Give me all experiences related to (preferably not white) blues
July 27, 2019 8:19 AM   Subscribe

Over the past few years, I've become obsessed with delta blues and chicago blues by black artists. That umbrella soon included a subset of blues, soul, and jazz artists. I need a proper fix. Details inside.

I like to read books (fiction and nonfiction), watch films/tv, go out places and travel, and I want to collect experiences of all things blues that humanize those artists and make those eras come alive for me. I want something that shows me what it's really like to be a blues artist, not necessarily by focusing on their art either. It could be anything, even a bar to go to anywhere in the US. This is a fairly new area of discovery for me, so I haven't done much besides... listen to the music. So, recommend hidden gems but don't feel bad about recommending something more obvious.
posted by SkinsOfCoconut to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Well - I haven't watched this film yet because I just found out about it searching to see if Babe's & Ricky's Inn was still open, and unfortunately it's not. I'm not terribly surprised, since Mama, the founder and owner died a while back, but I'm still super sad to hear it. In fact the club and Mama's passing are the subject of my only ever post on the blue.

Babe's & Ricky's was a blues club in South Central LA (technically I think it would have been considered South Central adjacent, but no point in splitting hairs), with an amazing history. I went there several times I just watched the trailer and I think I can't wait to watch the film, you will probably enjoy it!
posted by pazazygeek at 8:34 AM on July 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

Here's a long list of book recommendations:
Blues People: Negro Music in White America by LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka)
Deep Blues by Robert Palmer
I Put A Spell On You: The Autobiography of Nina Simone by Nina Simone
Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition by Adam Gussow
Moanin’ at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf by James Segrest and Mark Hoffman
Blues All Around Me, The Autobiography of B.B. King by B.B. King with David Ritz
Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday by Angela Davis
The History of the Blues: The Roots, the Music, the People by Francine Davis
Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (Race and American Culture) by Eric Lott
The Devil's Music: A History of the Blues by Giles Oakley

You could also check out Martin Scorsese's 7-part documentary series on blues: Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues, A Musical History

Jack Dappa is a historian whose website has a wealth of resources, including a podcast/radio show and more:

And b/c I just happened to see this linked recently by a friend: Article on Cedric Burnside

Have fun learning!
posted by aka burlap at 10:01 AM on July 27, 2019 [5 favorites]

If you're just getting into the blues, don't neglect the Piedmont Blues style, as exemplified by the Reverend Gary Davis. The fingerpicking style is very distinctive and beautiful, and was influential for a generation of rock musicians like Jorma Kaukonen and Jerry Garcia.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 10:13 AM on July 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

You'll like this recent New Yorker article on Buddy Guy.
posted by Leontine at 12:04 PM on July 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Some longform essays you might enjoy:

Everybody Knows You When You're Down and Out (Oxford American, on Bessie Smith)
J.R.'s Jook and the Authenticity Mirage (Longreads, on J.R. Hamilton)
Hammer in Her Hand (Oxford American, on Beverly 'Guitar' Watkins)
From Howlin' Wolf to Hendrix: the Life and Times of Buddy Guy (Rolling Stone)
The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie (John Jeremiah Sullivan in the NYT, on Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas)
Searching for Robert Johnson (Vanity Fair, on the subject of how few photos of Johnson exist)
Hellhound on the Money Trail (LA Weekly, originally, on Robert Johnson's family not receiving royalties for his recordings)
posted by box at 1:50 PM on July 27, 2019 [5 favorites]

This is a bit out of left field, but your quest to get inside the life of a classic blues artist could not be better served than by reading a remarkable book: *I Say Me For a Parable,* which is an extended oral autobiography of the unique Texas “songster” Mance Lipscomb, as told to and lovingly transcribed by Glen Allyn, as a masters thesis in folklore (under the great scholar of Blues and Black music Roger Abrahams — whom I was lucky enough to know — I’m a scholar of American popular music, for what it’s worth). Lipscomb was a transcendent artist, his work centered on but not quite coterminous with what we now isolate as “blues” music, based in Navasota, Texas, active as a working musician in the 30s and retired back to tenant farming until his “rediscovery” and subsequent fame in the 60s and 70s. He was one of the greatest guitar stylists of his time, but not influential on anyone until his later years. As a result his work is a bit of a time capsule. He is also a vivid storyteller and his own telling of his life, start to near finish, is just a compelling read irrespective of your musical tastes. The East Texas of his younger days was one of the most racist and oppressive places to be a poor Black farmer in his era. He remembers it all. His characters come alive. I just love that book, best accompanied by the music (part of the Arhoolie catalog and if that record label has not crossed your radar look it up).

