Marybeth Hamilton paints a vivid portrait of the white collectors who brought blues to the masses. It's just a pity that she can't grasp what was so transcendent about Robert Johnsonby Joe Boyd / May 26, 2007 / Leave a comment
In Search of the Blues, by Marybeth Hamilton (Jonathan Cape, £12.99)
In Search of the Blues is a wrong-headed and silly book, but nonetheless a well-researched and interesting one—for blues buffs at least. In its curious petulance, it raises interesting questions about cultural conflicts and misunderstandings between white and black, rural and urban, sophisticate and primitive, male and female.
The blues is today part of our cultural wallpaper; but it was not ever thus. A small band of obsessive white collectors—men like James McKune, Alan Lomax and Sam Charters—were the first to notice, in the 1940s and 1950s, that many 78 rpm records marketed to poor rural southern blacks from the 1920s onwards were sublime works of art. Marybeth Hamilton draws vivid portraits of this group of eccentric loners—the so-called “blues mafia”—who first “discovered” Skip James, Son House, Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson. She brings to life their Meccas, such as Injun Joe’s tiny shop on West 47th St in New York (to which I made frequent pilgrimages as a teenager).
Hamilton also traces the forebears of this group: folklorists like John Lomax (father of Alan) and Dorothy Scarborough, who collected “coon songs” in the turn-of-the-century south. Hamilton’s thesis seems to be that the blues mafia, the supposedly hip men who later sold the world the music of Leadbelly and Robert Johnson, bear more than a passing similarity to these pioneering—if racist—folklorists.
But Hamilton seems not to have noticed that many of the recordings the blues mafia unearthed rank among the greatest works of American music. Early on, she describes herself reading, as a punk-obsessed teenager, Greil Marcus’s classic account of American rock music, Mystery Train. Marcus’s descriptions of ur-bluesman Robert Johnson, she writes, made her feel left out “and in some obscure way, affronted.” For the next 15 years, she avoided listening to Johnson, remaining all the while fascinated by blues and its advocates. When she finally risked exposure to the great man’s recordings, she heard “just a guitar, a keening vocal and a lot of surface noise.” This is a bit like the author of a treatise on opera confessing at the outset that he doesn’t really see the point of Mozart.
Hamilton brings forth sales figures to support her position. Johnson, House, James and Patton sold very little in their lifetimes, and were unknown to black audiences…