Russia Gets the Blues. Music, Culture, and Community in Unsettled Times

Article excerpt

Michael Urban (with assistance of Andrei Evdokimov). Russia Gets the Blues. Music, Culture, and Community in Unsettled Times. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2004. 179 pp. Illustrations. Index. $45.00, cloth. $17.95, paper.

As Michael Urban explains in the preface, Russia Gets the Blues came from the confluence of his extracurricular experience with Russian blues' performances and his hunt for a new research topic. The book reflects this bifurcated origin in both its arrangement and its content. Urban frames his fluid narrative of the birth and growth of Russian blues (Chapters 2-5) with a detailed contextualization of its roots (Chapter 1), and its social and political make-up (Chapters 6-7). Urban defines the two "analytic currents" of his book as "cultural transmission" (or "the flow of new information across borders") and "cultural reception" (or "the influence that Russian cultural practices have on the manner in which the blues idiom has been appropriated, interpreted, performed, and appreciated") (p. viii). The narrative, "diachronic" chapters deal with "cultural transmission," while the last two "synchronie" chapters take up "cultural reception" (p. ix).

One can surmise that Urban had a good time researching the project-his enthusiasm and sensitivity to his subject suggest that much. Working on contemporary topics carries an advantage of relevance and vitality that comes from being so close to the sources. Urban's reliance on interviews with the members of the blues community is a major asset of the book, because in addition to providing the contemporaries' side of the story to complement his theoretical arguments, the interviews offer the reader an unmediated sensation of this peculiar and touching culture. At the same time, despite chronological proximity to the people and events Urban described, it is remarkable how clear a picture of the Russian blues scene one gets from reading his book.

Urban's "sociomusical portrait of Russia's blues community" (p. viii) begins with a general outline of the topic and a list of inquiries that he continues to address throughout the book. The first chapter raises the question of similarities in the origins of Russian and American blues traditions. In it, Urban argues the shared social, political, economic and cultural conditions at the time of the genre's inception and growth in Russia and the United States. Essentially, Urban speaks about blues as an expression of the national condition. Still, he manages to avoid the danger of logical stretches and excessive generalization and remains very cautious and reasonable in his arguments. Bypassing the intuitive temptation of explaining Russia's favourable reception of blues by it soul-searching character, Urban offers a well-supported explanation that takes into account aesthetics as well as history. …