Folk Music and Fascism: A Divisive History

Folk music is near synonymous with the left. This union is so apparent and longstanding in the Anglophone world that we rarely ever think to question it. Haunting the revival of the 1960s, the archetype of a folk singer is beholden to legends such as Woody Guthrie, his guitar emblazoned with the phrase “This Machine Kills Fascists” (now available online for $4 a piece).

Although folk music was employed in the service both of communist state propaganda (vividly illustrated in Paweł Pawlikowski’s recent film Cold War) and in support of the Third Reich, our concept of folklore has tended to remain wedded to a proletarian or progressive vision. Folk music partisans, themselves frequently stalwart Marxists or card-carrying Party members, were at the vanguard of the most iconic political struggles of the twentieth century, from the Industrial Workers of the World and the Popular Front to the civil rights movement, CND, and the movement for reproductive rights.

In the public imagination, the folk revivalist is a dyed-in-the-wool radical, an activist whose commitment to the betterment of the common woman and man was forged in the furnace of anti-capitalist hostility. The frivolous offerings of the commercial music industry only serve to compound this opposition to the marketplace and its profit-hungry moguls. And so the folk singer rages against commerce and decadence with songs of social injustice, their roots firmly grounded in the topography of home.

But this tradition of thought is built upon a paradoxical foundation, one that casts a disconcerting shadow on the vision of folk music as a tool of resistance.

Folkloric thinking echoes what Raymond Williams saw as a form of “idealist retrospect” – a way of measuring change and resisting capitalist injustice nevertheless in danger of reinforcing undemocratic hierarchies “in the name of blood and soil”.<1> Might folk music share a common history with the very forces it has strived so hard to resist?

Indeed it does. Looking back at the work of the most influential and indefatigable British song collector Cecil J. Sharp brings this strange correlation into focus.

Sharp, a Fabian socialist with strong nationalist leanings (he was a member of the imperialistic Navy League), believed that folk song should be used to combat an ostensible erosion of white, English identity. Writing in 1907, he claimed that

Our system of education is, at present, too cosmopolitan; it is calculated to produce citizens of the world rather than Englishmen. And it is Englishmen, English citizens, that we want. How can this be remedied? By taking care, I would suggest, that every child born of English parents is, in its earliest years, placed in possession of all those things which are the distinctive products of its race…If every child be placed in possession of all these race-products, he will know and understand his country and his countrymen far better than he does at present; and knowing and understanding them he will love them the more, realize that he is united to them by the subtle bond of blood and kinship, and become, in the highest sense of the word, a better citizen, and a truer patriot.<2>

Although many of his contemporaries fought vociferously against such ideas, Sharp’s vision of revivalism emerged triumphant on both sides of the Atlantic, pairing a commitment to organic nationalism and racial hierarchy with a socialist resistance against cultural degeneration and the ravages of industrial capitalism.

On the surface, these political commitments may seem baffling––what Dave Harker describes as a “bizarre mixture of radical and reactionary”.<3> But they are by no means inconsistent. As the Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell has argued, such a confluence must be seen not simply as the precursor to fascist regimes but rather as a powerfully attractive nexus of ideas circulating throughout Europe at the fin de siècle predicated on a revision of Marxism in which a “revolution of the spirit” trumps revolution proper.<4>

This ideology sought above all to unify a class-ridden society through the idea of the nation viewed as a racial community with sacred ties to the soil. “Before it became a political force,” Sternhell affirms, fascism was “a cultural phenomenon”.<5>

Our conception of folk music from Somerset to Appalachia is indelibly marked by this moment largely as a result of Sharp’s interventions. As the collector Lucy Broadwood wrote in a personal letter to her sister in 1924, Sharp elected himself “King of the whole movement” and “was by the general ignorant public taken at his own valuation”.

What’s surprising is the extent to which his ideas—deeply conditioned by extreme nationalism, racism, misogyny, and xenophobia—have managed to circulate without having their political meanings fully scrutinized.<6> In this sense, he has been supremely successful: such ideas reverberate silently and all the more powerfully within objects and cultural practices that, for many people, exist as innocent tokens of the past.

