Saturday, January 14, 2012

Book Notes: Screening the Blues by Paul Oliver

Some aspects of the so-called "Great British Blues Boom" of the 1960s are disputed. Not least amongst these questions is why so many affluent white kids in Western Europe found the  music of America's Black underclass resonated with their experiences in that turbulent decade - and became such a potent vehicle for their own self-expression. In short, what where guys in Surrey doing searching for rare Big Bill Broonzy discs in order to faithfully imitate them? There have been many answers to these fascinating  questions. However what is surely beyond doubt is that the historian and academic analyst of this music in the UK was Paul Oliver. An academic architect by profession, Oliver began a lifetime of study into African-American culture in the 1950s, publishing reams of articles and many books - documenting, classifying, describing and dissecting the music and lyrics of The Blues.

In 1968, when bands like Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, and The Rolling Stones, had brought the sounds of Mississippi and Chicago to thousands of people, Oliver published  Screening the Blues: Aspects of the Blues Tradition. It consists of a series of essays which Oliver had previously published in various journals, covering subjects as disparate as Blues and Christmas, nd Preaching the Blues (on the complex, multi-faceted, and often over-simplified) relationship between The Blues and Gospel music and their respective orbits. The Forty-fours, is a very long essay tracing a 'family-tree' of songs, musical forms and influences, tracing Blues back into the 19thC, while Policy Blues examines the gambling rackets which feature so heavily in African-American 20thC history, and which were such a fertile inspiration for the Bluesmen and Women. In the course of this, Oliver makes some observations about the apparent lack of social comment, let alone protest coming forth from a people for whom the central narrative of their experience in America, was one of oppression. The book concludes with a extended discussion about Blue Blues; that is blues with sexual content or innuendo and some of the games the blues musicians played to get black community innuendo under the radar of the predominantly white censors.

The book now has a dual significance, as it was written as a history book, but also is in itself now also a historical document - a snapshot of where academic study had reached in 1968. In many cases, Oliver calls for further research, and expresses frustration at the lack of serious studies in the field. In nearly every case he cites there are now a plethora of articles and books addressing his questions. Acceptable language in debates about race has also changed a lot over the last four decades. Contemporary readers will wince at Oliver's consistent use of terms like "Negro", but should remember that it was a perfectly acceptable term at the time,  used throughout the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr, for example. As a historic document, its also fascinating to note that a generation previously, the thought of a white, British historian being utterly consumed with analysing the Lomax Library of Congress field recordings of the Blues from the 1920s would have been unthinkable. By the 60's it was 'merely' pioneering!

In terms of the content of the book Oliver writes with a voice of academic detachment (earning the disapproval of some Black authors for whom the Blues is part of the Black experience which can only be lived - not externally analysed). His research is extremely thorough, and if not exhaustive - sometimes detailed and repetitive to the point of being laborious. The essays on The Forty-Fours and The Blue Blues, especially could be massively improved by moving a large proportion of the cited examples and lyrics into the footnotes to allow the analysis itself to flow more naturally and build towards conclusions. Nevertheless, Screening the Blues is important history, and is now in itself an important way-marker in the outward rippling of the Blues from Mississippi to the world.


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