Several months back I read Marybeth Hamilton's In Search of the Blues. Here is a brief synopsis (courtesy of Amazon):
Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, Charley Patton-we are all familiar with the story of the Delta blues. Fierce, raw voices; tormented drifters; deals with the devil at the crossroads at midnight.
In this extraordinary reconstruction of the origins of the Delta blues, historian Marybeth Hamilton demonstrates that the story as we know it is largely a myth. The idea of something called Delta blues only emerged in the mid-twentieth century, the culmination of a longstanding white fascination with the exotic mysteries of black music.
Hamilton shows that the Delta blues was effectively invented by white pilgrims, seekers, and propagandists [i.e. record collectors] who headed deep into America’s south in search of an authentic black voice of rage and redemption. In their quest, and in the immense popularity of the music they championed, we confront America’s ongoing love affair with racial difference.
I found this book fascinating unlike most music-related books out there, primarily because its theme of the search for authenticity is relevant beyond an understanding of the blues or the manias of record collectors. In this book, white record collectors and other researchers had preconceived notions of what black music was supposed to represent. To them, the blues represented the uncorrupted black experience, and they had little tolerance for the nuances, subtleties, contradictions, and emotions that are not only part of life, but that did not fit into a rigidly constructed idea of authentic black music that is only about oppression, sorrow, and misery.
According to the reviews on Amazon, it seems some people are pretty upset about Hamilton's claims and attack her for supposedly lacking real knowledge of the blues. But, this book isn't really about the blues per se, but about those who recorded, collected, listened, promoted, and marketed the blues.
Looking at some the blues records I own, I am now struck by how much Hamilton’s story rings true. Much of the liner notes that accompany the records tend to stress the authenticity of the artist as a selling point, rather the music on its own merits.
"John Lee Hooker is one of the few authentic blues artists left in this country today.... While Jazz is still a struggling infant and spirituals are on the uprise in America, authentic blues is being sung less and less throughout the county."There is no deliberate snubbing of this art form; on the contrary, it is most welcomed. The truth of the matter is that the authentic blues of the John Lee Hooker type was spawned and nurtured in the misery, ignorance, and destitution of the Negro in a particular American society. "
"In contrast to the ballad, which tends to present an over-idealization of life, blues presents a factual accounting which more often than not is sad rather than happy. The blues tells of trouble, of faithless men and women, of disaster. But with a true human touch, it also tells of hope....""Many of the aforementioned aspects of folk music and blues will be readily discernible in these sides by Howlin' Wolf. His primitive quality, it may be stated, goes hand-in-hand with the authenticity of his material. Like all folk artists, Howlin' Wolf is a songwriter too, and the songs in this album are all his own. In the true folk tradition, the story each song tells is straight from the heart of Howlin' Wolf."