Sharp, in other words, holds a profound sway over public memory. Even within academic circles today, the term “folk” is often employed in its Sharpian guise without due attention paid to the broader discursive ecology that afforded its emergence and proliferation. Instead, it is taken as a given and hence becomes a blind spot.

Lurking under the surface of folk culture’s celebration of the past is a call not to international solidarity, equality, and brotherhood but to blood and soil nativism. This contradiction plagues the folk revivalist project, its songs and dances always endeavoring to reconcile the conflicting pull of history and locality with human unity.

In the current political climate it is worth pausing to reflect on how many ideas, assumptions, and institutions are indebted to the same patterns of thought as was Sharp. His ugly ideology rears its head as the mouthpiece of white supremacy when the majority feels under threat, from Paddy Tarleton’s noxious “Charlottesville Ballad (War is Coming)” to neo-Nazi investment in the mythology of Celtic music. To what degree, we should ask, can folk song escape this darker aspect of its intellectual heritage?


_______
<1> Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (London: Chatto & Windus, 1973), 35–6.
<2> Cecil J. Sharp, English Folk-Song: Some Conclusions (London: Simpkin & Co., 1907), 135–6.
<3> Dave Harker, Fakesong: The Manufacture of British “Folksong”, 1700 to the Present Day(Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1985), 175.
<4> Zeev Sternhell, Neither Right nor Left: Fascist Ideology in France, translated by David Maisel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 272.
<5> Zeev Sternhell with Mario Sznajder and Maia Asheri, The Birth of Fascist Ideology: From Cultural Rebellion to Political Revolution, translated by David Maisel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 3.
<6> Notable exceptions include Georgina Boyes, The Imagined Village: Culture, Ideology and the English Folk Revival (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993) and Daniel J. Walkowitz, City Folk: English Country Dance and the Politics of the Folk in Modern America (New York: New York University Press, 2010).

http://musicologynow.ams-net.org/2019/02/folk-music-and-fascism-divisive-history.html

Who are the General Rippers of higher education?

In an environment where universities are portrayed as “madrasas of the left”, music appears to be a safe haven. How could you politicise something as abstract and ethereal as the rules of harmony? Yet with the rise of so-called grievance studies and calls for decolonisation, some fear that music is at risk of succumbing to the radicals.

On Twitter, the Scottish composer James MacMillan recently complained about students having “to endure so much political mind control” in their university experience – something he regards as a “monumental waste of time” and “a monstrous intellectual imposition”. 

If Twitter is anything to go by, he is far from alone in holding these views. Comments reveal a surprising level of anger surrounding the pollution of higher education with pursuits such as critical race studies, feminism and queer theory that supposedly threaten its status as a disinterested place of learning.

I can’t help but think of the Cold War paranoia concerning infiltration, indoctrination and subversion so brilliantly satirised in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove by the figure of General Ripper, committed to defending “our precious bodily fluids” against an international communist conspiracy. 

The libertarian fear is uncannily similar: subversive tactics practised on a global scale that might turn freethinking people into what the online alt-right mocks through its non-player characters meme as liberal, close-minded sheep.

The argument that this faction relies on is that as academics we have a responsibility to teach all manner of opinions on any given issue, prizing impartial rigour over political sympathy. Who could possibly disagree? If you do, then you’re clearly not an academic, but an ideologue who belongs in an advocacy group rather than an ivory tower.

Well, up to a point. For all its outward commitment to liberty, this line of argument serves the opposite end. It runs up against what Karl Popper referred to as the paradox of tolerance: “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance.” In other words, if we are not prepared to defend political tolerance then it is at risk of disappearing under a rising tide of sanctioned intolerance. 

In certain circumstances, he argues, we must exercise a right to subdue hatred in order to preserve democracy. It follows that work supportive of racism, misogyny or homophobia must be challenged and suppressed if reasoned debate is rejected.

