July/August 2010

Real Life Rock Top Ten

A Monthly Column
of Everyday Culture
and Found Objects

by Greil Marcus

As a compiler, Allen Lowe is the music historian’s equivalent of David Thomson with his ongoing editions of A Biographical Dictionary of Film (the latest will be out this fall). In 1998 Lowe produced the nine-CD American Pop: An Audio History—From Minstrel to Mojo: On Record, 1893–1946; in 2006 the thirty-six-CD That Devilin’ Tune: A Jazz History [1895–1950]. Now he is unrolling a thirty-six-CD Really the Blues? A Blues History 1893–1959 in four installments; the first nine-CD box, covering 1893 to 1929, appeared this spring from West Hill Radio Archives. With at least twenty-four numbers to a disc, Really the Blues? is a cornucopia; it’s a swamp. It’s a forest to get lost in, tree by tree or even leaf by leaf. It’s a grand and overarching story—though that ? at the end of his title marks Lowe’s doubt as to whether with the blues such a story is possible, or even a good idea. It’s a flurry of fragments, leaving you grasping for a way to follow the trail.

As his free-swinging liner notes make clear, Lowe is a radical pluralist; as a synthesizer he’s completely idiosyncratic. He may love disjunction far more than unity—but what others hear as disjunctions may be unities to him. Thus along with late-nineteenth-century black quartette singing, Bert Williams, W. C. Handy, early gospel, vaudeville blues, minstrelsy survivals, New York City productions featuring the likes of Mamie Smith, Sarah Martin, and then Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, and the lone-traveler-with-guitar of the country blues, there is also Paul Whiteman, Jimmie Rodgers, white mountain singers, Billie Holiday, bluegrass, Sacred Harp chanting, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, and a Charles Ives piano piece from his Symphony no. 1. In Lowe’s hands, the blues is not a feeling (“A good man/woman feeling bad,” in the classical phrase, or, in Buzzy Jackson’s recent revision, “A bad woman feeling good”). It’s a language: something one can draw from the times and the landscape, or out of oneself; it’s a language one can learn. As a language, it gives whoever can speak it a certain purchase on the world, allowing one to present it or oneself in a light different from the light that falls on you without your will or desire coming into play. That is why it takes so many, even infinite, forms.

In the world of the blues as Lowe affirms it, any attempt at summary, let alone a critical assessment of what his crafted world is worth, of whether it’s a spinning globe or a pile of feathers, would demand far more time than it takes to listen—and given the shape of his production, constantly calling you back to play a given piece a second or a tenth time, to make it fit, to hear how it doesn’t, summary may be beside the point. For that matter, while Lowe covers every conceivable genre, style, form, and fashion, the recordings he chooses are almost never generic, an example of something as opposed to a thing in itself. Within any genre he is drawn to its anomalies, not the master chord but the broken cord. I hope to take up each of his four boxes as they arrive; here are ten echoes from the first.

(1) Bert Williams, “Nobody” (1906). “Not a blues, but—” it’s always said: it’s a spoken piece about being treated as if you don’t exist, or as if you never should have been born. (“Coon Song. Baritone Solo” was the notation on the original release.) As philosophy it’s a straight line from this to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, two world wars, a Great Depression, and forty-six years later. But in its cadence and in the melody of its speech it’s a leap to Muddy Waters’s “Rollin’ Stone” two years before that, and to Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” four years later.

(2) Fisk University Jubilee Quartet, “Poor Mourner” (1911). Formal gospel by trained singers—but in the highs and lows, the irreducibly spooky tones of a different voice, eyes without a face, a face without a name: what John Fahey meant when he said that inside certain gospel records you could hear “a cloven hoof beating time.”

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Greil Marcus is the author of Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, and The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice, and other books. His column, Real Life Rock Top Ten, runs monthly in the Believer.

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