Most of us have listened to some sort of Blues music at some time or another in our lives. You can’t have listened to popular music in the last seventy to eighty years in North America without hearing something, that’s got at least a hint of that sound to it.
From Heavy Metal through to the standards of Frank Sinatra, the Blues have been the foundation that most pop music has built upon. Try and imagine what our world would sound like today if the Blues hadn’t existed, and I think you’d hear the ringing sounds of silence.
Even the traditional Irish and Scottish ballads that were the backbone of the earliest country music wouldn’t have made it out of the Appalachians without a generous dollop of blues music. It was that cross-pollination that gave us the earliest Country-Blues, which in turn led to Sun Records and a guy named Elvis.
The saddest part of the story of the blues has always been that the men and women, who were the writers and singers of this most influential music, toiled in obscurity and without recognition for most of their lifetimes. They’d see their songs and music being performed by young white musicians and never once received a dime for their work.
One of the sad truths of racial segregation and discrimination was that it denied a huge segment of the world the opportunity to hear some of the finest music and musicians perform. Even now early recordings of so many of these people are only in the hands of collectors or museums.
A new triple disc set by Document Records is a tiny step forward in changing that situation. Broadcasting The Blues: Black Blues in the Segregation Era is a wordy title for the set, but an apt one. Paul Oliver, the man who edited and compiled this disc, has been writing and broadcasting on the radio about blues since 1952. If you’ve never heard of him or his shows it’s not surprising, they were on the B.B.C.
I’ve often wondered how people like Mick Jagger and John Lennon ever heard the blues over in England. They always talked about how much this style of music influenced them, but where on earth did they ever hear it for the first time. Well this must be part of the answer, Paul Oliver’s radio shows.
A first quick glance through the nearly ninety songs listed on the back cover and certain names just jump out at you: Ma Rainey, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Hooker, and on and on. It’s like a who’s who of the greats of the past eighty years of the blues.
The material on these CDs is a compliment to a book Mr. Oliver has published called Broadcasting The Blues. These songs, and interviews, are all taken from the scripts of the radio shows that Mr. Oliver has done over the years for the B.B.C. Some of them were specific documentaries on the Blues, and others were just his radio shows; where his play lists were made up of material dating back as far as the 1920s.
Close to four hours of music crammed onto three discs can be a little overwhelming if there is no cohesion. In an attempt to supply some order to the proceedings, Mr. Oliver has arranged the discs historically: Volume One: “Before the Blues” deals with the roots of the music; Volume Two: “Blues How Do You Do” is an examination of the inspiration for the blues; and Volume Three: “Meaning In The Blues” explores the variety of subject matter sung about in the blues.
Now if that sounds dry as dust, don’t worry, because it’s all done musically. They are just frameworks to hang the music on. Volume one is the only disc where historical sequence has any real pertinence, as after a couple of pieces of introductory blues, it takes us back to the beginnings. Starting with a Ring Dance as performed by Mamprusi Tribesmen in Africa we cross over to the Southern States to listen to “Holler” or work songs.
Along the way, we taste the music that was played for the “Doctors” and their medicine shows, ballads, and what were known as “Coon” songs. These were mainly satirical songs that helped to deflect some to the sneers of prejudice. Some of the songs on this disc seem to have little to do with what we would call blues music. But it was from these tunes that singing styles and content were developed.
It’s on discs two and three that we enter territory we are more familiar with. But what makes these two discs special is the sheer diversity of the material. The voices and music of long dead men and women who sang for the release and the joy of singing echo down the years. Ghosts from a time when sometimes the only way you could escape your hardships were to sing about it.
“It gives you relief…” says Henry Townsend in an interview talking about the blues. Relief from the feelings of being a second-class citizen, of grinding poverty, and of being looked down upon. Just as the spirituals helped slaves find escape from the misery of working in the fields; their latter day cousin the blues helped the children and grand children of slaves escape their soul-destroying reality.
Regretting the past doesn’t get you very far, but it’s hard not to listen to these discs and regret that the men and women singing on them didn’t get the recognition they deserved during their lifetime. The best we can do for them now is to honour their contributions to our culture and our lives by learning their names now, and not letting them be forgotten.
Paul Oliver has put together an incredible collection of music and interviews on Broadcasting The Blues: Black Blues In The Segregation Era. It is discs like these that are not only a pleasure to listen to, but will keep those people alive forever. What’s even more exciting is that he’s only just begun working through close to fifty years of radio shows. There’s plenty more where this came from.