In this light, the ostensibly benevolent call for balanced and objective rigour begins to look a bit flimsy, much like the arguments about race and intelligence in The Bell Curve. In fact, it risks legitimising not diversity of opinion but the reverse – illiberalism and irrationality. 

We may even see it as a way of smuggling reactionary thinking into the academy under the camouflage of neutrality. This is precisely the tactic that Donald Trump uses to give credence to white supremacy, abusing the concept of equality to explain that there are “very fine people on both sides”. There is a bitter irony here that we would do well to name and resist.

We’ve come a long way from music, it seems. Or have we? Could the idea that music is simply a collection of notes on a page have a darker political undercurrent? 

Writing in 1993, the ethnomusicologist Philip V. Bohlman made a simple but profound claim: the act of viewing music as an autonomous, apolitical object of study – what he refers to as “essentialising” it – is the most dominant way music has been politicised. 

In consequence, musicology as a discipline is able to imagine itself into a world without politics – without music by women, by African Americans, by an array of colonised others across the globe throughout history. Although much has changed since the 1990s, what we have at present is still a largely segregated pedagogics of music drawn tacitly and thus all the more powerfully along lines of race, class, gender and empire. To avoid owning up to these shortcomings is to make a point about what matters in society at large.

There’s a bad faith in believing that scholarship and politics can be neatly uncoupled. Who, we might want to ask, are the General Rippers: those who, like Stuart Hall, aspire to understand and challenge injustice or those who resent the incursion of politics into something as pure as music? The answer, it seems to me, is obvious.

https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/who-are-general-rippers-higher-education

The Threat of the Popular

We live in an era of resurgent populism. Whether it’s grassroots Labour (with a web address www.peoplesmomentum.com), the nationalist demagoguery of Trump and Orbán, or the tabloid rhetoric of Brexit, ‘the people’ seem to have taken centre stage in a way not seen since the 1930s – the era of Roosevelt’s New Deal, an international Popular Front, and the establishment of fascist regimes.

What this cursory list indicates is that populism does not have a stable identity, but rather manifests itself across the political spectrum from left to right. Populism, in short, is a political project driven by or answerable to a vision of ‘the people’; but it’s precisely the impossibility of pinning down just who these people are that lends populism its mercurial – and hence disquieting – character. At times the people seem to be the smiling archetypes of socialist realism, at others an atavistic mob, faces at the barricades, middle England, or disciplined blackshirts. Populism represents a fight over who ‘the people’ are.

So what has music got to do with all this? Popular music studies was established as an academic field dedicated to asking why the study of music should be restricted to canonical scores written by a handful of European men. The possibilities it opened up were boundless: looking at how music was received, the imbrications of music and identity, music as a multimedia practice, recording technology, postcolonialism, feminism, race, the music industry, and so on.

We all have some idea of what ‘popular music’ is, but when pressed it becomes difficult to decide how to define or delineate it: is it down to the sheer quantifiable number of something (sheet music, records, downloads, clicks), or is it more about the habits and tastes of that enigmatic assembly ‘the people’? What happens as practices change over time? What about music across the globe?

These questions were at the heart of a Masters seminar I ran a couple of years ago. During our discussions we came to the conclusion that no coherent definition of popular music exists. This led me towards a new approach: what if, instead of formulating a theoretical definition, we trace how and why the term was employed? The result, an article entitled ‘Notes on Troubling “the Popular”’, has recently been published in the journal Popular Music – an affectionate nod to Stuart Hall’s classic essay ‘Notes on Deconstructing “the Popular”’.

