'] birthplace is as strong as any other region's." Oh, is it, if Emmet Kennedy, Willie Cornish, and Antonio Maggio all said they had (independently) encountered three blues tunes in Louisiana before 1908?


Is Paul Oliver capable of doing pretty much the same sorts of things we just saw Gioia and Oakley do? Oliver: "Though its reputation is not unassailable, Mississippi has had the most advocates[*] as the source of the blues. Undoubtably the origins of the blues are far more complex but the 'Mississippi Blues' remains axiomatic as the essence of blues feeling...." There's no evidence at all that blues music originated in Mississippi -- but look at this shiny object over here, the "axiomatic" (as if any of our subjective tastes regarding Hacksaw Harney, Charlie Patton, Bill Gillum, Charley Jordan, Crying Sam Collins, John Hurt, John Estes, Peg Leg Howell, etc. really has anything to with the concept of the "axiom")?

*Argumentum ad populum fallacy. If Oliver knew of evidence that _he_ considered reliable (and plenty of other times he has shown interest in working from evidence he knew of himself), he could just present that evidence rather than handwave about what others had claimed.


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