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The Country Blues by Samuel B. Charters

C. Michael Bailey By

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The Country Blues
Samuel B. Charters
314 pages
ISBN: # 978-0306800146
Da Capo
1959/1975

With the miracle publication of blues researchers Paul Oliver and Mack McCormick's unfinished monolith Blues Come to Texas (Texas A&M University Press, 2019), it is worth reconsidering the first example of blues reportage, Samuel B. Charter's The Country Blues, published 60 years ago. It was 40 years ago when I first read this book and since that time have read many others published after it. Progressively, reading blues reportage in a mostly chronological order, from Robert Palmer's wonderful, if too quaint, Deep Blues: A Musical And Cultural History Of The Mississippi Delta (Viking Press, 1995) to Elijah Wald's essential Escaping The Delta: Robert Johnson And The Invention Of The Blues (Amistad Press, 2004) to Ted Gioia's exhaustive Delta Blues (WW Norton, 2008), Marybeth Hamilton's thoughtful In Search of the Blues (Basic Books, 2010), and Amanda Petrusich's razor-sharp Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt For The World's Rarest 78 Rpm Records (Scribner, 2014), the romantic veneer of the itinerant blues man walking down a dusty Mississippi Delta road, conjuring the Ur-music to every American genre of music was appropriately stripped away for me and the true origin of "the blues" laid bare as the commodity that it was.

In essence, it was record producers that invented the blues to appeal to the black population in the South in the same way that the same record producers invented bluegrass and country music for sale to the rural white (read that "Hillbilly") population of the same region and beyond. This is further emphasized in Brian Ward and Patrick Huber's A&R Pioneers: Architects of American Roots Music on Record (Vanderbilt University Press, 2018). These were two additional revenue streams with two target populations (three, if you include foreign language recordings) and while there may have been magic in the music and the culture producing it, its promotion and distributions were calculated endeavors far more interested in money than sustaining ethnomusical culture.

What Charter's book and its companion LP, The Country Blues (Folkways, 1959) signaled was the beginning of the re-commoditization of blues music 30-, 40-, and 50-years after its original recording giving rise to the Folk Music Revival of the late 1950s and '60s and the Civil Rights movement of the same period. As detailed in Petrusich's Do Not Sell At Any Price, a collective of obsessed collectors of 78-RPM shellac recordings of pre-World War II jazz, blues, and country music began to write books and release their own collections in response to Charters. It is a case of the story about the story of the blues, that ends up being more interesting than the original mythology created by these mostly well-meaning cultural archivists, whose interests in the music and the artists ranged from the truly altruistic to the culturally genocidal.

I reread The Country Blues with the benefit of many subsequent years of reading, listening, and study. What I wanted to know was, "Why was I such a dupe to fall for all of that 'sold-my-soul-to-the-devil-at-the-crossroads' romantic foolishness." And what of the artists? As badly as a generation of music writers wanted to make them the equivalent of the Romantic Period's "Noble Savage" and their music the most organic, basic, and indivisible ever produced, their efforts were less than in vain, they were counterproductive. The myth and varnish got so thick on the surface of the music's history, it took the last generation of research to begin to set the record straight. Daniel Beaumont's unflattering description of an aged Eddie "Son" House in his book Preachin' The Blues -The Life And Times Of Son House (Oxford University Press, 2011) may have been more the rule than the exception.

The music. It was the music of Robert Johnson that fueled the lily-white hot interest in the the blues by the like of John Mayall, the Yardbirds, and the Rolling Stones.

This interest was garnered by the Columbia Records release of Robert Johnson: King Of The Delta Blues Singers (1961) and its companion recording Robert Johnson: King Of The Delta Blues Singers, Volume II (Columbia, 1970). It is the former recording cited by Keith Richards and Eric Clapton as the be-all-and-end-all beginning of it all. Richards and Clapton did what every aspiring rock guitarist did since them, put a record on the turntable and teach themselves the music. What was completely missed by Charters, is Robert Johnson, far from being the germinal seed of the blues, did exactly the same thing. Johnson certainly saw Son House and Willie Brown perform, learning much from them. But, it was his own "woodshedding" that he did with the Victrola that really advanced his playing.

