Blues Books, Blues Films

I’ve recently read some fantastic literature on blues that nuances the dominant narratives, tropes, and sounds. If you’re into that, check out…

  • Southern Soul-Blues by David Whiteis (2013, U of IL Press)
    • Whiteis puts oft-derided and ignored soul-blues music on the same level as more prominent blues (sub)genres by exploring its past and present contexts, sounds, and major players.
    • Soul-blues “is every bit as rooted in the vernacular heritage as the music (or, more accurately, the musics) commonly labeled as blues. It represents, in fact, a revitalized attempt to adapt this diverse heritage to modern popular black culture and, thusironically, considering the ‘inauthenticity’ chargeupdates the ‘blues’ aesthetic to appeal to the evolving tastes of contemporary African American audiences. Like earlier blues, soul-blues is both a popular music and a living vernacular art form. This dual identity, rather than compromising ‘authenticity,’ is precisely what exemplifies it as both a continuation and a reimagining of what’s often called the blues tradition” (5).

  • Staging The Blues: From Tent Shows to Tourism by Paige A. McGinley (2014, Duke U Press)
    • This book “contests historiographical narratives that position the female singers of the ‘classic’ blues as either derivative or debauched imitators, on the one hand, or manipulated victims of the culture industry, on the other” (23).

  • Pioneers of the Blues Revival by Steve Cushing (2014, U of IL Press)
    • This book features interviews Blues Before Sunrise host Cushing conducted with 17 men who played a large part in the blues revival of the 1950s and 1960s, like Dick Waterman, Paul Oliver, and David Evans. Their opinions, reflections, and anecdotes are fascinating and enlightening in more ways than I can explain. (Also there’s some Magic Sam stories!)

If you don’t feel like reading, there’s always moving pictures to explore…

  • I recently got hip to Robert Mugge, and his unreleased film A Night At Club Ebony (2006) is available online. (More of his work is on Amazon.)
  • Rural Blues is a quasi-cinéma vérité documentary of Ko de Korte and Tom Haarsma’s 1989 trip to record Mississippi bluesmen.
  • I’m late to the game on this one, but maybe you are, too: You See Me Laughin’: The Last of the Hill Country Bluesmen (Mandy Stein, 2002) is a gem, and features R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, CeDell Davis, T-Model Ford, and many more musicians, as well as insights from the Fat Possum guys.

Christmas Music(ology)

I like Christmas music, both classics and oddities. Last week, I went on a Christmas music binge and unearthed some gems. A few blues selections are below! If you want more, I’ve been sharing several (blues, jazz, outsider, rock ‘n roll, country, hillbilly, and exotica) Christmas tunes per day on my Facebook page, marked with #Christmasmusicology.

I found out about Reverend Edward W. Clayborn from Dixon and Godrich’s Recording the Blues, a slim history of early blues and gospel records, recording sessions, and labels. Clayborn’s thin, spring-loaded slide and “Jesus is the reason for the season” message are somehow simultaneously incongruent and totally complimentary. (Document Records did a compilation and booklet on Clayborn, if you need more.)

“Sonny Boy’s Christmas” is a post-war-blues-era Christmas record that doesn’t feel like a novelty, a rushed studio afterthought, or a throwaway. It’s peak Sonny Boy (II), in top form on Trumpet Records in 1951.

Non-Christmas fun fact: Lillian McMurry, owner of Trumpet Records, was in debt to Plastic Products, Inc., Buster Williams’s indie record pressing plant in Memphis. McMurry gave Williams Sonny Boy’s contract in 1954 in exchange for some debt relief and, since Williams also pressed for Chess Records, he sold Sonny Boy’s contract to Leonard and Phil Chess.

Here’s a fun, modern blues Christmas tune by the amazing Denise LaSalle, who recorded for Chess, Westbound (in Detroit, with whom she scored a gold record), ABC (in Memphis), and Malaco (in Jackson, MS).

One more. This ain’t blues, but it sure is good. I was surprised an Alex Chilton Christmas recording is out there, so I feel like it’s my job to signal boost it. Lucky for us that we’re alive in a world where it exists. Merry Christmas, y’all.

Blues on MTV?

I’m a teaching assistant at the University of Virginia, and this semester I’m happily assigned to Karl Hagstrom Miller‘s Popular Music seminar. Today, 240 or so undergrads, plus me and the other TAs, took in Karl’s lecture on early MTV. In the beginning there were videos, and they were mostly of white men rocking. This did not go unnoticed by artists and labels:

In the early 1980s, MTV focused primarily on music videos by white male rock and pop artists from Australia, Britain, and the United States, prompting some to charge the network with racist business practices. MTV’s nearly all-white programming strategy began to erode when CBS Records allegedly threatened to pull its videos from the network if it did not show Michael Jackson’s videos from the Thriller album. Ultimately, the overwhelming popularity of Jackson’s videos paved the way for other nonwhite artists, including Prince, Lionel Richie, and Run-D.M.C., to receive airplay on MTV. (Encyclopedia of Gender in Media, edited by Mary Kosut, page 243)

This got me thinking: blues was big in the 1980s. Were there blues music videos? Was that an investment labels were willing to make? For whom would they make this investment? Perhaps only white blues artists? 

Ok, ok. Damn. Way to strike while the iron is hot, Mercury Records. In 1985 Cray won Best New Artist at the Handy Awards (now called the Blues Music Awards) and released his third album on the indie label Hightone. The next year he earned a Grammy for his work with Albert Collins and Johnny “Clyde” Copeland on the now-classic Showdown album. By 1987 Cray was as big as a blues artist could get; Mercury was pushing his major label debut, Strong Persuader, as a crossover record.

But did MTV play this music video?

Yup. According to Wikipedia, the song reaching #2 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart, and Cray was nominated for the 1987 MTV Video Music Awards for Best New Artist in a Video. Wow. 1987 is looking very, very cool.