I’ll be seventy soon, and with the acceleration of culture change, I’m
my own history. I was born into a world where my father wrote legal
documents in pencil on lined paper and my aunt typed them. The mail
chute was right outside the office door.
I learned to type by ear. My dad bought an electric typewriter for the
office and brought the acoustic one home. I listened first to 78s of
the Weavers and Woody Guthrie, then to vinyl’s of the Firehouse Five +
Two and Tom Lehrer. I first heard him on a ten inch LP in 1952. I
When I was about fifteen, my high school librarian gave me a
Folkways record of Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee
interviewed late at night on WFMT by Studs Terkel. That was it. They
all first recorded in the late twenties, early thirties. That’s my
In 1943, a ban on recording was instituted by James Petrillo, the head
of local 212 in New York City, that lasted for sixteen months, almost
to D-Day. He was afraid his member musicians would be replaced by
those evil nickelodian record players known up North as juke boxes,
and down South as “Pick-A-Lows”. During that interval, styles changed
drastically. When it was lifted, solo guitar and piano players were
pretty much gone, replaced by combos with electric instruments that
could penetrate larger dance halls, and also, create new sounds. The
old country blues of the twenties had intermixed with Gospel and Jazz.
It was still dance music, but the dances were different. This is the
mix out of which Rock and Roll emerged.
Those old blues didn’t entirely go away. There were
some younger players among them. Though many of those have now passed,
some very old ones like John Dee Holeman, a few ‘younger’ ones like
Larry Johnson (about 75), and Jimmy ‘Duck’ Holmes (68, younger than
me) hang on. Most hearteningly there is a significant clutch of native
speaking 20-30-40-somethings who have taken up the study of pre-blues
and early blues.
In my lifespan, styles of music have come and gone. Some, for whatever
reason, retain their adherents and inspire new ones. I watched as
something like five hundred 78 collectors who would gladly murder one
another over a Robert Johnson in decent condition, cooperatively
helped an Austrian guy reissue every extant blues and gospel 78 from
1890-1943. That’s the entire recorded history of an entire people for
more than half a century, sampling every region, every medium, every
available instrument combination, every secular, social and religious
circumstance, the poetry of farmhands for the most part, something
like 25,000 songs. A Canadian brokered the deal and a German immigrant
financed it for the North American rights. A large chunk of the
collectors were secular Jewish lefties, like me. There are some huge
personal collections and some very old and wobbly collectors who would
nevertheless still murder you over that Robert Johnson 78.
I’m stubborn. I don’t put pickups on my old guitars. I want to sound
like the pre-war guys as much as possible. They’re all dead, and I
watched and counted as they went, until the last one, Honeyboy
Edwards, the last human to speak to Robert Johnson passed away in
2011. I was in the last generation of outside observers, able to watch
this process over half a century, so I feel a need to keep a
line-of-sight clarity between the old guys, me , my generation, and a
younger generation of players who are nothing if not diverse. I am
heartened that this is what’s happening.
Some things, of course are changed. Nowadays, any fool with a computer
and a microphone can make a CD, and many do. But the studied ones, the
ones that identify with their own 78s acquired from junk stores as
though flung to an unlikely future, I’ve got my money on these guys.
We have YouTube, the Document series, the Blues and Gospel
Discographies, and the errata and addenda for those, there are tons of
books, the whole Blues Trail, magazines, the Blues Foundation, a whole
little industry. That ain’t the world, but it’s not nothing either.
What makes it real is the people who see it for itself and follow it,
regardless of background.
What there aren’t, are the pre-war blues people who started it all
just by being themselves, and a whole lotta people like them who
didn’t get recorded. To me, that’s a restricted fraternity to which
you can’t belong anyway because all the members are dead.
Just a couple of passing thoughts: first, I’m a white guy. I can’t be a
bluesman anyway, and I would be ineffective if I tried to be. I can’t
be an Eskimo either. But I can learn from them. Second, I don’t have
any illusions about the romance of a life that brings about the blues.
I wouldn’t want to live one. Dave van Ronk, a notable commentator on
such subjects, once told me he would trade every great song ever
written, if all those people didn’t have to suffer and die.
There is still wisdom in studying them- I’m interested in what the old
guys did when they weren’t playing, what they did for work. And if I
knew all their medical histories, I’d also know a lot about their
communities at the time. And then there’s the music.
Just like people still learn Latin even though it’s not spoken much
conversationally, people still learn blues because it’s pretty basic,
and so many later forms, from hillbilly to bop, are based on
it. Like anything else, when you start examining it closely, it
differentiates into individual statements. I figure, if I can swim
around in it for the rest of my life, I might get somewhere with it,
and that’s okay.