Tuesday, April 11, 2006

"A Rake's Progress," Part Two: Q&A with Robert W. Harwood

Here is the second installment in a four-post series drawn from an interview with A Rake’s Progress author Robert W. Harwood. (Part one can be read here.)

Q: The first section of the book contains a wealth of contextual material about the early recording industry, and how black jazz and blues performers fit into that (or didn't). Was that already an area of interest for you, or a result of this project? I guess another way of getting at this is the more direct: So what's your record collection like?

A: Again, the answer will have to be, "a bit of both, actually." By the time I first heard "St. James Infirmary," I was listening to what we refer to these days as roots music. Like many people, I've gone through stages of musical interest. Popular music when I was younger, then classical, jazz, and so on . . . But Dylan was always there. Over the past few years my wife and I have immersed ourselves in earlier blues, jazz and folk recordings. Much of it from the teens and twenties of the last century. Our record collection . . . well, I sold all my records a couple of years ago. Our CD collection is -- I think there are about 600 CDs there. If you looked along the shelves you'd notice, right away, an inordinate amount of Bob Dylan. After that, the most frequently encountered artists would be, in no particular order, Keith Jarrett, Beethoven, Van Morrison, Thomas de Hartmann, Jean Sibelius, J.S. Bach. Lots of Leadbelly and Blind Willie McTell. We created a double CD to accompany A Rake's Progress (all forty copies of it), of songs and/or artists that appeared in the book. You'll find those artists on our shelves, of course: Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Willie Johnson, Bessie Smith, Henry Thomas, Jimmie Rodgers, Emmett Miller, Hank Williams, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, King Oliver. And you'll see The Anthology of American Folk Music. The Blind Boys of Alabama. Compilations with names like Before The Blues, Southern Country Blues, The Great Women Blues Singers, Wax Cylinder Phonograph Recordings. Django Reinhardt. Tom Waits. George Gershwin. Stan Kenton. The Watersons. Charles Ives. John Adams. Didjeridoo music. David Hykes. Texas Alexander. That sort of thing.

I'm pretty sure your book was the place I first learned of George W. Johnson; more recently Johnson is addressed in a book called Lost Sounds, by Tim Brooks, about Johnson and other black musicians and singers in the early days of the recording business. Also in the intro you write: "When all is said and done, the music being pursued in A Rake's Progress originated in the British Isles. But it found its greatest acolytes in the black musicians of the American South." Obviously there's a similar interest in this partly animating my own focus on "St. James Infirmary." My question here is pretty open-ended, probably unanswerable, and possibly best ignored. But why is this connection between an old European folk song and African-American musicians so interesting or important?

What did I mean by that? This area becomes extraordinarily complicated. But, you know, blacks were not stuck singing field hollers, they weren't all sitting on porch stoops strumming blues songs with repeated first verse lines. They weren't living in isolation from the rest of the country. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, everyone was singing the same songs. Musical entertainment was immensely popular. The traveling minstrel shows of the mid and late nineteenth centuries took America -- and much of Europe -- by storm. And although the cultural assumptions of the time are extremely disturbing to us, people were generally under its spell -- just as we are under the spell of certain cultural assumptions today. There are great tales of musical heroism to be told. All-black minstrel shows, for example, emerged -- with considerable success; and from that kind of force there arose a new sort of music in mainstream America. New Orleans jazz, Dixieland. The stage shows of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith -- often set up in tents, it would not be uncommon for both blacks and whites to be scrambling for tickets and lining up together awaiting entrance (albeit sitting on opposite sides of the stage). This would be in the first two decades of the twentieth century. It can be difficult to enjoy their recordings today, but that's because they sang to a large audience without microphones. Their voices had to be large, and we generally prefer a subtlety of vocal expression that only arrived with electronic microphones and recording devices.

And yet, when black Americans did start recording -- after 1920 -- the first songs that emerged were blues songs. Not because that is the only music blacks played, but because that is what the recording companies insisted on. That's what they thought would bring in the bucks. Many of these artists would have jumped at the chance to record popular show tunes, for instance, but that wasn't permitted. The recording industry created their "Race Records" divisions (a term coined by Ralph Peers, who makes occasional appearances in A Rake’s Progress), they wanted new material, and they paid for the types of songs they were looking for. As Francis Davis points out in his excellent The History of the Blues, Memphis Minnie never recorded "For Sentimental Reasons," although she did sing it in concert. And if she been allowed to? Who knows what would have emerged.

Which might be one reason it took "Gambler's Blues" / "St. James Infirmary" so long to reach the recording studio, and why it first appeared with jazz bands rather than solo artists. It's not strictly a blues song, but I am convinced that it emerged through black America. On one side we have "Streets of Laredo," on another "St. James Infirmary." They grew up from the popular music of the time, probably shared the same roots, but the real transformation occurred in the latter song. That's a song that helped, I think, to reshape the musical landscape.

Tomorrow: Part Three, Jimmie Rodgers and “Gambler’s Blues.”

Mr. Harwood is working on a revised and expanded version of his book A Rake’s Progress, which he aims to complete in the fall, or thereabouts. To be notified when it is done and available for purchase at a very reasonable price, contact him at robertharwood@rogers.com. I recommend this.

You can listen a couple of George W. Johnson recordings at this NPR page.