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).