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Steve Cushing: Pioneers of the Blues Revival

C. Michael Bailey By

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Pioneers of the Blues Revival
Steve Cushing
400 Pages
ISBN: # 978-0252038334
University of Illinois Press

"Pioneers of the Blues Revival documents the efforts of a quirky set of researchers who slowly pieced together a version of blues history and meaning. This dedicated cohort, despite their widely different backgrounds, somehow brought together the skill sets necessary to create a literature based on blues research. Some would say that in the process the reinvented the blues in their own image. Regardless, their work affected mass culture perception of blues. For many, this may not be viewed as such a benign project. It could also be seen as the story of how a group of record collectors and researchers codified and appropriated a living African American art form, removing its vitality for the sake of organizing and then selling the products."

Barry Lee Pearson, from the Introduction to Pioneers of the Blues Revival

Such was my experience when meeting the "true believers" in Oxford, Mississippi, thirty years ago. The Oxford blues community at the time hosted the likes of Jim O'Neil and Dick Waterman, but the true believers I refer to were part of staff the Blues Archive at the University of Mississippi. This was a group dedicated to the preservation of the blues exactly as it was played by its practitioners. If one song had 13 measures in one (as recovered from a 60-year old 78 rpm record) instead of 12, then that is how the music should be played. However, many of the white guitar players emerging from this miasma of collecting, recording and writing that resulted in the late 50s and early 60s, cleaned up this idiosyncratic playing making it mathematically congruent with our understanding of music from the Western Classical tradition: every line equal, every turnaround and coda, the same. This was the first level, I experienced what Pearson was calling, "codify[ing] and appropriate[ing] a living African American art form." This definitely happened as any late-Baby Boomer guitarist who grew up listening to Eric Clapton before discovering Skip James.

Perhaps the manner in which the blues was part and parceled into a revered and lasting art form was not a "benign project." The interviews in Steve Cushing's Pioneers of the Blues Revival reveal that, at times, this "project" was fraught with in-fighting and competition between the major participants. It was also marked with considerable amiability and cooperation...just the way humans behave: all compassion, charity, greed, exploitation, benevolence, avarice, neglect and triumph.

Cushing's book, a collection of interviews he conducted with the most famous living participants giving genesis to the "blues revival," is the latest in a second generation of blues scholarship that began with Elijah Wald's Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (Amistad Press, 2004), Marybeth Hamilton's In Search of the Blues (Basic Books, 2010), Daniel Beaumont's Preaching the Blues: The Life and Times of Son House (Oxford University Press, 2011) and Amanda Petrusich's Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World's Rarest 78 rpm Records (Scribner, 2014).

A central theme to this second generation of blues writings is the necessary correction of the romantic excesses of the first generation, something one of its members, Samuel Charters, readily admitted was present in his landmark The Country Blues (Reinhart, 1959). Additionally, there is the aesthetic and economic analysis of the effect of this movement in both the European-American's and African-American musical communities and cultures. All this said, the fact remains that the history is established and the only thing up for debate is the interpretation of that history. What do we have? We have the blues.

A brief diversion into blues taxonomy.

Robert Johnson was not a seminal delta blues musician from whom a river of talent and culture emanated. He was an itinerant musician who travelled and performed widely, made a few records, sold even fewer, evaporating into nothingness, making him a phantom. Johnson was a member of the first generation to learn more from recorded music than from live performance (though he did experience the music live as a matter of conventional wisdom). What Johnson was, was a brilliant guitarist and synthesizer of all the music he heard. He recorded twice in Texas, in 1936 and '37. He left a brief and classic collection of music. But he was in no way the beginning. He was the affection of a group of earnest, if not eccentric, autodidacts who invented him as something he wasn't, a strangely alchemic modern Noble Savage crossed with Dr. Faustus.


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