Monday, October 19, 2009

Texas Blues: The Rise of a Contemporary Sound.

By Alan Govenar.

College Station: Texas A&M University Press, December 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-1-58544-605-6, $40. 624 pages.

Review by Jonathan Hill, National University of Singapore

Anyone picking up Alan Govenar’s magisterial new book expecting a straightforward history of the blues in Texas is in for a surprise. Its modest title underplays the scope and importance of the book. This is no simple musical history, but a multifaceted retelling of the blues’ place in Texan life through interviews with the people who have made it what it is today. Some are famous – with obvious inclusions such as Albert Collins, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, and Stevie Ray Vaughan – but most are relatively obscure. Over a hundred individuals are featured in the book, mostly telling their own stories in their own words, unencumbered by editorial comments. As such, the book builds upon the style Govenar developed in his Meeting the Blues (Taylor, 1988), and African American Frontiers: Slave Narratives and Oral Histories (ABC-CLIO, 2000), but on a grander scale. His earlier blues-related interviews reappear here, alongside a wealth of new material, lavishly illustrated in color throughout. The result is an enormous volume, weighty in every sense, but never intimidating. The photographs, many of which are by Govenar himself, are nothing short of magnificent. They include a great deal of archive material which is often as fascinating as the interviews themselves.

The book’s introduction goes over the much-trodden ground of the early history of the blues in a fresh way, paying due and welcome attention to the preconceptions of early researchers which influenced the material they collected. But this is preliminary scene-setting, since the bulk of the book focuses on the 1960s and later. Unfortunately, Govenar says little about his methodology, which is a missed opportunity. What are the strengths and weaknesses of presenting the words of the interviewees alone, with little overt editing, commentary, or other authorial voice? On what basis were these subjects and not others included? Some discussion of such methodological questions would have been extremely valuable to help locate this book in relation to the wider anthropological literature.

Much of the book’s uniqueness comes from the fact that not all of the people featured in it are primarily musicians. The first interviewee in the book is Osceola Mays, the subject of Govenar’s earlier book for children Osceola: Memories of a Sharecropper’s Daughter (Jump At The Sun, 2000) and a traditional songster and storyteller rather than a professional musician. Another subject, Mariellen Shepphard, seems not to be a musician at all: her interview consists solely of a description of a raucous T-Bone Walker concert. And Big Bo Thomas gives a fascinating account of his career as a club operator and record promoter in Dallas in the 1950s and 60s. Many interviewees testify to the toughness of a life devoted to music largely out of the limelight, but others spin their tales from quite different yarn – as in Lightnin’ Hopkins’s magnificent interview, mostly devoted to outrageous musings on love and women. Much of the interest in reading such things lies in guessing where veracity gives way to hyperbole or deliberate image creation.

The inclusion of such a variety of people helps to ground the music in its context more fully, and in more variety, than an exclusive focus on performers could. It reminds us that music is not merely something that musicians do: it is something that people listen to, or dance to, something which plays a central role in a community. It also reminds us that the blues means different things to different people. If, as Clifford Geertz famously argued, every participant at a Balinese cockfight interprets the event differently, so too does everyone at a juke joint dance, or a street singer’s performance, or a studio recording. This book, with its variety of voices and their sometimes quite contradictory stories, illustrates this powerfully.

Somewhat disconcertingly, the material is not always consistently presented. Most of the interviews begin on a new page with a new heading, but those in the “Zydeco” section are all run together in a single block, making it hard to tell where one voice stops and the next begins. Many interviews are preceded by introductions giving information about the interviewee, but others have none, presenting the interviewee’s words entirely unmediated. And for some artists there is no interview at all, the book instead changing to a more conventional third-person narrative to describe their role. The effect is somewhat puzzling, perhaps testament to an identity crisis at the heart of Texas Blues. What does the book want to be? Is it a collection of oral histories, presented merely to allow the subjects to tell their stories directly to the reader? In that case, it is hard to see why there are entries for musicians for whom there is no interview material. Alternatively, is it an exhaustive cultural history of Texan blues, told partly in the first person and partly in the third? In that case, the non-interview material does not go far enough. T-Bone Walker and Freddie King, for example, deserve more than just a page or two in such a history. The book would have been more clearly focused had the third-person narratives been restricted to the introductory material, with the bulk of the book devoted only to the interviews.

Nevertheless, the overall focus is clear enough: it is not on Texan blues as a style of music (it is questionable whether such a style even exists), but on the role that the blues has played, and continues to play, in Texan communities. This book conveys that role brilliantly, and with more conviction and integrity than any conventional history could. Through it, we learn not simply facts (and perhaps a few fictions) about what actually happened. We learn what it meant to people. Govenar conveys the importance of this movingly in the prologue, describing his search for information about Blind Lemon Jefferson, the first great Texan blues singer. When he finally tracks down an old woman who knew Jefferson, she smilingly comments that he has been dead for fifty years, before closing the door in Govenar’s face. And Jefferson drifts through the book like a literary ghost, the subject of anecdotes told by many interviewees, more myth than man. The message is subtle but powerful: whatever facts one might glean about Jefferson’s actual career are less important than the continued effect his story, and even his mere name, have upon people today. Sometimes, what people believe is more important than what actually happened. Some blues scholars, such as Marybeth Hamilton in In Search of the Blues (Cape, 2007) have begun to draw attention to this fact and its role in the creation of blues as myth. By devoting the bulk of Texas Blues to the voices of those involved in the blues at all levels, Govenar does the same thing, though in a very different way. It is this, as well as the sheer quantity and variety of material, that makes this such a valuable book, and one which will undoubtedly be required reading (and a mine of primary sources) for students of the blues for many years to come

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