Guest Post by Dr. Adam Gussow: What to Make of a Diminished Thing: The Blues Foundation, the Blues Hall of Fame, and “Classics of Blues Literature”
We have been living, these past several years, through a period of heightened attention to issues of racial justice. In the political sphere this has taken the form of attention to felt (and in many cases demonstrable) disparities in how blacks and whites are policed, judged, imprisoned, and executed. In the cultural sphere, issues of racial representation and appropriation have been foregrounded—most recently in the #Oscarsowhite campaign, but also, as I discussed in my previous note, in our contemporary blues world. A rift has opened up between the triumphalist transracial universalism represented by the Blues Foundation, with its Blues Music Awards and International Blues Challenge, and, on the other side, a cohort of African American musicians, including Corey Harris, Deitra Farr, and Sugar Blue, who have vigorously contested what feels to them like an encroaching hegemonic whiteness, one that threatens not just the livelihoods of contemporary black blues performers—in the form of lost club and festival bookings, unjust awards ceremonies, and the like—but the core values of a traditionally African American cultural form.
We are fighting, in some profound sense, about who owns the blues. We are debating the meaning of an African American, and American, cultural inheritance. We are arbitrating not just the perennial question of who plays the music well, but of who gets to decide who plays the music well—i.e, of whether the gatekeeper function is being handled equitably and with sufficient cultural competence by the white majority. At one polemical extreme, some are wondering whether whites should be playing, judging, and profiting from the blues at all, given the profound and acknowledged racial disparities that governed the Jim Crow world in which the blues were born and nourished for many decades.
These are troubling, destabilizing questions. Yet is entirely possible, if one prefers, to sweep them under the rug and bask in the glow of a job well done. One enters that world, a contemporary blues world of euphoric transracial conviviality, the moment one opens the program for the Thirty-Sixth Blues Music Awards and Blues Hall of Fame Grand Opening, which occurred on May 7-8, 2015. Paging through that program as I did for the first time last night, feasting one’s eyes on the colorful ads for record labels (Alligator, Delta Groove, Malaco, Vizztone), tourism destinations (Mississippi, Memphis, the Big Blues Bender in Las Vegas), magazines (Living Blues, Big City Rhythm & Blues), booking agencies, and a rainbow coalition of individual artists, one can’t help but be astonished at the vitality of our subculture. There is a lot of money flowing here, a lot of juice, a lot of hopes and dreams. And that’s a good thing, I think.
The brand-new Blues Hall of Fame, in particular, seems like a great thing. It was good to be reminded on p. 25 by Jim O’Neal—a blues scholar’s blues scholar—just who the first 20 inductees into the Hall were back in 1980: a canonical list of African American legends, all irreplaceable. The list, in order of votes received, began with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, B. B. King, Elmore James, and Robert Johnson, and continued with Little Walter, Bessie Smith, T-Bone Walker, Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2, and John Lee Hooker. The list trends a little too heavily towards men for my taste—Memphis Minnie is the only other female performer to make the Top 20; Ma Rainey wasn’t elected until 1983—but otherwise it seems clear that the group of blues journalists, historians, and industry insiders who made those selections, the great majority of them surely the white men who dominated (and still dominate) those specialized trades, pretty much aced their assignment.
Then I arrived at the page marked “Classics of Blues Literature,” a list inaugurated in 1982 with the selection of Living Blues, Blues Unlimited, and Blues & Gospel Records 1902-1942 by Godrich and Dixon. And I was aghast. I wasn’t aghast at the decision to honor those two magazines and the blues discographer’s Bible–all three are surely deserving–but at how the Blues Foundation’s gatekeepers had fleshed out this category over the past 33 years.
Let me be clear: I own 29 of the 36 books on the list; I admire them, refer to them frequently in my own research, push grad students in their direction, and teach several of them from time to time. The scholars whose work is represented on the list, including Paul Oliver, Peter Guralnick, David Evans, Charles Keil, and Bill Ferris, are legends for a good reason. I’ve invited them to conferences, served on panels with them. Evans and Ferris are my mentors. I don’t have a white-man problem. I like white men! Some of us do good and important work.
My problem isn’t with who is on the list—although one might argue, perhaps, that Guralnick, with four books, and Oliver, with three, are over-represented. My problem is with who, and what, is not there. The moment I began meditating on that question, the list began to look not just creaky and quirky, but intellectually dishonest and profoundly unjust. But perhaps the phrase “intellectually dishonest” is too harsh. Perhaps the various Blues Foundation committee members who have voted on Classics of Blues Literature for the past 33 years just don’t know the full extent of the blues literary tradition, and therefore have no idea how unrepresentative and inadequate their list looks to somebody who does.
This state of affairs suggests that I need to engage in some emergency blues education: right here, right now.
