Blues Fell This Morning: Meaning in the Blues
By Paul Oliver
Cambridge University Press, 1994. 384 pp., $18.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon
Discovering the blues can be a life-altering revelation. A Bessie Smith record on ABC radio 20-odd years ago did it for me; some old Robert Johnson 78s did it for Eric Clapton. Once hooked by the simple rhythmical 12-bar elegance, and the emotional power and melancholy tenor of the blues, there is no kicking the habit.
Paul Oliver heard some blues phonograph records as a child living in London in the '40s, got addicted and wrote Blues Fell This Morning in 1960 about how the blues held up a mirror to the poverty and racial discrimination that blacks endured in the US from the 1920s, and the social problems that arose from this.
Oliver's book, written in a "warm, impartial and generous spirit" as black novelist Richard Wright says in the foreword, was the target of right-wing Cold War attacks (these days the 1994 re-issue would be attacked as "politically correct") for its account of the history of racism in the US and its reflection in the blues.
Concentrated in the rural south (the Mississippi delta), post-slavery blacks bore the brunt of unemployment, overwork and poverty. Racial segregation was both absurd (the US Red Cross segregated blood from blacks and whites) and repressive.
The Klan was vicious — four out of every five southern politicians during the '20s and '30s, as well as police and judges, were members of a racist vigilante movement which flogged, castrated and lynched blacks at whim. From 1880 the Klan murdered more than 3000 blacks. There were virtually no recorded blues about the Klan, however, because of record company censorship and black artists' fears of retribution.
By 1950, 3 million blacks had migrated to the northern industrial cities, many jumping the rattlers, some losing a limb in the process like blues artist Furry Lewis (whom the Rolling Stones later had opening their gigs in Memphis). They were mostly disillusioned. As the Depression, discriminatory employment practices and overcrowding hit the black migrants, many turned to alcohol (legal and illegal — Tommy Johnson's blues about the debilitating effects of metho-derived "canned heat" gave its name to the later Chicago blues-boogie band), gambling, drugs, prostitution and crime.
The crime was often violent — harmonica-player Sonny Boy Williamson was murdered with an ice-pick through the skull in 1947 for his weekly takings; Robert Johnson was poisoned. Many blacks populated the jails. Amongst the blues artists imprisoned in state penitentiaries, and county jails and farms, were Leadbelly, Robert Pete Williams, Champion Jack Dupree, Roosevelt Sykes and Bukka White.
The inhuman chain-gangs and other forms of forced labour were lucrative for the state and lethal to prisoners. Of the 3100 men and two dozen women executed by electric chair during the '30s and '40s, over 50% were black, 10 times the white rate. Prison blues were sung from bitter experience.
Overcrowded housing caused epidemics of TB and other diseases of poverty. Syphilis, which 25% of the black male population had, was a major cause of death and disabilities such as blindness. Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Willie McTell, Sleepy John Estes, Sonny Terry were some of the blues artists to suffer from blindness.
The black ghetto and rural slum were not social environments to produce a happy, light-hearted music. The rollicking boogie-woogie riff was a good-time music for dancing to and forgetting cares and woes, but the standard blues was a slower, more reflective, mournful lament about personal and economic hardship and distress.
The more direct protest blues by Leadbelly in the '40s, Big Bill Broonzy in the '50s and J.B. Lenoir (the FBI intervened to ban his "Eisenhower Blues") were an exception. Record company censorship also limited the protest content of the blues.
During the '60s, many black militants became impatient with the "Uncle Tom" element in the traditional blues with its mood of despair, hopelessness and endurance of suffering that they felt were the passive values of a previous era, whilst the blues faced growing musical challenges from other black music forms such as gospel, R&B and the hard-driving urban electric blues.
Post-'60s blues, however, although shedding some of its traditional social themes and concentrating more on "personal relationships of love and desertion", still possessed the great simplicity and beauty of a true folk art surviving in an age of commercial overproduction. The traditional blues is at its best, argues Oliver, as "an art created by and for the black working classes", although (and Oliver does not broach this analysis) the plugged and amplified 12 bars of an Elmore James or a Buddy Guy in Chicago reflect the social change undergone by the US black working class from the days of the cotton plantation and remain a strong element of urban black working class culture.
Oliver is probably right that the traditional blues' heyday was the 1920s to 1950s, but it continues to inspire modern musicians and listeners who know the conditions that give rise to the blues. It was not only in the past, in the US and amongst Blacks (though it was worst there) that:
"When lives were upset, families broken, love lost, the blues came falling down. The blues dogged the footsteps of the migratory labourer, walked in the shadow of the destitute, sat at the table of the hungry, shared the bed of the forsaken. It was the comrade-in-arms of those whose work was strenuous, monotonous and ill-paid."
The blues still, as Robert Johnson sang, fall down like rain.