I was in Starbucks the other night scamming free coffee from a friend (you think I would pay those people?), when I noticed the CDs on sale at the counter: Johnny Cash’s “Artist’s Choice” collection and a compilation,”Got a Feeling Called the Blues.” I was sad to see Cash’s ghost next to a Grande double caramel mocha latte, but I was inconsolable about the blues. The album cover looked like a bubble bath ad, though the artists on the back looked like a good sampling of old blues music, and the paradox plunged me into a fog of uncertainty from which I have only recently emerged.
Why are trendy coffeemakers recommending old Delta blues to trendy coffee drinkers? Should I protest the loss of authenticity to corporate compilations, the corruption of the music’s spirit by sharply dressed aesthetic taste-makers? The Ann Arbor Blues Fest and Martin Scorcese’s PBS series “The Blues” (airs all this week, 9 p.m.) are floating around me, and I can’t tell what is up or down in the music world.
I am worried about Starbucks because the compilation/reissue trend really affects how we perceive music. The Rolling Stones have given arm-chair afficionados Super Audio CD versions of old songs, making every home theater system that much cooler. The living room is becoming an acceptable substitute for the concert hall or the bar room stage. Scorcese says in his film that blues music is “everybody’s music,” and as we get further into consumer technology, we see he is right: Anyone can own it. But the blues was never for the espresso set, and if you only know it for B.B. King’s Whopper ads, it’s not for you.
There used to be a time when the blues did not exist in white people’s living rooms. It was the sound of dusty front porches and stomping bare feet. It came from old men and women who sang about the devil and drinking alone, and it existed for its own sake. In the mid 1930s, a young guy named Alan Lomax went into the deep south and made the first recordings of people like Leadbelly and Muddy Waters. He captured the intimacy of those artists, the intensity of feeling they had in person and the deeply affecting sound of whole families and towns singing work songs together.
Since then, white people have been discovering the blues over and over again, including the hip college students of the ’60s and the studied imitators of the British invasion, but none ever learned more than what Lomax found in those legendary days in the ’30s. Beyond that point, you might say, history is shrouded in darkness.
As time passes, the blues will seem more and more irrelevant to most Americans. The model of the ascetic bluesman, sitting on his steps with an acoustic guitar and harmonica, will mean less and less to a culture that only validates the products of high technology and neat packaging. It will mean even less to the coffee drinkers who will buy up these compilations thinking they had sprung from a vacuum, or worse yet, from the corporations that sell them. The real artists and their life experiences will seem irrelevant in a world so aesthetically driven. So I have qualms when Scorcese calls the blues “everybody’s music,” but it would still do a body good to watch his film. And as I sit through the hours of unearthed footage, I’m sure I will think back often to my own Lomax moment…
It was this past summer, when I spent time traveling through southern Africa and on a few occasions was fortunate enough to hear the music of local people. I had brought a handheld tape recorder to capture the sounds of busy city centers, of village life along the Zambezi River and animal noises in the Game Parks. I soon found myself trying to capture the music too, and though I was discrete, I was as enthusiastic about it as Alan Lomax ever could have been. Somewhere in my room now is a plastic tape of Zulu schoolchildren singing and clapping together; it does not contain the great welcoming hymn the whole school sang – hundreds of students in unison with a little girl singing up and down over them all. But it will be enough to remember what it was like. And I did not think to bring the recorder one night to a village on Lake Malawi, where the people treated us all to a huge meal and sang harmonies next to a campfire, the women shuffling their feet to a drum and all of us laughing together. There are a few photos, and I tried to write about it in my journal, but some experiences are not translatable.
In a few years, I might still have the tape of the Zulu children, but it will be much harder to remember the scene at Lake Malawi. At some point, I may completely forget it. But I was there for it, and the tapes were never the point. They were just a poor effort to hold on to something good.
I imagine that, for all the Leadbellies that Lomax brought out, he must have had his share of Lake Malawis as well – the places, artists and songs that always existed but never found their way to tape. And in some ways it is a shame that history passed them by without mention. But they were not for us to see in the first place. The blues did not exist for the archives – no real music does – and none of us today will ever really understand.
Cotner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.