For the past seventeen years—first at the New School and Vassar College, then for more than a decade at the University of Mississippi—I’ve been teaching undergraduate and graduate versions of a course called “The Blues Tradition in American Literature.” I’m teaching it for the eleventh time, in fact, this spring. I’ve tweaked the syllabus in various ways from year to year, as professors do to keep things interesting, but over time I’ve settled on a core set of texts—a canon of greatest hits, so to speak, that I’m quite sure my colleagues in the field, especially those familiar with the African American literary and intellectual tradition, would acknowledge as classics of blues literature.
But here’s the thing: none of the authors on my syllabus—with one exception, August Wilson—shows up in the Blues Hall of Fame registry. You might assume, as a result, that the Blues Foundation’s judges and I have two entirely different ideas about what constitutes blues literature. This isn’t entirely true. Their list includes autobiographies by Big Bill Broonzy and David Honeyboy Edwards that I’ve taught in other contexts, along with Willie Dixon’s I Am the Blues (1989), and it includes LeRoi Jones’s important early study, Blues People. But except for Wilson’s play, Seven Guitars, their list ignores what might be called the belletristic side of blues literature: the poems, stories, novels, plays, and critical essays about the blues by African American writers and intellectuals. It ignores three landmark books on women’s blues written by female scholars: Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey (1983) by Sandra Lieb, Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s (1988) by Daphne Duval Harrison, and Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (1997) by Angela Y. Davis. Rendering all of this important material invisible, the Blues Hall of Fame’s list trends instead very heavily in the direction of blues histories, biographies of famous bluesmen, and studies of regional traditions: the things that the white guys know well and prefer to talk about.
I admire my cohort, I really do. But we can and must do better than this. So here, as a public service, is a quick run-through of my syllabus. And remember: with the lone exception of August Wilson, none of the writers I mention below–not a single one–has been honored with a spot in the Blues Hall of Fame’s Classics of Blues Literature.
My students and I spend the first two weeks of the term defining the blues with the help of selections by Steven C. Tracy, Kalamu ya Salaam, and Barry Lee Pearson. Then we read Father of the Blues (1941), the foundational blues autobiography by W. C. Handy, author of “Memphis Blues,” “St. Louis Blues,” and Blues: An Anthology (1926). Handy is the first member of a triumvirate that I term “the three H’s”: Handy, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston, three questing members of the African American intelligentsia who immersed themselves in the vernacular music and culture of black folk during the first three decades of the Twentieth Century and returned from their travels with material that anchors a great tradition.
Hughes is the most important blues poet America has produced. It was Hughes, in “The Weary Blues” (1925) and then in the poems of Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), who first transformed the “humble blues lyric” (Ralph Ellison’s term) into literary art, dividing each line of the three-line AAB stanza into two parts to create stacked six-line verses. Steven C. Tracy’s Langston Hughes and the Blues (1988) remains the definitive study of Hughes’s sources and methods; also invaluable is Sherley Anne Williams’s essay, “The Blues Roots of Contemporary Afro-American Poetry” (1977). Hughes inaugurates a three-week section on blues poetry, one in which my students and I survey poets like Sterling Brown (whose volume Southern Road (1932) makes him as central an early figure as Hughes), Robert Hayden, Sterling Plumpp, Sherley Anne Williams, Eugene Redmond, Wanda Coleman, Sonia Sanchez, Etheridge Knight, Ishmael Reed, and Jayne Cortez. We spend more time on Plumpp than the others, in part because he’s a native Mississippian and in part because, as a longtime Chicagoan, he fraternizes with blues musicians and writes blues songs that they record. In books like Blues: The Story Always Untold (1989) and Home/Bass (2013), in poems like “Mississippi Griot,” “Bessie Smith,” “Robert Johnson,” and “Muddy Waters,” he crafts an absolutely distinctive, broken-line voice, one that interfuses muddy river currents and echoes of old lynchings.
Our guide to the blues poets of the Black Arts Movement is Larry Neal, whose handful of expansive, celebratory essays on blues literature, culture, and music, including “Any Day Now: Black Art and Black Liberation” (1969) and the poems of Hoodoo Hollerin’ Bebop Ghosts (1974), make him a latter-day griot of the blues intellectual tradition, the Afrocentric counterpart to his better-known and more integrationist predecessors, Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray. (In the graduate version of my course we sometimes read Ellison’s “Richard Wright’s Blues” (1945) and the introduction to Murray’s Stomping the Blues (1976), along with Brown’s important early essay, “The Blues as Folk Poetry” (1930)) Where Neal speaks about the blues in an orphic, epic voice, passionately defending the music against Maulana (Ron) Karenga’s infamous claim that the blues were “invalid” in a time of revolutionary change, Davis’s Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (1998) adds gender and sexuality to the conversation, helping my students appreciate the way in which the blues queens of the 1920s navigated the respectability politics of the day by living and singing their freedom in edgy, bodacious ways.
