Sunday, March 09, 2008

Book review: In Search of the Blues by Marybeth Hamilton (Basic Books, 2008)

This book took a different approach into searching for the music's origins, by following four musicologists in their search for "pure" blues and folk music. Hamilton recounts the research of academics Howard Odum and Dorothy Scarborough, whose search for untouched folk-blues led them to travel into black communities in the south to collect songs and stories. Their stories make for uncomfortable reading, as their views on race are antiquated and disturbing. Little better was John Lomax whose "discovery" of Leadbelly is recounted in detail. Their love of the music did little to keep men like Lomax and those with political motivations from using the musicians and music for their own end. His son Alan Lomax fares a little better, as he too pains not to repeat his father's mistakes. The book concludes with stories of frantic record collectors who attempted to learn the secrets of jazz's origins in the legendary Storyville section of New Orleans and the eccentric collector James McKune whose search for the most primal, haunted blues 78's came to change the way critics and collectors viewed the music. This is a solid and well written if somewhat disturbing book. The search by white researchers and collectors for "pure" voices in a world they brought preconceived notions to and made no real effort to understand is an important lesson for music lovers to consider. We are left with the ides that these men and women were looking for a fantasy created in their own mind rather than music that existed on the ground.

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