Over Under Sideways Down Dec 5, 2012
The more I learn about the blues, the less I know, (at least in comparison to what I thought I knew before). Back in "the day", (which for me was the mid-1970s up until the mid-1990s, my peak fan years); I was sure about many things. I wouldn't have called myself a blues purist, that title would be relegated to acoustic fans who cursed the day Muddy Waters plugged in his guitar. (The same crowd hooted at Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.)
I was quite happy with the roots image that the blues enjoyed, but I saw it as something more. It deserved to be appreciated in its own right. To this day, (and I still enjoy the music), I will rarely venture into acoustic land, (although I appreciate many aspects of it; like Robert Johnson). But back then in "ancient" times I was well aware of the thievery that went along with the blues business, (and the music business in general). I heard about Led Zeppelin settling out-of-court for `The Lemon Song', (which was a rip-off of Howlin' Wolf's `Killing Floor'), and for `Whole Lotta Love', (first covered by Muddy Waters and written by "Wee" Willie Dixon). There were many similar stories. Then some time passed. I became aware of an earlier version of a song, (1930), attributed to `Howlin' Wolf, (`Sittin' On Top Of The World'), by the Mississippi Sheiks. (Howlin' Wolf published the song in 1957 under his real name, Chester Burnett). Then I recently read Buddy Guy's latest book `When I Left Home', where he describes the aforementioned Mr. Dixon helping himself to songwriting credits for something that Mr. Guy created.
And then we have `The Blues: A Very Short Introduction' by Elijah Wald. (And, a more recent tome called `How the Beatles Destroyed Rock `N' Roll', by the same author). Mr. Wald has done his homework. After finishing both books I can rightly say that I now doubt many previously held beliefs. Or, to put it a better way, I am now skeptical.
I have to make something quite clear. This is not new in coming. It is the result of being exposed not only to the two aforementioned books; but to hundreds of album liners, articles, and books by other authors; and the music itself.
I consider the blues to be the most important component in the American musical lexicon. But one thing is certain. It did not pop out of nowhere. It was the synthesis of many things, (chief among them the African-American experience). But nothing exists in a vacuum, and as Mr. Wald makes clear, "blues people" listened to, and played, everything. What exists from old 78 RPM recordings is only the tip of the iceberg. And, like today, artists are typecast, and are expected to follow the assigned script, (at least under a particular pseudonym, as musicians used different names for different record labels, and for different forms of music, if they were able to pull that off).
The important thing to take away is that there will always be a certain amount of "borrowing" that goes on in the arts. Our efforts at copyright control are slipping, (especially in this information age, where everything is available with a click). And, when we find out that certain "ownerships" were stolen to begin with, what are we left with? The blues, (as defined by Mr. Wald), evolved by word-of-mouth, (or songs-by-mouth and instrument, if you will), in areas where the African-American participants would not have been given access to the legal machinery if they had wished to use it. (Efforts by African-American musicians and songwriters to obtain and enforce a copyright would have been met with scorn in many areas of the country during the original time of creation).
So they shared openly with one another. One person's verse would be slipped in, (improvisation-like), into another person's song. Lines were made up on the spot in performance, (and on recordings), never to be used again. Musicians would play the same song again with differing, (but similar), lyrics. And down the road this big mixing bowl of music wound up in the public domain, (because of the lack of copyrighting). And that is when the trouble started, (as the slick ones incorporated that material into later "copyrighted" products). Confusing, isn't it? (Now you know how I feel.)