Louis Armstrong Back in the Day

Louis Armstrong Back in the Day
With His Signature White Handkerchief and Smile

The significance of the blues aesthetic for those who are not professionally conversant in musical notation or the academic discipline of music or jazz history.

Monday, November 8

Blues Masters: The Essential History of the Blues

Illustrated Son House Discography


The film you saw last time was called Blues Masters: The Essential History of the Blues.  It featured a variety of original performances by key blues performers although the narrative context of the film has never been satisfying to me.  

There is this problem with documentaries about African American music and culture generally that they tend to tell the story of African American history from slavery to the present and then to overlay film clips and photography, such as they have access to, in a manner as to suggest the direct relationship of one to the other.  In this case, as is often true, the historical narrative is vague, spotty and inaccurate.  And then the clips and photographs are generated not by the circumstances described but rather by the limited archive of surviving media. 

 Sound recordings of the blues don't begin until the early 1920s so none of the recorded music used in this film corresponds to the early history.  Even though the narrator says that the blues begun sometime slightly after slavery, this is a hypothesis popular with many camps but totally impossible to document by any means, least of all by recordings.  Recordings begun in the early 20th Century and the industry didn't get around to making race records and therefore recording the blues until the 1920s.  The first blues recording was Mamie Smith's Crazy Blues" August 10th 1920 on Okey Records.  It was widely advertised in the black community and in the first month it sold 75,000 copies at a dollar each.

In addition to which, as background music this film inclines toward using footage and recordings of Son House, for reasons that aren't entirely clear apart from the fact that perhaps the best recordings and film footage in existence of what we know to be an "early" country blues man are of Son House.  He was charismatic, fascinating and he presents the perfect picture of the tragic yet seductive blues man.  That he continued to be a regular working man and never made a living as a blues singers makes him all the more palatable for one kind of legend of the blues.

The first song is "The Walking Blues" by Son House, one of his earliest recordings cut in the 1920s.  Yet the images are of slavery, including some sketches based upon the photographs of one of the last slave ships to be captured illegally transporting slaves before the Civil War.  The background on slavery and racial oppression leads right into a clip of Son House singing "The Levee Camp" Blues probably in the 1960s on an empty stage.  These dvds were released to the public in 80s when I first purchased them and heard of and saw Son House for the first time. Rather I had heard of Son House, but didn't know him from any other blues singer.  

The images subsequently used are extremely random and miscellaneous designed, I believe, to emphasize the material basis of House's practice and yet what strikes me is how elegant, slender and brilliant this man in his mid-60s I would guess looks.  

The film suggests the usual belief that "country blues" appeared and was widespread from about 1900 with no mention of jazz, gospel or spirituals or minstrelsy.  

The next clip is a rare color film of Lead Belly singing "Pick a Bale of Cotton" perhaps in conjunction with other film about Lead Belly.  Lead Belly was discovered in the 1930s by the anthropologist John Lomax while he was imprisoned on a chain gang in Mississippi.  He was subsequeuntly released by special dispensation, went North to D.C. with Lomax and proceeded to have an important career as a a folk singer and blues singer.  

There is a short clip of an early cakewalk scene by black dancers probably around 1900, French made I suspect, and an Edison film where a black woman in the West Indies is washing a black baby.  For reasons that aren't entirely clear the film diverts to the story of Booker  T. Washington and George Washington Carver.  Followed by a famous shot of a lynching, three black men hanging from trees by the neck.

The next clip is of Bessie Smith performing "St. Louis Blues" in a short film directed by Dudley Murphy in 1929 at the beginning of the sound period in U.S. cinema.  This is the only film we have of Bessie Smith who continues to be one of the best known and best loved blues singers ever. The arrangement of St. Louis Blues (by WC Handy) is that of the Hall Johnson Choir which sings the background in this version.  Disturbingly, Bessie Smith is obviously getting drunker and drunker as she cries over losing her man.  

In the context of role models, Jack Johnson the first black heavy weight boxing champ, is mentioned and we see a short clip of him in the ring (circa 1908).  There is reference to blacks who fought in WWI and the difficulty of dealing with segregated troops.  Black troops were sent abroad first in order to prevent a "race riot."  There is some footage of the 369th Harlem Regiment, including their victorious march down Fifth Avenue when they returned to New York. 

Next clip is Mamie Smith performing "Lord, Lord, Lord" in one of her black cast films made in the 1930s.  

Again the film jumps back to the end of the War in 1919 and the Chicago riot with accompanying silent footage of the riot and the inpoverished accomodations of blacks in Chicago.  Some footage of a KKK meeting.  Next we get a clip of a historic production from Show Boat on stage (1929) with Tess Gardella (who also played Aunt Jemima) appearing in blackface.

Another clip June Richmond "Hey Lordy MaMa" music short, by this time rhythm and blues, 1947.  She also sang with Louis Jordan and Andy Kirk.

Then there is a clip of Josephine Baker performing on stage in Paris in bananas singing against the background of Son House again.  Signs of poverty and segregation and mention of the Depression.  People eating soup out of a can and on soup lines.  

Al Capone and the St. Valentines Massacre 1931.  Back and forth in history. 

No comments: