Beyond The Blues

Beyond The Blues
Skip Heller By

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Back when I was a kid—I was born in 1965—the first comprehensive push for children's education about American Black History was on. Elementary school libraries suddenly included books about Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and George Washington Carver, and there were even a few books about jazz and blues for young readers.

I wish I could remember the title of the book about blues I found in my school library when I was in the fourth grade (about 1976). It was less a history of blues than profiles of several musicians, including Billie Holiday and Leadbelly, neither of whom is exactly considered a typical blues stylist. But when you're eleven years old, you don't really think about this stuff in the ways that marketing professionals or music critics might hope. You just know when you hear something if you like it or not.

The bargain bin at the local sheet music store had the LP A Rare Live Recording Of Billie Holiday (on the festively-named Recording Industries Corp label). It was lo-fi, Billie performing with a pianist in 1951 at Boston's Storyville club. You could hear people talking over her. From what I thought a blues singer was supposed to be, I was shocked that nothing on this record sounded like the Canned Heat, Allman Brothers Band, Eric Clapton, or any of the other stuff that people in the neighborhood called blues. This was quieter, darker, and less flamboyant than what little I'd heard and liked, most notably "Loan Me A Dime" by Boz Scaggs, which featured a dazzling slide guitar solo by Duane Allman. My Uncle Bill played that one fairly often, and it thrilled me the way football thrilled my schoolchums.

I found a Leadbelly album on Capitol, Leadbelly: Huddie Ledbetter's Best. It was 2.99, during a time when I made three dollars for cutting a neighbor's lawn. Leadbelly sang in a tough, clear voice and played twelve string guitar, which made him unusual to his generation of blues musicians. These recordings sounded old and mysterious to me. I knew from the book that Leadbelly spent years in jail, mostly for violent crimes—he never met a fight he didn't want to join in—and sung his way to a pardon.

But, again, Leadbelly didn't sound like what I was expecting to hear. He sounded more like the folk songs I heard Pete Seeger sing. In fact, Leadbelly was credited as the composer of "Goodnight Irene," which had been a huge 1950 hit for The Weavers, the group that launched Seeger's fame.

Leadbelly had by the 1970s made it into the Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia. He was written about enough that you could find stuff out, and it was here I first learned that black musicians making their living as musicians—especially in the south—largely played for white people, because that's who had the means to hire musicians. When father-son folklorists John and Alan Lomax discovered Leadbelly in Angola prison in 1933, they knew how great he was. In a nutshell, they said, "We're going to record you for scholarship's sake. Play everything you play for every kind of gig you get. We want to know what a musician in your world has to be able to do."

Since their work was about folklore and not commercial recording, they didn't restrict their interest in him to guitar-driven country blues, which had a few years before the template for pretty much any Southern black male with a guitar, due largely to the success of the phenomenal Blind Lemon Jefferson.

It is fortunate that the Lomax's scholarship interests ran ahead of their commercial inclination, otherwise he likely would only have recorded blues or stuff close to that. But the world of material he unleashed included blues, novelties, fiddle songs, popular songs, hymns, country songs, spirituals, folk songs, and much more. He more than anyone up to that point personified the shared musical tastes that crossed racial boundaries.

The first black music recording was neither blues nor jazz. It was the Fisk Jubilee Singers, an acapella choir who sang about the Lord, but not in the charismatic, unbridled style of Gospel as it is thought of now. They started cutting in 1909, and their gorgeous, bell-clear tones were neither hellfire nor brimstone.

In the last decade, give or take, several notable collections have taken older black music out past jazz and blues. A wider, more accurate picture is coming into focus.

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