If you haven't yet, read part 1 of this post first.
This sleeve came with my recently purchased copy of Miles Davis' E.S.P. and served as a faux newspaper for Columbia Records to promote other artists on the label. The short description of Leadbelly, intended to promote an upcoming record of his and other blues artists, is telling in what it leads readers and listeners to think of as the black experience and what the blues is supposed to mean.
"Leadbelly is generally thought of as a folk singer. But one look at the man and you can tell that he lived the blues. He had a scar on his neck, ear to ear, from a knife fight. The fight ended because he was left for dead. In 1917 Leadbelly was sentenced to 30 years in prison for killing a man in Texas. He literally sang his way to freedom eight years later by writing a song for the governor and obtaining a pardon. Instant Replay. In 1930 Leadbelly was sentenced to ten years in a Louisiana prison for assault with intent to kill. He composed a song for the governor, and by 1935 he was out of prison, making his first commercial recordings. They were blues (What else?)"
Besides the somewhat racist overtones of this description, the selling point for Columbia was that Leadbelly was an authentic blues musician, because he had experienced misery and violence in his life. Hamilton spends a lot of time in her book on Leadbelly, and suggests the above story is highly implausible, but was embellished to promote a certain image.
The liner notes on these records of Robert Johnson, the most famous of delta blues singers, does not deviate from the above script. In the liner notes of Vol. 1, it states:
"Robert Johnson sang primitive blues about women. His references were earthy and only thinly disguised. He lived the life he sang about and which ultimately killed him."
Nevermind the fact, as Hamilton discusses, we know very little about Johnson's life and the evidence surrounding his death is more myth than fact. Even the liner notes go on to say how little is known of Johnson, but somehow we are led to believe he sang about his experiences, and this makes his music authentic and primitive.
Even more telling is an interesting footnote at the bottom of the liner notes of the same record:
"Country blues artists are usually distinguished from city blues artists by almost exclusive use of guitar accompaniment or other semi-legitimate instruments like kazoos, harmonicas, jugs, slide whistles, washboards and washtub basses. City blues artists are generally accompanied by piano, and guitar, bass, drums and occasionally one or more brass and reed instruments. The style of a country blues artist is generally more primitive and direct than that of a city blues performer."
Even here, we are lead to believe that city blues is less authentic and "real", the country blues artists, such as Robert Johnson and Leadbelly, are more primitive and better representatives of the "authentic" blues. Somehow, the black experience in the cities is implied here to be less valid. As Hamilton mentions repeatedly in her book, The white pilgrims and record collectors tended to denigrate black popular music and attempted to keep "true" blues musicians from moving to the city, as this would somehow corrupt their abilities to transmit the primitive black experience from the countryside.