The next segment, “Blueswomen and Their Men, Bluesmen and Their Women,” brings us to America’s greatest blues playwright, August Wilson, and his explosive Broadway debut, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984). (Here the Blues Foundation did get it right, although I think Ma Rainey is more teachable than Seven Guitars.) Set in a Chicago recording studio in 1927, Wilson’s play has it all: an aging southern blues queen determined not to be exploited, a white manager determined to control her, a white record exec determined to profit from her, a traumatized and hotheaded young Mississippi trumpeter named Levee whose raging heart ultimately bursts into murderous violence, and a trio of black bandsmen trying to survive the gig. Wilson’s autobiographical “Preface to Three Plays” (1991) shows us Wilson’s birth moment as a blues literary artist, transfigured by his first encounter with Bessie Smith’s 78 rpm recording, “Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine” (1923), and his determination to represent a northern black blues community “at crucial odds with the larger [white] world that contained it and preyed and pressed it from every conceivable angle.”
Hurston is next. Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) is one of a handful of important early blues novels, along with Hughes’s Not Without Laughter (1930), Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem (1928), and Howard Odum’s Rainbow Round My Shoulder: The Blue Trail of Black Ulysses (1928). It features a freeborn young African American protagonist, granddaughter of a slave and the product of rape, who is determined to live out her freedom on the unexpectedly promising terrain of rural Florida in the 1920s. Her savior is a rough-and-tumble blues guitarist/pianist named Tea Cake, a decade her junior, who takes her down onto the agricultural “muck” near Lake Okeechobee, loving her up but also, when his jealousy is roused, beating her. It is hard to overstate Hurston’s importance to the blues literary tradition: she journeyed into the rollicking juke joints of Polk County–no white folklorist had ever done so–and rendered her experience not just as fiction in Their Eyes, but as autobiography in Dust Tracks on a Road (1942) and participant/observer anthropology in Mules and Men (1935) and “The Jook” (1934). Regardless of the genre, she melds her observational gifts with a novelist’s compassion and an advocate’s determination to render her black subjects as self-determined individuals rather than comic stereotypes.
On some syllabi I’ve followed up Their Eyes with Arthur Flowers’s novel, Another Good Loving Blues (1994); Flowers signifies on Hurston’s novel by putting his Memphis-born blues-playing protagonist, Lucas Bodeen, into a troubled love relationshiship with a conjure woman named Melvira Dupree. Flowers, a professor of creative writing at Syracuse, is himself a hoodoo practitioner and contemporary griot; his underappreciated masterwork remains Mojo Rising: Confessions of a 21st Century Conjureman (2001). Also easily paired with Hurston is J. J. Phillips’s Mojo Hand: An Orphic Tale (1966), a novel inspired by the young Phillips’s affair with an older Lightnin’ Hopkins. In the figure of Blacksnake Brown, Phillips brilliantly evokes Hopkins’s gruff charisma, his mixture of wit, resignation, and fierce possessiveness, along with the shaman’s powers he wields as a guitarist in the juke joints.
Next on the syllabus is B. B. King’s autobiography, Blues All Around Me (1996). Given King’s unmatched stature in the contemporary blues world, the Blues Hall of Fame’s omission of both his life story and Charles Sawyer’s authorized biography, The Arrival of B. B. King (1980), from their shelf of classics is hard to explain. My students and I read King for many reasons: the singular tale of uplift that took him from the Delta’s cottonfields and sanctified churches to far-flung world stages; his passionate quest to create a modern guitar and vocal style by blending influences as diverse as Blind Lemon Jefferson, T. Bone Walker, Django Reinhardt, and Arthur Godfrey; his insistence on bearing witness to the racial violence that swirled around him as a boy and young man while keeping his eye on the prize of mainstream success; and, not least, the way in which he navigated the transformations of America’s blues scene during the 1960s, a period that saw his black youth audience dissolve even as he was suddenly embraced by white “flower children.”
The final section of my syllabus, entitled “Blacks, Whites, and Blues,” begins with a classic of white blues autobiography, Michael Bloomfield’s brief, resonant memoir Me and Big Joe (1980), the story of a white Chicago blues musician’s awkward and revealing partnership with his mentor and elder, Big Joe Williams. In love with Big Joe’s sound, determined to deepen his relationship with the man and his music, Bloomfield and a friend jump in a car with Williams and spend a lost weekend careening around East St. Louis’s burned-out ghetto streets and apartments, trying to track down “famous blues musicians” like Kokomo Arnold and Jazz Gillum. The weekend is an epic fail in some respects–it quickly morphs from playful hijinks into fear, drunkenness, squalor, nausea, and violence–but it teaches Bloomfield something crucially important about the distance that separates his own romance with blues music from Big Joe’s hard and angry blues life: a key moment of enlightenment in the ongoing conversation about white blues and black blues.
I fill out the remainder of the course with a range of texts, including Ben Caldwell’s angrily satirical one-act play, “Birth of a Blues” (1989), which features a clueless white TV journalist interviewing a wiley older black bluesman who, as an act of conscious rebellion, refutes every single blues cliche the journalist throws on him. In my graduate class we read Walter Mosley’s RL’s Dream (1996), a novel about a late-life attempt by one of Robert Johnson’s Delta peers now living in contemporary Manhattan, Atwater “Soupspoon” Wise, to assemble the shards of his past, reclaim his pride, and make a fresh start as a performer in the final few months of his life. Wise’s foil is Kiki Waters, an alcoholic white girl from Alabama, also marooned in New York, who helps bring Wise back from near-death by cancer and, with his help, confronts the ghosts of her own traumatic southern past. The novel offers us white and black blues people, a community of fellow sufferers, gifting each other with compassionate attention.
Which brings me, once again, to the point of this whole exercise. Classics of blues literature are a wonderful thing to be honoring; the blues books that have served scholars and richly rewarded general readers over the decades clearly deserve a place in the new Blues Hall of Fame. But the Blues Foundation and whatever advisory panels they’ve used to make their selections over the past 33 years have failed badly, in my opinion. By any objective measure they haven’t honored the full spectrum of works that dwell within the category they claim to be celebrating. They have ignored significant scholarly works by female scholars, black and white; with the token exception of August Wilson, they have essentially ignored the entire world of African American blues literature, properly conceived, including the canonical figures of Hughes (poetry), Handy (autobiography), and Hurston (novel); and they have refused, with the exception of LeRoi Jones, to acknowledge the rich black intellectual tradition of commentary on the blues–Sterling Brown, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Kalamu ya Salaam, Sherley Anne Williams, James M. Cone, and Jon Michael Spencer, among others.
The current Classics of Blues Literature roster in the Blues Hall of Fame, in a word, is unjust.
This won’t do. As a blues scholar, memoirist, and performer, I greatly value diversity. The polyglot postmodern blues world that we all live in right now has blessed me with the chance to live out my own passionate investments in the music and culture. Just as I don’t appreciate it when people seek to diminish or invalidate my own lived investment in the blues by casting aspersions on my whiteness, so am I dismayed when intellectual honesty forces me to admit that the Blues Foundation, a key center of blues institutional life, has ended up–at least in this particular case–with a profoundly exclusionary outcome, one that favors the white guys at the expense of pretty much everybody else.
It’s time to acknowledge and redress this error. I’m not interested in creating guilty feelings or rancor. I’m interested in encouraging principled action governed by the best available intelligence. I urge the new President of the Blues Foundation, Barbara B. Newman, to appoint a special advisory panel charged with the task of updating the Classics of Blues Literature roster over the next half decade in a way that will enable it at last to fulfill its stated purpose of honoring the best blues-focused, blues-themed books in the world, the books that count and that have endured. And I urge you, whoever you are, to contact Ms. Newman if you agree with me that an update is long overdue. To kick-start this process, I’m offering two lists below.
The first is a selection of books, most of which I’ve mentioned above, that strike me as low-hanging fruit: works that long ago earned their right onto any short list of blues literary classics.
The second list are sixteen people–scholars and writers of great merit, intimately conversant with the literature and culture of the blues–who would make excellent candidates for the special advisory panel I have in mind. This is merely a first pass; there are many other good candidates for such a panel.
(Both lists are organized impressionistically, not alphabetically or in order of importance.)
List 1: Classics of Blues Literature
W. C. Handy, Father of the Blues
Langston Hughes, The Weary Blues and Fine Clothes to the Jew
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Sterling Brown, Southern Road
Albert Murray, Stomping the Blues
James M. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues
Daphne Duval Harrison, Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s
Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday
Sterling Plumpp, Blues: The Story Always Untold
J. J. Phillips, Mojo Hand: An Orphic Tale
Jon Michael Spencer, Blues and Evil
Houston A. Baker, Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory
Arthur Flowers, Another Good Loving Blues
Steven C. Tracy, Langston Hughes and the Blues
———–, Write Me a Few of Your Lines: A Blues Reader
Sherley Anne Williams, Someone Sweet Angel Chile
Clarence Major, Dirty Bird Blues
Walter Mosley, R.L.’s Dream
Larry Neal, Visions of a Liberated Future: Black Arts Movement Writings
List 2: possible members of a special advisory board for Classics of Blues Literature
Daphne Duval Harrison
Patricia R. Schroeder
Cheryl A. Wall
Steven C. Tracy
Joanne V. Gabbin
Barry Lee Pearson
Bernard W. Bell