In Search of the Blues

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Basic Books, Jun 30, 2009 - History - 320 pages
2 Reviews
In this extraordinary reconstruction of the origins of the blues, historian Marybeth Hamilton demonstrates that the story as we know it is largely a myth. Following the trail of characters like Howard Odum, who combed Mississippi's back roads with a cylinder phonograph to record vagrants, John and Alan Lomax, who prowled Southern penitentiaries and unearthed the rough, melancholy vocals of Leadbelly, and James McKune, a recluse whose record collection came to define the primal sounds of the Delta blues, Hamilton reveals this musical form to be the culmination of a longstanding white fascination with the exotic mysteries of black music.

By excavating the history of the Delta blues, Hamilton reveals the extent to which American culture has been shaped by white fantasies of racial difference.


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In search of the blues

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Hamilton (American history, Birkbeck Coll., Univ. of London; When I'm Bad, I'm Better: Mae West, Sex, and American Entertainment) writes about several key ethnomusicologists and record fanatics who ... Read full review

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I don't know about the rest of the book, but the author''s analysis of the relationship between Lead Belly & the Lomax is not entirely accurate.
It is true that Lomax shamefully pimped Lead
Belly as if he were a minstrel.act in a carnival side show A profile of Lead Belly published in the January 1936 issue of LifeMagazine was headlined " Bad Nigger Makes Good Minstrel. The news reel recreation of Lead Belly singing himself out of prison is hard to watch as his scripted dialogue and obsequiousness strips him of his dignity.
However, to cast Lead Belly as nothing more than a helpless victim also robs him of his dignity, by infantalizing him. Lead Belly was smart enough to realize that Lomax was taking advantage of him and filed a lawsuit which was settled out of court. He went on in later years to work with Lomax's son on a variety of projects and had his own radio program in the early 40's on WNYC.
It seems as if the author relied entirely on Richard Wright's article and neglects to acknowledge that Wight had his own agenda in depicting Lead Belly as a a poor, simple man being exploited by ruthless capitalists.
Leadbelly & Woody Guthrie Live! On WNYC 1940:


one The Delta Revisited
two Impartial Testimony
three On the Trail of Negro Folk Songs
four Sound Photographs of Negro Songs

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About the author (2009)

Marybeth Hamilton is a professor of American history at Birkbeck College, University of London. The author of When I'm Bad, I'm Better, she is also a writer and presenter of features for BBC radio. She lives in London.

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