This piece was written for the Oxford American magazine’s online series exploring the notion of cultural “authenticity,” a bugbear of course avoided at all costs by most reasonable, thinking people, but that is unaccountably irresistible to blockheads like myself. The series’ intention was to elicit responses to a piece by Duncan Murrell — writer-in-residence at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies — that appeared in the OA‘s Louisiana music issue late last year. I felt that, among other things, Murrell mischaracterized Alan Lomax’s intentions and motivations, and I tried to provide a different perspective. But I was motivated most of all by the opportunity to share my collection of “blues affirmations,” introduced below. I hope that this will be the beginning of Root Hog Or Die’s own series of the curious and wonderful specimens.
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In 1960, in an article written for the Hi-Fi Stereo Review about his time recording music in Spain (1952–1953), Alan Lomax displayed a remarkable prescience:
It is only a few sentimental folklorists like myself who seem to be disturbed by this prospect today, but tomorrow, when it will be too late—when the whole world is bored with automated mass-distributed video-music—our descendants will despise us for having thrown away the best of our culture.
That prescience, of course, was two-fold: alarmingly, the arrival of MTV was closer to the publication of that piece than it is to the writing of this one, and then came YouTube, which Lomax never lived to see. But I read more dramatics than real sentiment here.
While a number of the local folk traditions Lomax held dear might be unrecognizable to him today, culture is seldom “thrown away.” It gets plowed up, turned under, rediscovered, recycled, brilliantly reconfigured or cheapened beyond all reckoning (or both at once). It’s always in process, and Alan Lomax knew this better than anyone. As a young man he hated jazz, seeing it as a corrupter of the rural black vernacular music he and his father collected in the early ’30s. But in 1938, he recorded eight hours of Jelly Roll Morton’s reminiscences of turn-of-the-century New Orleans, “where the birth of jazz originated.” It struck Alan then that that city—its gallimaufry of races and classes with their rich and messy and fraught creolized culture—was an ideal of American culture at large, and it hit him with the force of revelation.
Lomax’s enemy, then, wasn’t cultural synthesis. It was a centralized media system that broadcast an industrial American monoculture. “Too few transmitters and too many receivers” was his central complaint, his frustration with the myopic unilateralism of corporate programming. And he saw his role not just as a preserver of local expression but as a promoter of it: through records, radio, television, print media, and on concert and festival stages.
In 2013, it’s understandable—and generally expected—for missionary zeal of this sort to be laughed at or condemned as dogooderism, to be questioned with a familiar blasé smugness: “Who gives him the right?” But the folks Lomax recorded did. They were as glad to “be heard” as he was to hear them, and to labor that others heard them, too. And the best of them—Fred McDowell, Almeda Riddle, Bessie Jones, Woody Guthrie, and, yes, Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter—made careers not simply as “folk singers” but as performing artists. Their repertoires, performances, and recordings synthesized the collective tradition with individual artistry; all of them were songwriters and/or song arrangers par excellence, never hewing so closely to the rock of The Tradition that they might fumble the particular magic with which they each enlivened and enlarged it.
Now, if MTV was the “automated mass-produced” hegemon, YouTube is the great equalizer. Lomax would have cherished it. Ken Burns’s PBS? David Simon’s HBO? YouTube is as close to a democratic means of self-presentation, self-representation, and self-dissemination of site-specific expressive activity as we’ve managed yet. It goes without saying that it’s been a tremendous boon to local musical culture, from Algerianchaabi to Zimbabwe’s Urban Grooves, but it’s also done a deep service to Lomax himself, providing a means of disseminating his legacy further than we—and certainly he—could have ever hoped to in the past.
Our videos have received over four million views; they also get hundreds of comments every week. Sometimes those comments are helpful, correcting an obscure song title or performer name. The rarest and best are from family members or friends of the performers; we make contact and share all the relevant media we have with them. (My favorite, posted to a video of an Old Regular Baptist meeting shot in 1983 in Letcher County, Kentucky:)
Most are pedestrian. Three comments were posted while I’ve been engaged with this writing. They are, in order of receipt: “very good,” “Great post!!!,” and “He’s got some interesting hands.” But a particular brand of comment showed up enough that I started a collection. I call them “blues affirmations.” They number in the dozens, posted to an assortment of clips of black vernacular music. These performances don’t necessarily pertain to the song structure or performance style called “blues”—they could be field hollers or minstrel pieces—but the commentary was single-mindedly focused on it.
The notion of a “pure” culture, of any kind, is informed by ignorance and/or ideology and/or romanticism. I feel set upon by a thick, dumb fog just looking at the phrase. But the Blues Affirmations stir something in me; they insist, childlike, on something real, true, forever enduring, constructed of unadulterated and unmediated purity. I look forward to them, and they undo me a bit when they arrive.
They feel authentic, so I’d like to give them the last word:
one word: BLUES…
This is blues
The real blues
Real O.G. Blues. No fancy shit!
This is the real face of the blues right here.
this is how it’s done with real blues!
this that old school real sittin on your porch blues!
That’s REAL old school blues
Oh man….. that’s the Blues baby….. that’s the real, down South, low down, heartfelt blues.
Authentic, real Blues, Love it.
it doesnt get anymore authentic than this!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Now that is the blues.
Blues is timeless.
there is nothing as hard as the blues
This man over here folks is the blues himself!
Great melody that shows blues music comes from the soul.
The blues is very expressive, and it is the foundation of rock music!
True music, with emotion, feelings.. His soul is speakin
the Blues needs no roaring electric guitars and smashing drums to show all the hard aspects of life without disguise
Clapton who?…THIS IS THE BLUES, R.L. shows you how it smells, looks, taste, sounds, and most importantly how it feels. Clapton never had babies cry in the background of his performances
it’s only perfect because he’s authentic
that look in his eyes at 4:05…. thats the blues right there
The blues is real, that’s why the blues lives on.
That’s from far one of the best blues I never heard… real blues… from the guts… not from the wallets !!!
This is where the blues started – AND THIS IS WHERE THE BLUES ENDS.