Focusing on a crucial period from 1860 to 1920 in Britain, I show that the term fell into two broad categories of use: first, to identify and/or denigrate mass culture; and second, to establish a pathway for edification and to champion ideals of respectability. Rather than representing one facet of what Andreas Huyssen has termed the ‘Great Divide’ between high art and mass culture, popular music cuts across this discourse. The term, in other words, was not only employed to dismiss London’s music halls as ‘a desert of semi-lunatic trash’, but also to position the music of Beethoven, Handel, and Haydn as ‘a recreation and a solace’ in the face of industrialized modernity. These discourses, however, represent two sides of the same coin. The popular, I suggest, is thus a floating signifier with the potential to reference mutually opposing ideas.

Taking the popular seriously in the academy has always been a revisionist gesture, whether in the form of ‘history from below’, Birmingham school cultural studies, or popular music studies. In an ideal world we wouldn’t need the modifier ‘popular’ as an adjunct to the study of music, just as we wouldn’t need Stormzy’s Scholarship for Black UK Students as a corrective to generations of social and ethnic inequality. Just as ‘white’ disappears as an adjective because of its very normativity, pervasiveness, and power, so music as a subject has managed to silence the words that still haunt it: Western classical.

Now more than ever, as the phrase ‘the people’ is used to bolster undemocratic processes and tacitly exclude those who fall outside its remit, it is necessary to look again at our understanding of the popular, whatever guise it appears in.

https://musicatcambridge.wordpress.com/2018/10/19/ross-cole-on-the-threat-of-the-popular

Book Review: Popular Music Matters: Essays in Honour of Simon Frith

Given his role chairing the judges of the Mercury Prize and his transatlantic music criticism (published in magazines such as Rolling StoneMelody MakerCREEM, and the Village Voice, to name only a few) together with his seminal academic publications that began in the late 1970s and continue to this day, Simon Frith is arguably the defining popular musicologist of our era. Drawing together over twenty contributors from sociology and politics to film and television studies, this Festschrift is richly deserved.

Frith is, moreover, one of those rare thinkers in the academy whose writing transcends its disciplinary basis, harbouring the capacity to permeate and affect everyday life. Personally speaking, one sentence from his 1987 essay ‘Towards an Aesthetics of Popular Music’ has continued to resonate with me since I stumbled on it as an undergraduate: ‘youth is experienced…as an intense presence, through an impatience for time to pass and a regret that it is doing so, in a series of speeding, physically insistent moments that have nostalgia coded into them’. The prose, typically, is casual and yet ferociously incisive, more literary than academic. As Robert Christagu stresses in the Preface to Popular Music Matters, Frith ‘sticks to an obdurately English plainstyle’ (p. xiv) rooted in unobtrusive first-person reflection that sustains a unique rapprochement of journalistic panache and scholarly expertise: ‘his writing is quiet and unshowy, attracting attention with dry wit and the subtle crackle of ideas that come faster than his tone and syntax prepare you for’ (p. xv).

From Lee Marshall and Dave Laing’s Introduction we learn that Frith attended Oxford to read PPE between 1964 and 1967 – a period, coincidentally, bounded by the release of the Rolling Stones’ self-titled debut album and The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. After earning a doctorate in Sociology at UC Berkeley, Frith subsequently pursued a career in which he held posts in Sociology, Literature, Media, and Music, finally retiring from the Tovey Chair at the University of Edinburgh in 2013. Laing’s own chapter ‘A Double Life with Low Theory’ elaborates on Frith’s career as both scholar and critic. Particularly revealing in this regard is Peter Martin’s chapter ‘Rock and Role Playing’ (a phrase he declares to be a typo from Performing Rites, but is surely one of Frith’s most elegant puns, given his interest in theatricality). Martin traces the dual influence of Marxism and ‘symbolic interactionism’ on Frith, uncovering a confluence that underpins his output: first, the notion that changes in technology dialectically affect society and market forces; and second, ‘the idea that cultural objects – like all objects – are not inherently meaningful but, instead, acquire meanings through the dense network of social relationships in which they are inevitably nested’ (p. 117). A salient outcome of this orientation is Frith’s longstanding assertion that processes of aesthetic discrimination occur in the vernacular domain just as they do amongst other milieux.

Instrumental in the early days of both the International Association for the Study of Popular Music and the journal Popular Music, Frith is nevertheless adamant that popular music studies has never been a discipline in its own right, but rather an interdisciplinary conversation involving a necessary and illuminating intellectual promiscuity. Indeed, as Marshall and Laing note, Frith’s career (coterminous with the expansion of the field itself) demonstrates that ‘while “popular music studies” has certainly consolidated over the last decade or so, it remains a fairly fragmented area of study’ – a meeting ground underpinned by its ‘magpie nature’ (p. 2).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, such fragmentation is manifest in the book itself. Divided into sections respectively entitled ‘Sociology and Industry’, ‘Frith and His Career’, and ‘Aesthetics and Values’, contributions – elicited from scholars with a personal or professional connection to Frith – range from chapters on class, economics, rights, collecting, public policy, notation (by Philip Tagg), mediation (by Antoine Hennion), taste, songwriting, and Frith’s rock criticism, to shorter pieces on his editorship of the journal Screen, his involvement in the Mercury Prize, and his role as a PhD supervisor. In what must have been one of his last writings before his untimely death in 2013, Andrew Goodwin provides an especially affectionate Afterword.

The volume’s disciplinary fragmentation, however, testifies to a quiet crisis occurring in the field. More often than not, the individual chapters talk at cross-purposes or are simply divorced from one another in terms of outlook and methodology: what might seem on first reading to be wholesome multi-disciplinary breadth appears on closer inspection to represent disciplines struggling over contested territory, drawn together by the umbrella rubric ‘popular music’. This is less the fault of the editors than it is of something more troubling about how we, as scholars, interact and negotiate space when unreconciled epistemologies and disciplinary loyalties clash. Popular music studies is no longer a young field, yet there is still little sign of common ground or consensus. As different disciplines offer incongruent tools and literatures frequently alien to those without the requisite training, there appears to be a fundamental reluctance or inability to make connections between facets of that elusive thing ‘popular music’: text and sound (hermeneutics, aesthetics, poiesis), reception (signification, consumption, identity), and the culture industry (economics, rights, mediation).

The cover blurb’s claim that Popular Music Matters is an ‘essential resource for those working in popular music studies, as well as in musicology, sociology and cultural and media studies’ is somewhat overstated. Despite several chapters presenting rather outmoded or lackluster treatments of their subject, the book contains a handful of thoughtful and timely essays, such as Marshall’s ‘W(h)ither Now? Music Collecting in the Age of the Cloud’. This chapter provides a valuable reflection on record collecting grounded in Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘Unpacking my Library’ set in counterpoint with his more famous meditations on ‘aura’. We soon realize that a paradox lurks at the heart of Benjamin’s project: as a collector, he finds aura in his own mass produced copies of books. This realization leads Marshall into a discussion of ordering, accumulation, desire, scarcity, anticipation, materiality, and how such values are transformed or negated when we no longer have access to physical copies of music but rather to online services such as Spotify with an inconceivably vast array of tracks. The discussion would nevertheless have benefited from consideration of the politics of material acquisition more broadly (book ownership being one of those seductive pleasures of consumer capitalism that goes tacitly unchecked in academic life) and the recent rise in vinyl sales – indicating that we are, in fact, witnessing a renaissance in record collecting.

Another useful and timely chapter is ‘More than a Performance: Song Lyrics and the Practices of Songwriting’ by Pete Astor and Keith Negus, which broaches significant and as yet unresolved issues in the poetics of popular music. Rightly motivated by a longstanding musicological neglect of the lyric, their chapter seeks to point out the limitations of Frith’s contention that songs should be seen essentially as performances, suggesting that we must not allow this view to sanction a wholesale dismissal of textuality. Astor and Negus argue that more notice should hence be paid to the craft of songwriting, the ‘architectural’ structure of songs, issues surrounding personification, and the vexed question of biography. While laudable, such ideas could have been usefully enriched and extended with reference to recent work outside musicology by Joseph Roach, Jonathan Culler, and Timothy Hampton.

Notwithstanding these limitations, Popular Music Matters reads as a warm and fitting tribute to Frith. Ultimately, the volume begs an important question: what will the field look like when Frith is no longer an academic ringleader? Following the retirement of Richard Middleton, the study of popular music in Britain will surely head in new directions. We would do well to remember, as Martin Cloonan stresses in his chapter, that taking popular music seriously has always been a profoundly political gesture. It is high time, too, for musicology as a discipline to take popular music studies itself seriously. Frith’s congenial approach holds a key for the future of this endeavour: our task should not be that of disenchanting popular culture with historicism, empiricism, or ideology critique, but rather of comprehending it on its own peculiar terms.

https://academic.oup.com/ml/article-abstract/97/3/532/2623899

Book Review: Pioneers of the Blues Revival, by Steve Cushing

Readers unversed in blues history would be forgiven for taking Cushing’s eponymous pioneers to be African American musicians such as Bill Broonzy or Muddy Waters. Not so. Cushing’s book – an extensive compendium of interviews conducted between 2000 and 2011 – instead shifts focus to the groundbreaking work of blues enthusiasts and collectors active from the late 1950s to the present day. It will come as no surprise to those familiar with the 1960s revival that these seventeen figures happen to be white, male, and predominantly from the Northern US or Europe. In short, they are all outsiders to the culture they so passionately extolled and strove to document.

A striking cover photograph distills the relationship between such pioneers and those ‘revived’. The image captures Mississippi John Hurt (made infamous by recordings included on Harry Smith’s 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music) and Richard Spottswood in a woodland setting. A mere three years from death, Hurt stares impassively out of frame while thin fingers clutch an acoustic guitar; to his left sits Spottswood, youthful face smiling and quietly triumphant, bowed in reverence, his right hand oddly avuncular on Hurt’s shoulder. In an archetypal folkloric gesture, Hurt is transmuted into a noble anachronism, a precious and neglected relic, a soul embodying all that capitalist modernity is not. This tableau, moreover, calls up a convoluted history of asymmetric interaction that stretches back from John Lomax and Huddie Ledbetter to the love and theft of blackface minstrelsy.

Cushing’s contribution to the book is merely as interviewer: other than relatively short questions, his voice remains absent (we are not, for example, introduced to each figure, indicating that the book is aimed at connoisseurs). In his brief preface, Cushing highlights a worthy desire to ‘acknowledge and honor’ the work of white revivalists (or, to use Dave Harker’s now ubiquitous term, mediators), complaining of what he sees as a faddish academic penchant for disparaging their efforts (p. xxiii). For Cushing, such work was ‘selfless, honorable, and positive’ – revitalizing the careers of aging singers, making or reissuing rare recordings, generating financial rewards, and ultimately serving as ‘a second front in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement’ (p. xxiii). Despite the determinately anti-racist attitude of many revivalists, what Cushing misses here is what Frantz Fanon diagnosed as the ‘sickness’ of racialized veneration. Indeed, as a number of scholars have pointed out, revivalist obsessions with rural blues of the early twentieth century resulted in the perpetuation of docile and nostalgic black stereotypes wedded to the Jim Crow south, diverting attention away from social progress, hybridity, and contemporaneous political radicalism.

Pioneers of the Blues Revival opens with a short introduction by Barry Lee Pearson, whose stance is somewhat at odds with Cushing’s more eulogistic tone. Although lacking footnotes, this introduction provides a useful counterpoint to the personal recollections of interviewees. Pearson boldly proposes that ‘blues were never lost, and they did not need to be revived’ (p. xiii), seemingly undercutting the work of the very pioneers the book is dedicated to: instead, the genre simply morphed to suit changing needs. The revival, he argues, was spurred by a sense of retrieval stemming from ‘a misguided notion that blacks no longer supported blues, thus making it fair game for white appropriation’ (p. xiv). Such comments are difficult to square with his suggestion that by the end of the Depression era ‘many of the early wave of recording artists and their songs had gone decidedly out of fashion and were largely forgotten’ – surviving mainly on old 78s in junk shops, attics, and basements (p. xii). As the interviewees along with figures such as Joe Boyd demonstrate, revivalism clearly gained its adherents via the exhilarating sense of a culture being rediscovered and salvaged from obscurity.

