Saturday, October 1, 2011

Phonographic Revivalism

Note: I'm trying to get something right in the chapter I'm working on, and sometimes it helps to lay it out in a few paragraphs here, so, here:

As a musical form, the blues is often defined and discussed in terms of authenticity.  There is the blues, the real blues, the deep blues, and  the real deep blues.  There is the race-haunted question of whether white folks can really play the blues, which could also be a way of asking of only black folks can play the blues, a questions which may have started out as the assertion that black folks could only play the blues, since early record producers considered blues the only viable commercial form for African American musicians, and usually refused to record the full repertoire of early "blues" artists.  And of course there's pianist Henry Thomas's assertion that "Although they call it the blues today, the original name given to this kind of music was 'reals.'  And it was real because it made the truth available to the people in the songs."  Thomas is voicing here both a feeling felt among black musicians and audiences, and part of the ethic that has made the blues an attractive form to write about for progressively minded academics.  He's also performing some signifyin' on the fact that many musical pieces widely considered "blues" were actually called "reels" by their original audiences.

For all of this concern with realness though, the history and historiography of the blues is largely and loudly defined in relation to recordings, aural mediations of "real" performances.  As noted above, commercial recording practice shaped the basic parameters of the genre.  When John Hammond Sr. went looking for the recently deceased Robert Johnson in 1938, and couldn't find him, Hammond played Johnson's records at Carnegie Hall instead, an act of near-literal phonographic revivalism that I'd argue qualifies Hammond's From Spirituals To Swing concerts as the beginning o of the blues revival.  Two decades later, decades in which documentarian recordists like Alan Lomax compiled field recordings of blues players as part of his folklore studies the Robert Johnson LP King of the Delta Blues Singers became an integral artifact of the early 60s blues revival, and played no small part in the establishment of the name "Delta Blues" as a generic term, whose history fused documentary and commercial recording practices.  And, three decades after that, the release of Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings as a CD boxed set inaugurated another blues revival, one marked by the emergence of festivals, tourist destinations, and of course, the "Million Dollar Juke Joint" House of Blues Franchise.  If we want to, we could even continue to pin blues revivals to advances in consumer recording and replay technology by noting that 2003, the congressionally mandated "Year of the Blues" was marked by the release of several blues films, including of course Martin Scorsese presents The Blues, a 7 film series whose title should remind us of the canon-making power that these advances in duplicable media hold, particularly when presented by a prestigious interlocutor like Scorsese, or Lomax, or Hammond.

Martin Scorsese present The Blues premiered on PBS and was, later in the year, released in a handsome DVD boxed set.  Several other blues films released in 2003, like Robert Mugge's Last of the Mississippi Jukes, and the re-released Deep Blues also by Mugge, The American Folk Blues Festival Series, You See Me Laughin', The Howlin' Wolf Story, and more, went straight to DVD.  This allowed consumers to mark the 100th anniversary of W.C. Handy's encounter with "the wierdest music I ever heard" in a Tutwiler train station, from the comfort of their own homes.  it also marked an early high point in the distribution of such films via physical discs, as that format soon began to receive intense competition from streaming video.  Perhaps there will be another blues revival soon, to mark this new form, thopugh it really hasn't been very long since the last one.

All of this-the notions of documentary authenticity, of a blues and a past that is always vanishing, ineffable and barely and imperfectly preserved, the fascination with the obsolete, the vernacularization of commercial media, and especially the need to mediate old and ever-disappering forms of mediation in new formats, comes to bear on a video like this: