The story of the blues

You’ve got to love Jack White. He’s going through with his plan – definitely file under “labour of love” – to release on vinyl through his Third Man label the records by Charley Patten, the Mississippi Sheiks, and Blind Willie McTell on the blues label Document Records. He expects to lose money on it, but he doesn’t care. In a long feature in the Guardian that might as well be a hymn of praise to the early bluesmen, he says:

“Some people might go out and buy a Ferrari or something, but I would rather spend my time and energy in releasing these records. If only a thousand people get something out of them, it’s still something that makes me and the people here feel excited, because they know the power of this music.”

In the article, he gives the journalist, Dave Simpson, his potted history of how these early recordings emerged from a clutch of different trends (and as a futurist, I like these kinds of trends stories too):

White is still in awe of the process by which events came together in America’s deep south to create the blues. There was the Great Depression, the technology of recording music and the fact that furniture makers had started making record players, and needed something people could play on them. So they started recording the poor black singer-guitarists that were emerging in the Mississippi Delta. “Something magical just occurred to create a moment in history that changed the world.”

White, though, is more interested in the cultural history – he argues that in that moment of recorded history, for the first time, the songs that individuals had written from their own experience were recorded and therefore available to people outside of their immediate world. It’s not quite right – for example the early recorded material of some of the English music hall performers was similarly personal and rooted – but it still represents an interesting tradition, and also a different perspective on the way in which blues and rock music, obviously deeply rooted in the idea that we share personal stories about the world, has changed our cultural ways of telling.

And I also liked his rationale for going back to these first recordings:

“It’s important to go back and cleanse your palate. If you like punk rock now, there were people who did this with way more things against them than a suburban kid who goes to a guitar shop or someone buys him one and he starts singing punk songs. There’s beauty in that, too, but to be black and Southern in 1920 and have no rights … that exemplifies struggle.”

Cleansing your palate. In our too-knowing post post-modern era, when (as Umberto Eco said) media has genealogy but no memory it’s important to strip away the layers of interpretation and irony and try to listen as if for the first time.

The picture at the top of this post is the cover of the first of Third Man’s Charley Patten releases, and is used with thanks.


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