Other scholarly books include the magisterial but problematic *The land where the blues began* by folklorist and impresario Alan Lomax, and William Ferris’ (also a pal) *Blues from the Delta.* Both are classics.

However I also strongly recommend musicologist Karl Hagstrom-Miller’s *Segregating Sound,* a recent and vital history of how you came to hold such a romantic association of “the blues” (and the musical authenticity thereof) and “blackness.” The music industry was racist all the way down just like the country that bought its products and raised its artists, and all the way back. We are inheritors if the categories and genres that resulted from rigid color lines and the idea of crossing them musically as transgressive, and of finding something primordial in the sounds black bodies make. Toward that end in addition to Lott’s landmark *Love and theft,* mentioned above, the key contemporary texts include Ronald Radano’s *Lying Up A Nation,* Samuel Floyd’s *The Power of Black Music,* Guthrie Ramsey’s *Race Music,* and Angela Davis’ *Blues women and Black feminism,* to name only a few examples.

As a passionate lover of blues (and a white man and a rock guitarist) I identify with your passion for a great art form, but the racial terrain across which you tread is fraught and under a lot of current rethinking. The very properties of authenticity you associate with Blackness are filtered through a history of minstrelsy and segregation at every level. The first published “blues” composition was by a white composer who most definitely meant to “sound Black.”

Not to be condescending about your post at all. As you can guess from this post I love this music so much. But an education about race and history is part of being a supporter of this legacy in the present. I’m 41 years past first hearing B.B. King and Muddy Waters and realizing I was playing their licks as a suburban white teenage rock and roll musician in the 70s (I had a great teacher, I still count my blessings, he’s a big reason I pursued these issues in my career as a scholar, albeit of country music). I’m still struggling with it now, sitting in the garden of my summer place, 3 miles from where E. B. Dubois was born and raised and playing Mance Lipscomb riffs tonight.
posted by spitbull at 7:23 PM on July 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

Paul Garon has written some books that give racially sensitive context to the blues.
posted by Chitownfats at 8:55 PM on July 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

I should mention that *I say me for a parable* is transcribed entirely in Lispcomb’s East Texas Black dialect, which is beautiful and poetic, but challenging to read on a printed page for someone who doesn’t know the sound of it. I forgot to mention that the brilliant documentary filmmaker Les Blank also made a movie about Mance Lipscomb in which Mance talks extensively about his life as a musician and farmer in Navasota. It’s one of my favorite music documentaries ever made. 1972, “A Life Well Spent.”

Prepare to be blown away by artistry and eloquence.
posted by spitbull at 5:28 AM on July 28, 2019

Also I’m gonna say straight up that I dislike Matin Scorcese’s blues documentary intensely for a number of reasons, one of which involves my encounter with its production team, which was flat out disturbing. Mostly because I find it replicates a faintly racist romanticism about the authenticity of black music that is now anachronistic among scholars of this history. It was the work of a white fan for (IMHO) white fans, like a huge majority of blues literature and media, and as has been the case for the blues as a business proposition for many many years.

For this reason too I think rigidly excluding non-Black artists from your field of interest is actually a regressive move. You can’t really grasp what “the blues” was as commercial
music without understanding its adjacency to hillbilly music, like blues also made by black AND white (and other) musicians. And any authenticity standard that locates, say, Stevie Ray Vaughan, as merely a white minstrel, or Chuck Berry as a pioneer of rock and roll (but not a bluesman, which is BS) is still trapped in a binary racial paradigm that is rooted in Jim Crow segregation — why I mentions Hagstrom-Miller’s fantastic book, which I assign in many of my classes as primary reading to question the idea of a priomordial racial line in music history. SRV, for example, was considered a great fellow artist by the senior Black artists he worshipped and started out imitating like every rock player of his generation (and mine). But listen to Buddy Guy, the greatest living carrier of the Chicago tradition, talk about SRV sometime. There is zero acknowledgment that his whiteness was a barrier to authenticity. Quite the opposite. Or watch the Chuck Berry movie, produced by Keith Richards (a real player in the larger story here, starts of a minstrel and winds up a champion of Black artists), and see how carefully he located himself in a blues genealogy.

