Pete's Blog

Letter to my Father

Dear Dad, I went looking for the NYT review you mentioned and found Dave Marsh's blast at Marybeth Hamilton - was that it? Anyway, Marsh is a maddeningly obscure and pompous writer and most of the time, as in this review, I just can't tell what he's about. In this case you can see he's furious at Hamilton for some reason but he doesn't tell an alternate story or do much to summarize the book he's supposed to be reviewing, so the whole thing turns into an empty rant. That's too bad, because the story of the misunderstanding of the blues and its distortion in the culture at large by, often but not always, well-intentioned acolytes is crucial to the future of the music and the racial reconciliation those acolytes generally wanted to bring about. Alan Lomax in particular is a classic type, the falsely benevolent liberal/progessive/socialist New Deal bureaucrat who doesn't pay his sources. Son House, the Delta's leading bluesman at the time, was given a Coke after recording one of the seminal documents of Mississippi blues, his session with Leroy Williams recorded by Lomax at Lake Cormorant in 1941. Williams got a Coke, too. And if you listen to the interviews Lomax did with several black musicians (Blind Willie McTell and Jelly Roll Morton among others) his condescending tone will make your skin crawl. I talked about his interview of Morton (and Morton's revenge) in a blog entry a year or so ago. It should still be up. Anyway, from what I can make out through Marsh's torrent of abuse, Hamilton's book wants to address this question and fails. Elijah Wald's "Escaping the Delta" is better, focusing in particular on Robert Johnson and using a close reading of his recordings to establish the ways in which his work was misunderstood and distorted by subsequent fans, writers, and apprentices. It's well worth reading, one of the two or three finest (and fairest) pieces of blues scholarship I know, even though Wald doesn't do much with the question that interests me the most, the way post-Socialist English artists and commentators, raised on Kitchen Sink drama in a rigid class system, missed entirely the freedom and social mobility that blues offered rural blacks, turning the music into an expression of tortured solitude and oppression that is, at best, only a fraction of the story. This letter is becoming nearly as overwritten as anything by Dave Marsh, but I think I'll put it up on the blog anyway, if you don't mind. It's a chance to plug Elijah's book, for one thing. love, pete

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