Pearson is right, however, to point out that the history constructed by revivalists leaves much to be desired. Foremost, the revival produced a vision of blues indebted to a romantic imagination ‘driven by artifacts rather than a living culture’ (p. xvii) – those material reifications being the countless records that were compiled, collected, reissued, traded, documented, and produced by revivalists. Strangely, Pearson suggests that blues ultimately became a ‘less racialized form of global popular music’ in the process (p. xiii). A more convincing argument can be made in precisely the reverse direction, following Karl Hagstrom Miller’s Segregating Sound. Miller shows that blues was caught up in a process of cultural segregation that mirrored broader racialized demarcations.

As Pearson concludes, Pioneers of the Blues Revival provides a view of blues culture through the narrow lens of white collectors, with the necessary caution that ‘the revival’s participants were inclined to rewrite blues history according to their own values’ (p. xv) – most notably, ignoring black tastes and despising commercial success. Herein lies the unacknowledged crux of the book: who should be chosen to narrate the story of the blues? Pioneers of the Blues Revival is, quite simply, an oral history of a particular aspect of a diverse popular repertoire favoured by a small coterie of white fans. As evidence of their outlook and activities, the book is invaluable. Given that revivalists were guilty of misrepresenting key aspects of African American experience, however, we cannot take these interviews as a reliable history of black music. Historians and musicologists are notable by their absence: comments thus stand alone without the benefit of scholarly notes to gloss, cross-reference, or verify remarks, and the overall effect is an (albeit highly entertaining) exchange of anecdotes rather than a critical or coherent text.

In its favour, the book offers up captivating moments of retrospection and reflexivity on the part of revivalists, following the lead of Jeff Todd Titon. Charters, for instance, responds candidly to perceptions of Lonnie Johnson’s flair:

Johnson’s appeal was to an African American audience; his confidence, his stance as a successful performer was not the kind of profile we were looking for. The poète maudit, the Baudelaire, the starving poet – this was the white image of what we wanted blues singers to be. And we certainly didn’t want them to be successful and have long careers singing in lounges (p. 28).

Likewise, folklorist David Evans offers a reappraisal of his own fieldwork:

I think that in my book I exaggerated the isolation or amount of localism of the styles. As I’ve thought about it more over the years, I now feel that a lot of these artists were more itinerant and more influenced by outside sources – especially records – than I might have estimated at the time (p. 302).

Similarly revealing are Spottswood’s reflections on a highly gendered drive for aesthetic validation underlying the revival itself:

[Blues] had as much to do with rock ’n’ roll as with the folk revival. All of a sudden when Robert Johnson and Charley Patton and those old people became chic, the guitar had become rock’s emblematic instrument. It had more to do with old voice-and-guitar guys than it did with the people I had previously thought as more important – especially the women – Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Ida Cox, blues matriarchs in the pre-rock era (p. 228).

As a resource collating the memories and photographs of influential figures such as Oliver and bandleader Chris Barber alongside a transatlantic host of lesser-known names from record producer Chris Strachwitz to Blues Unlimited critic John Broven, Pioneers of the Blues Revival is a unique book that will prove a worthy addition to any blues lover’s shelf. As a historiographical caveat, every chapter should nevertheless be read with Charters’ apposite observation in mind:

Robert Johnson’s records sold maybe 275 copies, and he was of no importance in the black community at all. But now that we have redone the history of the blues, there he is. We say many times, ‘we can’t change the past, but it’s the future we can control’. I keep saying it’s the exact opposite: we have no control over the future, but we can do what we want with the past (p. 46).

https://academic.oup.com/ml/article-abstract/96/4/679/2384988