Friday, March 30, 2007

In Search of the Blues:
Black Voices, White Visions
by Marybeth Hamilton
One of the most interesting of recent books on the blues is Marybeth Hamilton’s In Search of the Blues (Cape). What’s noteworthy here is that this is a study of blues collectors, those who went out and collected songs and, later, those who collected records and rediscovered those who made those recordings. Hamilton’s story begins with Howard Odum and ends with the eccentric James McKune. This is a book that debunks myths and describes an interesting but weird world in which obsession and issues of racism and exploitation are never far off the page. For me, it immediately becomes part of a welcome blues revisionism that includes Elijah Wald’s Escaping the Delta- Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, and Stephen Calt’s biography of Skip James, I’d Rather Be the Devil. All books that tell it like it was rather than like many would have liked it to have been. If anything, I wanted Hamilton’s book to be longer. More about early collectors. More about McKune. And others, like Fahey and Calt, who followed him. And what about Brits like Mike Ledbitter and Paul Oliver? But perhaps all this was outside the scope of Hamilton’s remit. Also missing was just why the music was so relevant, not just as a social phenomenon, but as a musical experience. On the other hand, what’s refreshing about Hamilton’s book is it’s amateur approach. Well-researched and well-thought out, even if somewhat incomplete.

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