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article imageReview: ‘Blues America’ Special

By Alexander Baron     Nov 30, 2013 in Entertainment
Today, mention black music, and most people think of hip-hop. There was once a time though when it was synonymous with the Blues.
If Mankind still exists a thousand years from now — which is most doubtful — historians will without doubt regard the greatest contribution of Black America to civilisation as its music, none more so than the Blues.
Disarmingly simple yet at the same time infinitely complex, the Blues is almost always written in the first person singular, and though it is based on sadness, misery, and at times outright human suffering, there is a sting in the tail, like the man who tells a joke about the time he slipped on a banana skin and broke his leg thereby being forced to cancel his wedding.
This is the first part of a two part series/documentary, currently on BBC iplayer, which attempts to trace the evolution of that cultural phenomenon from the old slave plantations of the Deep South to its embrace by first white Americans and then the rest of the Western world.
This is an enormous task, but it begins rightly with W.C. Handy, the self-styled but truly the Father of the Blues, though not mentioned here is the fact this his famous Memphis Blues was actually written as a campaign song.
Along the way we meet Handy's great rival Perry Bradford — who has heard of him nowadays? — Father of the Delta Blues, Charley Patton; and Empress of the Blues Bessie Smith, whose career was cut short by her death at just 43 in a road accident; at one point in her career she was reputedly making $2,000 a week, a staggering sum in those days for anyone.
We meet also Robert Johnson, who died even younger, Blind Lemon Jefferson — another who was gone too soon, and Lead Belly.
Predictably we are fed some political correctness here; for example, Lead Belly was seen as the dangerous Negro. We hear from the granddaughter of John Lomax, and there is archive footage of his son Alan; America and arguably the world's greatest folklorists of music, worked with Lead Belly, of whom it is admitted here was a convicted murder, an admission that could hardly be avoided. The truth though is that Huddie Willliam Ledbetter was a violent man with a short temper and a liking for drink; no amount of whitewashing or apologetics can excuse those facts. Also, he was far more popular with white audiences than with black ones.
We meet too Big Bill Broonzy and Skip James. To see the influence men like this had on later generations of white musicians, check out the classic Deep Purple recording of the James composition I'm So Glad which features both a lengthy instrumental introduction and the late Jon Lord on keyboards.
Here is the UK band Dr Feelgood with Steve Walwyn on lead guitar playing an original blues number, Shotgun Blues, showing how white boys do it, but without the original Shotgun Blues by Sonny Boy Williamson, where would they have been? As the band's vocalist, the late Lee Brilleaux was always first to acknowledge, Dr Feelgood like every other blues band today, did what they did and got where they are only because they stood on the shoulders of giants.
The programme also speaks to veteran Keith Richards, who knows a thing or two about the Blues. Curiously, the one word that does not appear even once in this programme is racism, probably because unlike Angela Davis and the other privileged black academics of today, the men and women who forged the Blues from its plantation roots were too busy working making music to realise how oppressed they were, and in any case had no time nor inclination to whine about it.
More about Alan Lomax, the blues, Robert johnson, blind lemon jefferson, bessie smith
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