Then, from a rear pew in the parlor, I overheard two elderly Mississippi Delta natives commiserating on their dying generation. “Too many gray heads around here, too many,” one of them muttered. “One of these days, there won’t be none of us left.” As they talked, I realized their wistful conversation was the germ of a neglected story. For years, music writers and historians have fretted over the diminishing legion of elderly blues musicians, warning of the music’s fading heritage. But the experts’ obsession with artists alone has long shunted aside the seminal role that their original audience of Delta transplants played in nurturing the city’s blues music.
The blues-loving African Americans who streamed north to Chicago before and after World War II were, indeed, crucial in the development of that city’s world-famous strain of electrified R&B. They demanded louder music, partly because their noisy rent parties and clubs required amplification unnecessary in the Delta’s hushed, isolated jukes. Electric instruments that were rare in Mississippi were easier found in Chicago’s myriad music stores. And audiences whose tastes expanded to the blaring big bands of Count Basie and jump bands of Louis Jordan no longer had patience for the quieter acoustic blues of an older generation–just as today’s rap fans snicker at 1960s soul music as tame and pass.
We’re so accustomed to thinking of art as something that emerges from a creator’s inner muse that we often overlook the critical interaction between artist and audience. While the growth of Napster has lately been hailed as the liberation of music consumers, still forgotten is the fact that record buyers have long exercised a subtle but enormous sway over their favorite musicians, influencing the songs they played and the styles they adopted. The recognition that the audience is no less important than the performers themselves in sustaining a musical movement is what lies at the heart of two new books: Elijah Wald’s revisionist blues history, Escaping the Delta and critic Geoffrey O’Brien’s collection of essays, Sonata For Jukebox.
In Escaping the Delta, musician and blues academic Wald gives powerful evidence of the impact that the Mississippi Delta blues audience had on its premiere early musicians. Although the book concentrates almost exclusively on blues, it digs deep into the symbiotic tug of war between musicians and their listeners–and rap critics and historians who lazily buy the premise that artists are top dog in that relationship. Wald describes how white scholars and blues buffs who constructed the legend of short-lived but influential Delta bluesman Robert Johnson got both his art and his influences all wrong. For years, blues historians used Johnson’s handful of recordings to pigeonhole him as a doomed noble savage, insisting his stark, poetic songs–long seen as a wellspring for Chicago blues and, ultimately, rock and roll–were derived only from his unique talent and his immediate Mississippi roots.
But Johnson was anything but isolated from the world around him, and, as Wald shows, he was an inveterate crowd pleaser and a keen student of both black and white strains of popular music that could be heard by anyone with a cheap radio. Wald uses interviews with some of Johnson’s surviving contemporaries and mines social research dating back to the 1930s and 1940s to show that Johnson regularly played popular swing ditties for both black and white audiences, ranging from “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” to “My Blue Heaven” to “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.” “The people who were buying blues records,” Wald writes, “were not spending their hard-earned cash to hear the same stuff they heard or sang during their workdays in the fields.” Wald lists recordings found on old jukeboxes in several Mississippi juke joints from 1941 (three years after Johnson died), that portray locals listening not only to popular blues artists like Bill Broonzy and Walter Davis, but also to white big bandleaders Glenn Miller and Sammy Kaye, crooners like The Ink Spots and the 4 Clefs, and jazz artists like Earl Hines and Art Tatum. Even Muddy Waters, who would become the patriarch of Chicago blues and idol to the Rolling Stones, blithely told musicologist Alan Lomax in 1941 that his repertoire at the time included Gene Autry, C&W yodels, and swing standards “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and “Red Sails in the Sunset.”
While Wald looks at his 1930s Delta blues audience from a distance, using old documents and interviews to detail their influence over wandering minstrels like Johnson, essayist Geoffrey O’Brien goes inside in Sonata For Jukebox, trying to capture the intimate experience of listening to music. A writer for The New York Review of Books and the son of a New York disc jockey, O’Brien uses a succession of vignettes–some observed, some apparently fictional–to depict different audiences tuning to and living with music. He aims to capture the elusive moment when a song takes over a listener and then chart its staying power, its ability to burrow inside and re-emerge months, years, decades later, evoking lost youth, churning middle-age, even bittersweet senior years. “The question of what exactly we remember when we listen to old recordings, or whether it can be called remembering at all, becomes less and less answerable over a lifetime,” he writes. Those “recollections of first encounters,” he posits, become “private legends,” endlessly provoked by a “particular piece of music, a particular phrase, a particular catch in the throat.”
The point, O’Brien explains, is “to describe some aspects of how lives are lived in the presence–and the memory of the presence–of music.” It’s a daring, difficult conceit because, of course, each person’s reaction to music is different. If we all responded to music the same way, everyone on earth would own the Eagles Greatest Hits. O’Brien can only dig into himself for inspiration, taking his innermost musings and attempting to make them come alive for his readers. For his essays to work, his readers must, to some degree, feel the way that he feels about particular compositions. But if his reactions are confused, the connection with the reader sparks out. Like an eagerly anticipated CD that turns out to have an equal share of classics and duds, O’Brien’s collection only occasionally hits the mark.
He divides his 15 essays into three sections, “Exposition,” “Development,” and “Recapitulation.” The ones that leave the most lasting impression are in the first section. They are grounded in real life, in the private shards of O’Brien’s own family, and their power rests in the real lives they evoke through the strains of 20th-century popular music. For example, in “Wyoming Valley’s Most Famous Band,” O’Brien tells the story of his grandfather, Bob Owens, a bandleader who in the 1930s traveled the Pennsylvania mining hinterlands heading a unit of 10 swing musicians known as the Rainbow Club Orchestra. O’Brien builds a poignant, knowing portrait from old photographs and musty snatches of sheet music classics like “Sweet Sue.” He reminds us that Owens and the hardened miners who danced to his band’s standards were ones that propelled Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller and their swing revolution. O’Brien’s triumph is bringing that audience alive again–showing how music intertwines with the fabric of downtrodden people’s lives. The essay is a perfect-pitch ode to a forgotten relative’s buried world.
In the “Development” section, O’Brien describes the early 1960s radio landscape that his father encountered as a DJ. This is the pre-Beatles American expanse of “vulgar fun,” where the “Peppermint Twist” and shallow Brill Building pop “are what people’s lives are dressed in.” But as O’Brien flashes back and forth between his father’s recreated world and his own child’s-eye reminiscences, he often slips into stereotypes. American life then was a cartoon, he writes, replete with “oversized hilariousness, huge grotesqueness.” He mentions MAD magazine, Jerry Lewis, “big breasted blondes.” It is an easy approximation of the 1960s torn from television listings, but it has none of the vivid secret life of his grandfather’s band circuit or his dad’s broadcasts. And he fails to use the era’s musical chaff as counterpoint to the underworld that those bright tunes ignored–the gathering discord over civil rights, the Kennedy assassination and its contagion of violence, the swamp of Vietnam.
By “Recapitulation,” O’Brien’s approach grows ponderous. Typical are two essays called “Central Park West,” both based on jazz tenor sax prophet John Coltrane’s elegiac tribute to an Upper West Side warren of apartments and shops. O’Brien tries to weave a portrait of an alternate, personal New York, using Coltrane’s ballad as starting point. But instead of the densely-rendered worlds of O’Brien’s father and grandfather, we get a stylized, static world full of imaginary characters whose internal lives are never fleshed out.
Still, though not every essay works, the best are able to convey some aspect of what it is like to be swept away by the soundtrack of American life. In doing so, O’Brien, like Wald, implicitly debunks music historians’ glib adaptation of Thomas Carlyle’s “Great Man” theory–that great music is solely the product of great men. Both Wald and O’Brien remind us of the importance of the synergy between the performers and their audiences. “It is all about the audience,” Wald writes toward the end of his book. “Because all of those artists–like almost any artists, anywhere, anytime–did their greatest work when they were performing regularly for audiences that understood them and demanded their greatest work.”
In a coda near the end of his book, O’Brien summons up a grace note to impart the symbiotic relationship between musician and listener, evoking both the lasting power of a remembered song and the audience’s crucial role in shaping the music that flows around it. It comes in one of his final passages, a recollection of eavesdropping on a man who was walking down a road in New York’s Hudson Valley, playing a guitar. The man strummed “a plaintive wordless ballad, for no one but himself.” O’Brien, listening by accident, kept the moment alive, internally memorizing a sliver of performance that otherwise would have been lost to the air. For O’Brien, “it was as much as music–as much as the world–could be.”