Write Me A Few Of Your Lines: A Blues Reader.
Many scholars and serious music fans will have heard or read of the classic articles in blues studies originally published between 1911 and 1998 and anthologized in the recently published Write Me A Few Of Your Lines; just as probably, few will actually have read them. Editor Steven Tracy has done the field a tremendous service by gathering together forty-nine often seminal and always influential writings, binding between two covers an anthology of articles impressive in both its range and depth.
Write Me A Few Of Your Lines is probably not for the casual blues fan, as there is little here of a celebratory nature. What is contained in this thoughtfully selected and carefully edited volume is often serious stuff for people who want to understand and discuss the blues from the same rigorous perspectives that are used to study the world's other "folk" musics. Not that the often excellent fan-published blues journals aren't represented: Included are "Juke Boy's Blues" (Blues Unlimited's evocative 1974 portrait of Houston bluesman Juke Boy Bonner) and "Blues as a Secular Religion" (Blues World, 1970). Heavily sampled is Living Blues, including "The Blues Harp (Parts One and Two)," a segment from its 1977 "Interview: Eddie Boyd," the original insights of "The Social Context of Black Swan Records," and selections from the magazine's still informative series of articles concerning African musical influences on the blues from the early seventies, gleaned from the magazine's salad days.
Formal blues studies are often said to have started with Howard Odom's 1911 publication of "Folk-Song and Folk-Poetry as Found in the Secular Songs of the Southern Negroes" in the Journal of American Folklore. It is still jarring to realize that prior to that date few thought African Americans had unique contributions to make to American culture. Odom's article didn't open a floodgate, however, and Write Me A Few Of Your Lines includes few other writings composed prior to World War II. The only other article of hard blues studies included from the pre-war period is Guy Johnson's 1927 "Double Meaning in the Popular Negro Blues." Equally as groundbreaking as Odom, Johnson was one of the few scholars of the period to see artistic and cultural worth in the music of the black laboring class (excepting John and Alan Lomax's staggering work for the Library of Congress and other all-too-rare efforts like Zora Neale Hurston's early ethnographic work under the tutelage of anthropological godfather Franz Boas). Other p re-war writings in this volume include Carl Van Vechten's 1926 account of his foray up to Harlem to see Bessie Smith ("Negro 'Blues' Singers") and 1943's Chicago Defender evocative portrait of blues giant Memphis Minnie performing at a New Year's Eve party for an audience that included the article's author, Langston Hughes ("Happy New Year! With Memphis Minnie").
The bulk of the remaining articles date from the 1960s blues revival and beyond. Most of the well-known names in blues studies make appearances, many of them through their most well-known or informative work. Richard Alan Waterman, Paul Oliver, and Alan Lomax were among the first to offer in-depth ethnography of the blues culture, and each is represented by articles discussing (and at times energetically debating) those characteristics of the blues which trace their roots to Africa. Following in their footsteps have been many others whose contributions have been just as worthwhile. David Evans is probably the finest pure academic in the field; Folk and Popular Blues is excerpted from his Big Road Blues, one of the most insightful, thoroughly researched, and significant books about the blues ever published. Urban Blues was the first book-length attempt to approach blues in performance as social ritual, and author Charles Keil's "Role and Response" explores the sometimes overdone but nonetheless worthwhile com parisons between the bluesman and the preacher. A more in-depth look at blues theology (thirty pages) is found in "The Blues, A Secular Spiritual," taken from James Cone's The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation, one of the first books to place blues theology outside a traditional Christian context.
Other outstanding works include outings by prestigious blues scholars Paul Garon, Lawrence Hoffman, Stephen Calt and Gayle Dean Wardlow, Mike Leadbitter, Barry Lee Pearson, Samuel Charters, and Jeff Todd Titon. Coming from farther afield, including the fields of social studies, literary criticism, and creative writing are the likes of LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka), Houston Baker, Sterling Brown, James Baldwin, S. I. Hayakawa, Sherley A. Williams, Martin Williams, and Angela Y. Davis. The sampling from Davis's recent and well received Blues Legacies and Black Feminism joins a growing list of studies bringing a focus on female artists and gender issues to the understanding of an art form often thought of as masculine.
While an excellent book, Write Me A Few Of Your Lines suffers from the constraint of page limitation, and Tracy's own introduction laments the material that he wanted to include but couldn't. The book is certainly lengthy at over 600 pages, but it is also unfortunate that some of the chosen articles are truncated. Substantial editing of articles or chapters down to a few pages sometimes robs an argument of its complexity and texture (among those discussed above, Keil's and Evans's contributions are unfortunately brief).
Steven Tracy's achievements in balancing the myriad external parameters set for a book of this type deserve praise, however, and Write Me A Few Of Your Lines will help form a historically, theoretically, methodologically, and ethnographically sound base line for many blues libraries.
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|Author:||Aschoff, Peter R.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2001|
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