Crowd Control: How Audiences Make Music

By Braun, Steve | The Washington Monthly, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Crowd Control: How Audiences Make Music

Braun, Steve, The Washington Monthly

One morning in 1998, I drove to a funeral home in Chicago's South Side to watch a crowd of aging bluesmen pay final tribute to harmonica great Junior Wells. Buddy Guy, who had played Chicago's fabled club circuit for years with Wells, was there, slumped down forlornly beside several wizened session men. Son Seals, another of the city's guitar legends, showed up with his head webbed by bandages, just two weeks after his wife had shot him in the face. The coffin was open, and someone had placed a pint bottle of rye and several blues harps next to the late Junior, who lay there looking stately in a powder-blue suit and derby.

Then, from a rear pew in the parlor, I overheard two elderly Mississippi Delta natives commiserating on their dying generation. "Too many gray heads around here, too many," one of them muttered. "One of these days, there won't be none of us left." As they talked, I realized their wistful conversation was the germ of a neglected story. For years, music writers and historians have fretted over the diminishing legion of elderly blues musicians, warning of the music's fading heritage. But the experts' obsession with artists alone has long shunted aside the seminal role that their original audience of Delta transplants played in nurturing the city's blues music.

The blues-loving African Americans who streamed north to Chicago before and after World War II were, indeed, crucial in the development of that city's world-famous strain of electrified R&B. They demanded louder music, partly because their noisy rent parties and clubs required amplification unnecessary in the Deltas hushed, isolated jukes. Electric instruments that were rare in Mississippi were easier found in Chicago's myriad music stores. And audiences whose tastes expanded to the blaring big bands of Count Basie and jump bands of Louis Jordan no longer had patience for the quieter acoustic blues of an older generation--just as today's rap fans snicker at 1960s soul music as tame and passe.

We're so accustomed to thinking of art as something that emerges from a creator's inner muse that we often overlook the critical interaction between artist and audience. While the growth of Napster has lately been hailed as the liberation of music consumers, still forgotten is the fact that record buyers have long exercised a subtle but enormous sway over their favorite musicians, influencing the songs they played and the styles they adopted. The recognition that the audience is no less important than the performers themselves in sustaining a musical movement is what lies at the heart of two new books: Elijah Wald's revisionist blues history, Escaping the Delta and critic Geoffrey O'Brien's collection of essays, Sonata For Jukebox.

In Escaping the Delta, musician and blues academic Wald gives powerful evidence of the impact that the Mississippi Delta blues audience had on its premiere early musicians. Although the book concentrates almost exclusively on blues, it digs deep into the symbiotic tug of war between musicians and their listeners--and rap critics and historians who lazily buy the premise that artists are top dog in that relationship. Wald describes how white scholars and blues buffs who constructed the legend of short-lived but influential Delta bluesman Robert Johnson got both his art and his influences all wrong. For years, blues historians used Johnson's handful of recordings to pigeonhole him as a doomed noble savage, insisting his stark, poetic songs--long seen as a wellspring for Chicago blues and, ultimately, rock and roll--were derived only from his unique talent and his immediate Mississippi roots.

But Johnson was anything but isolated from the world around him, and, as Wald shows, he was an inveterate crowd pleaser and a keen student of both black and white strains of popular music that could be heard by anyone with a cheap radio. Wald uses interviews with some of Johnson's surviving contemporaries and mines social research dating back to the 1930s and 1940s to show that Johnson regularly played popular swing ditties for both black and white audiences, ranging from "Yes Sir, That's My Baby" to "My Blue Heaven" to "Tumbling Tumbleweeds. …

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