Back in February of this year, I reviewed a triple disc set released by Document Records called Broadcasting The Blues: Black Music In The Segregation Era. Quite the mouthful for a record title actually, but it was an important distinction the producer/compiler Paul Oliver was trying to make.
You see the word “broadcasting” has an older, deeper meaning than the one we currently associate with it:
…there was a time-honoured method of sowing seeds. The sowers carried wide-mouthed sacks filled with seeds… As they walked over the fertile soil of the newly tilled fields, they would dip their free hands into the sacks to scoop up a quantity of the contents. With a swing of their arms in a broad arc they would “scatter the good seeds on the land”—a technique which was called broadcasting… the term lives on in the transmission of sounds on the radio. (Oliver, Paul: Broadcasting The Blues Routledge, 2005 p vii)
Broadcasting means more than just getting airtime on the radio; it also means getting the word out there about the people and the music. It’s not difficult to imagine how hard it was for black people to get their music out to a wider audience during the segregation era in the States, especially in the South. Oh sure, there were the jazz clubs in some cities, but that was only for a small minority of audience, music, and musicians.
Besides, that’s not the music we’re talking about here. Jazz had been given a veneer of acceptability due to the many mainstream white acts that were incorporating elements of it into popular music; the big band sound of the forties and the crooners like Frank Sinatra. All of their music and arrangements were lifted from jazz.
No, what we’re talking about is the music of the back porches and the delta, the stuff that a white person wouldn’t hear on their local radio show. If you were really brave, you might sneak across the tracks into a “coloured persons” bar and listen in. But those people would have been few and far between, with names like Elvis, Ronnie Hawkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis. They incorporated the music they heard in the black churches and clubs into their own country traditions and began “broadcasting” the music to white people.
Did you ever wonder why the British Invasion of rock bands happened in the early sixties? American music was Neil Sedaka, Paul Anka (I know he’s Canadian, but you can have him), and Pat Boone. All of sudden these British kids show up playing this down and dirty blues from the American Deep South. Listen to early songs by the Animals, the Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, and Led Zeppelin. Tell me you don’t hear the Mississippi River lapping at their feet.
Unlike their American contemporaries, they were listening to people like Lightning John Hopkins, Muddy Watters, and Howling Wolf. Of course some of the American musicians were listening as well, but they postdated their British contemporaries by six or seven years. Remember, the Rolling Stones were playing music and doing their versions of Delta blues before they hit America. The blues were being broadcast in England and Europe ever since the twenties when American black musicians were finding a home in Paris, France, on the radio, and through sales of records in the shops.
Paul Oliver espouses the idea that perhaps, because the music was removed from its social context and brought into a new environment, it was allowed to be judged on its own merits and not by the colour of the performer’s skin. What else could explain, that in spite of there being radio stations broadcasting the blues in the 1950’s in the United States (Blues Boy King had a very successful show at radio station WDIA in Memphis before his equally successful career as a blues performer under the name B.B. King), there wasn’t the widespread dissemination of the music like there was in England and Europe?
Paul Oliver, for lack of a better description, is a blues scholar. He describes how, in the 1940s when he was living in Suffolk, England, he watched and listened to two Black American soldiers setting up a base and singing the work songs of their field-working ancestors. He was lucky enough to have a friend at the time that had a collection of old 78rpm recordings of the blues, many of which had been produced in England.
He was hooked. He began scouring Europe and England for old recordings in an attempt to listen to and learn more about this amazing music he described as “the most strange and thrilling vocal sounds that I had ever heard.” From this starting point in a field in England, he began his one-person quest to “legitimize” the blues as a genre of music.
His initial broadcasts and publications were included as part of either jazz radio shows or magazines, until he was able to convince others that Blues could and should be treated as a distinct form of music. While jazz and Blues may have had some elements in common at birth, they quickly went their divergent ways, with the Blues holding on to its rural roots a lot more securely than jazz ever did.
In his 40-plus years of broadcasting, Mr. Oliver traveled the world compiling tapes and information about the music he’s so devoted to. From drum circles in Africa, old recording of field hollars stashed away in dusty libraries to the radio stations and back porches of the Deep South in the early sixties, he was a man on a mission.
What he has done, in both the book and the companion triple-CD set with Broadcasting The Blues: Black Music In The Time Of Segregation, is compile a collection of radio broadcasts from throughout his career to build a history of the blues. When scanning through the book you might notice that, according to the dates of the broadcasts, there seems to be particular order or sequence. How can something recorded in 1957 come after something recorded in 1967?
What is important is the content of the broadcast. Mr. Oliver has very successfully created an oral/musical history of blues music on both the CDs and the book. I know these things are written down in a book, but I can’t help thinking of them as being read aloud with the music interspersed throughout the scripts.
Having heard the music before I read the book, it’s been fascinating going back and reading the scripts that were written originally for the periods covered by the music. While Oliver’s style is at times, by necessity more than anything else, academic and factual, I’m sure these scripts would have been more story then lecture when read.
Each of the first three sections of the book, “Before The Blues”, “Blues, How Do You Do?” and “Meaning In The Blues,” compiles radio broadcasts which work within the theme under discussion. The fourth section, “Documenting The Blues,” deals with the problems associated with assembling this material and the misfortune of how much has been lost. So much of this music was never recorded because it was being performed in honky-tonks and juke joints where people with the kind of equipment necessary would never have dreamt of showing up.
Some of the music recorded or talked about in these broadcasts only exists today because Paul Oliver traveled through the South in the early 1960s. (This was at great personal risk, being a white man wandering around the rural south; hanging out with black people was not looked upon with great favour by others of the same race in the local population.) He recorded as many people as he could find, thus preserving their music for posterity.
Broadcasting The Blues: Black Music In The Segregation Era, whether in book form or on CD, is an invaluable contribution to the collection of anyone who has a passion for blues music. Throughout his career, Paul Oliver has done his best to broadcast the blues in all meanings of the word. Let’s hope the seeds he’s been distributing continue to grow and flourish.