Robert Johnson's recorded repertoire was far from original also. Save for the "Terraplane Blues" (Vocalion 03416, 1937), the majority of his songs were the reworking of songs recorded a decade earlier. There was nothing unusual about musicians "borrowing" lyrics from one another and weaving the narrative from many different songs to make something new. But the attention and praise for Johnson as the first among many was factually backwards. Johnson was not some seminal folk musician rising out of the fecund Mississippi Delta to produce the first music of this kind. He recorded in 1936 and '37, a decade later that the Ur-bluesmen: House, Charlie Patton, Nehemiah Curtis "Skip" James, Tommy Johnson, Ishmon Bracey, Bo Carter, and Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Charter's account of Robert Johnson reflects the earliest research on the subject. As such, it includes many inaccuracies corrected by way of contradiction two years later with Columbia Records release of Robert Johnson: King Of The Delta Blues Singers (1961), itself released in response to the burgeoning folk music revival. This is not a high point of the book. That said, this is no criticism of Charters. He worked with what he had, achieving what he set out to do: stimulate an interest in this music he considered of cultural importance. If fact, the most important part of the book was Charters' preface to the 1975 Da Capo Edition of the book, where he notes that The Country Blues was written as much in response to prejudice and bigotry as for history:

"The Country Blues was, for me, another tract in a series of tracts I'd been turning out since the early '50s. The books, articles, and field recording I'd been doing were my own private revolution. In simple terms I was trying to effect a change in the American consciousness by presenting and alternative consciousness. I felt that much of what was stifling America was its racism, and what it desperately needed was to be forced to see that the hypocrisy of its racial attitudes wer warping the nation's outlook on every other major problem it was facing. And I also felt that the the black culture itself was a necessary element in the society. The white culture had developed this same kind of defensive hypocrisy toward so many elements in its life, from sexuality to personal mores. In black expression I found a directness, an openness, and an immediacy I didn't find in the white. The texts of the blues were strong and honest, using language in a way white culture hadn't used for hundreds of years.."

From Charters' lips to God's ears, 45 years ago. I see little different today, with the exception of fewer bodies hanged from lap posts. Charters goes on to defend his romantic approach:

"So The Country Blues was two things. It was a romanticization of certain aspects of black life in an effort to force the white society to reconsider some of its racial attitudes, and on the other hand it was a cry for help. I wanted hundreds of people to go out and interview the surviving blues artists. I wanted people to record them and document their lives, their environment, and their music -not only so that their story would be preserved but also so they'd get a little money and recognition in their last years. So there was another kind of romanticism in the book. I was trying to make the journey to find the artists as glamorous as possible, by describing the roadsides, and the farms, and the shacks and the musicians themselves."

In these respects, Charters was very successful as all of these hopes were fulfilled (save for the remuneration of the artists, as, even under these circumstances, were still commodities themselves again for those that "rediscovered" them. That said, many, if not all, of these blues artists would simply have been marginalized, if not completely ignored, had exactly this re-commoditization not happened. There is an ugliness to this that must be considered, but it must be considered in an overall historical context, one that interweaves black and white experience that never come closer than in music.

Charters closes his new preface with the stark summation of his efforts:

"As I said, looking back at The Country Blues fifteen years later I'm not disturbed by it despite sections of it that I'd never write the same way again. Perhaps it represents a personal nostalgia for some of the things I felt in the 1950s. Certainly a belief that something could be accomplished in its pages, and there was somehow a kind of naive belief that if America could be made to face its problems it would begin the effort to solve them. If, as a political act, what I did lacked reality, at least it had a kind of simple honesty about it. It's hard to believe that I might ever think in so simple terms again, even though I still believe we somehow have to keep making these gestures. Despite their futility they're often the only gestures we have a chance to make..

I suspect that is the meaning of the blues.

Various Artists
The Country Blues
Folkway Records
2012

..."I tried to keep the emphasis, as much as possible, where the black audience would have placed it. So I didn't give much space to artists like Skip James or Charlie Patton (or Son House) who became cult figures with white guitar players."

What Charters did do was focus on lesser acknowledged, but no less important, artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson and Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins, all of whom should loom large in the to-be-published Blues Come to Texas, as well as Leroy Carr, Big Bill Broonzy, and Brownie McGhee. His resulting music collection, The Country Blues, reflects this focus.

Charters interest in assembling the blues compilation to complement the book, reveals his interest in illustrating the differing styles and artists included with the hope of generating more interest in the music and translating that interest into a re-release of this music and other, previously unheard, and to bring back more of this music into academic, if not, commercial circulation. Charters was careful in not duplicating any selections already found on Harry Smith's previously released Anthology of American Folk Music (Folkways, 1952).

Key to understanding the content of this compilation is knowing that majority of the selections derived from the record collections of Pete Whalen, Pete Kaufman, Ben Kaplan, and Charters himself, just as the majority of Anthology of American Folk Music came from Harry Smith's personal collection. And this would not be the end of such practice. This is only an observation. These curators worked with what they had at the time: music largely forgotten in America because of our malignant racism (and classism, if we include "Hillbilly" music in the mix). Charter's (and Smith's) gifts to us is this music and its history, embryonic as it may have been. Charter's accomplished exactly what he wanted to do...stimulate an interest in this lost music. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.
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