In Search of the Blues
Cochran, Robert, The Arkansas Historical Quarterly
In Search of the Blues. By Marybeth Hamilton. (New York: Basic Books, 2008. Pp. 309. Illustrations, acknowledgments, notes, index. $24.95.)
The primary attention of Marybeth Hamilton's In Search of the Blues is directed not to blues or to blues musicians but to those twentieth-century collectors and enthusiasts whose researches shaped subsequent appreciation and understanding of the music and its makers. The "stars" of Hamilton's book are for the most part figures known to students of American music-Howard Odum, Dorothy Scarborough, John and Alan Lomax, Frederic Ramsey, and Samuel Charters. But in this study the researches into blues of all but John Lomax are accorded a more sustained examination than anything available in prior scholarship, and the whole group is linked by what Hamilton calls "an emotional attachment to racial difference" (p. 22), a "sense of awe at the strangeness and singularity of the black voice" (p. 20). (The elder Lomax's life and career are carefully and judiciously examined in Nolan Porterfield's 1996 biography [reviewed in AHQ 57: 356-358].)
The resulting analyses have several strengths and weaknesses, but In Search of the Blues earns praise first of all for its painstaking and groundbreaking attention to the researchers themselves. Hamilton's study follows a generally chronological order, opening with the pioneering work of Odum, who made his initial recordings in 1907, more than a decade before the release of the first commercial blues recording, and the blues researches of Scarborough, who to this point has been more appreciated for her collecting of Anglo-American ballads. In both instances, Hamilton's accounts are based on extensive reading in unpublished papers (Odum's at the University of North Carolina, Scarborough's at Baylor). Her extended discussion of Frederic Ramsey and his friends-Hamilton calls them "the Jazzmen cohort" from the title of a 1939 book Ramsey edited with Charles Edward Smith-is another highlight, as are the briefer treatments of Samuel Charters and the self-styled "Blues Mafia" gathered around the obscure figure of James McKune (p. 167).
For all her careful research, though, Hamilton's writing is surprisingly impressionistic, typically introducing each section by recreating a pivotal or climactic moment. Scarborough is introduced witnessing a 1921 banjo and dance performance by John Allan Wyeth, a white Confederate veteran whose nostalgias leave her, she reports, "transported to an old plantation of days before the War" (p. 60). John Lomax, for his part, appears as "a portly white man in a Stetson hat" driving up to the gates of the Louisiana penitentiary at Angola in 1933, his momentous encounter with Huddie Ledbetter just ahead (p. 92). Ramsey is pictured with two friends in the late 1930s, climbing the stairs of a rundown Washington, D.C., building to a dingy nightclub called the Jungle Inn. At the bar, mixing a drink for a customer, is Jelly Roll Morton.
Each of these accounts is vividly written, but Hamilton's notes make clear that she has given her imagination a very generous rein. "The décor of Wyeth's home and his manner in beginning their interview are my invention" (p. 261), she says of the Scarborough scene. For Ramsey's encounter with Morton, her notes concede more: "I don't know when, or indeed if, William Russell, Charles Edward Smith, and Frederic Ramsey went together to the Jungle Inn. To imagine this encounter, I have drawn on each man's accounts of his meetings with Morton" (p. 278).
James McKune, the least well-known figure she considers, is the secret hero of Hamilton's study, the star of its concluding sixth chapter, where he is understood as the "driving force behind the cohort of music enthusiasts who powered the blues revival of the 1960s" (p. 209). What little is known of McKune's life is mostly unhappy-he arrived in New York City in the 1930s, lived in a single room in Brooklyn's Williamsburg YMCA for twenty-five years, published a few short pieces in record collecting and trading journals, spent his last years as a homeless person rendered hapless by alcoholism, and was murdered in 1971, apparently by a "stranger whom he picked up for sex" (p. …