Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Blues Revival

I'm channeling the blues revival of the late 50s/early 60s, specifically the interest in what was called the Country Blues (by Sam Charters) in 1959, but which had, by 1964, become the Delta Blues, though much of it was not from the Delta at all.  Anyway, a few things are clear:

1. Despite all the rhetoric about folkie authenticity, communal song archives, and primal individual expression, the old blues players that the revivalists found were clearly playing music that was soaked in popular song and show business performance traditions.  Nobody plays like this because it's "tradition" or "a deep soulful wail" (tho those things are in there.)  This is showing off:

2.  There's clearly something to admire in the passion that folks like Koerner, Ray. and Glover felt about this music, and their performances are interesting. But more than their performances, the fact that they really just wanted to play, that they were lifers for music making and this was the music they wanted to make.  That's very punk rock, and just one of the reasons why the blues revival seems to me to be (maybe) the first emergence of unpopular popular music.  But there's something unconvincing here, at least for me, and I think its regional, not racial identity that undercuts the performance.  It's not because they're white, its because they're northerners, and you can hear it in the singing:

(no idea who the people are in this video, BTW, but they seem like they belong there.  It's the only clip I can find that isn't from the documentary.) 


bbwolf said...

well, urk, depending on how deep traditions have to be, showing off might be a tradition, mightin't?

i am not sure about the regional idea. i think that is there, but i wonder if another factor might be that they met at the university. that is, that even that long ago :), university students were likely to over-aestheticize and over-analyize, and over-reverence? like, what if zimmerman had gone to UM instead of the village? does UM ruin him? maybe, but clearly it would not be because would have been taught to rewrite and rethink his songs---dylan's "bootlegs" show the guy works things to death and yet nearly always makes things better, i think. so maybe, it would be that college or an aesthetic of being intellectual and thus needing to strive to be authentic would make him overly aware, overly cautious, overly reverent and not quite convincing. cause maybe convincing requires an ethos of showmanship. i dunno.

Urk said...

yeah, i'd agree that showing off is definitely part of that tradition! And that gets closer to what I really wanted to say, that all the rhetorical attempts to separate the blues tradition from "show business' that came out of the blues revival, missed the point. It's a tradition that's deeply involved, in performative form and content, with show business. I love that the revivalists went and found all of these great older blues singers, we're richer for that. But many of the revivalists also tried to tie those singers to some museum-ized idea of "pure" "folk" culture. I think that what they found is more like pop music from an alternate, rural universe.

With KR&G, I overstated the case. All I meant was that, where they had been criticized at the time for being white kids playing the blues, I have no problem with that. I think that their playing is great, and very spirited & not at all museum stuff. But, to my ears, the accent sounds wrong, sounds over-done. Not as forced as John Hammond Jr's faux-blues vocals, but still a little forced. I don't think that the University setting did that too them (tho maybe it helped) but I think that where they grew up meant that the accent their songs were sung in was something they had to learn, something different from the way they spoke. It's a trap that Dylan has stayed out of by not singing blues songs, when he sings them, in an affected southern voice.

I agree that Dylan's stuff gets better as he re-works it. I think that's a personal attribute that would have come up whatever direction he went. My favorite version of "Tangled Up in blue" is from an otherwise unremarkable live album from the 80s. totally different & much better lyrics.