Also worth reading are two books by the brilliant music historian John Troutman. His *Indian Blues* is a history of Native American popular music, and as the title implies it complicates this story. His even more astounding second book *Kika Kila* will show you, among other things, that the bottleneck slide style most listeners immediately associate with Black guitarists and the crying pedal steel guitar most listeners immediately associate with the white man’s blues (hillbilly/country) can quite convincingly be sourced in the massive influence of Indigenous Hawaiian musicians on BOTH black and white guitarists in the American south (and west coast especially) in the early era of commercial recording, in no small part traceable to a global diaspora of Hawaiian musicians (who themselves got guitars from Mexican ranch hands who taught Hawaiians how to raise cattle) after the US colonial overthrow of the Indigenous monarchy. The slide sound you think of as a crying voice (or I always did) is actually the mapping of Indigenous musical sounds onto the Western guitar, and ultimately evocative of the rolling surf of Hawai’i, passed through the chants and dances of the Hula tradition.

Scholars of this stuff have finally caught up to musicians in seeing this history as anything but a “black/white” binary. Lovers of the music gain enormously from having their ears desegregated at last.
posted by spitbull at 5:50 AM on July 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

Also purportedly the new PBS/ Ken Burns country music documentary is said to deal sensitively with some of these issues — it was advised by scholars I trust to speak to them. This would be a first for country music popular documentaries.

Also worth checking out is Rhiannon Giddens’ mind blowing keynote from the IBMA conference two years ago, all over YouTube.

Sorry to pepper the thread, this is a great passion for me.
posted by spitbull at 6:19 AM on July 28, 2019

I just have to add this: in the 18th century, Jean Jacques Rousseau asserted that only Italians could properly sing or compose opera because they were naturally more feelingful and less intellectual than Northern Europeans, whose music had become sterile and intellectually sophisticated and this lost its relation to spontaneous, natural song, to which Italians (also darker of pigmentation, commonly in French accounts) were closer by virtue of both language and primitivity. Or see the endless invocations of Roma (“Gypsy”) “natural musicality” (going hand in hand with “passionate but intellectually limited and also dangerous” stereotypes) across the history of European classical music, for example in Bizet’s *Carmen.*

There’s a great quote somewhere in the Radano book I mentioned where a white slaveowner diaries about his attraction to the natural, passionate musical expressions of his slaves — whose intellectually expressive languages he doesn’t understand and fears — and his simultaneous fear that it meant they were plotting a rebellion. The frisson expressed is still a prominent trope of modern music discourse and media, popular and academic alike, beautifully summarized in Lott’s now famous title, “Love AND theft.”

Your question, in other words, has a history behind the way it is framed. Deepening your knowledge of that history will open the music up to you in profound ways as the contexts of its creation are brought into focus.
posted by spitbull at 6:50 AM on July 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

Elijah Wald's book "How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll" is an unexpectedly thoughtful take on authenticity in popular music hiding behind a troll-worthy title.

Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, then later Cephas & Wiggins , played some lovely Piedmont blues. Just guitar, harmonic and voice — but they could do a lot with it.
posted by scruss at 7:37 AM on July 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

recommending something more obvious

Well... how about a visit to Chicago during the annual blues fest? The organizers have been doing a great job of recognizing blues legends before they shuffle off this mortal coil. I know I'll always treasure seeing Hubert Sumlin & company absolutely crushing 'Forty Four'. Visit Buddy Guy's Legends while you're in town, and Kingston Mines.
posted by Bron at 11:43 AM on July 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

My god, this is exactly what I wanted. Special thanks to you, spitbull, for peppering this post. People like you are the reason I ask questions here. I hope you don't mind if I reach out to you in the future to discuss some things. :)
posted by SkinsOfCoconut at 10:44 AM on July 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

Hey SkinsofCoconut my pleasure and reach out any time. It’s a lifetime immersion experience I’m half jealous of your being fresh to it.
posted by spitbull at 6:22 PM on July 31, 2019

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