John Minton, 78 Blues: Folksongs and Phonographs in the American South. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. (American Made Music Series), 2008. x+288 pp. (ISBN: 9781934110195) (cloth).
Yves Laberge, Ph.D.
John Minton is a professor of folklore at Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne and his third book, “78 Blues: Folksongs and Phonographs in the American South”, is taken from his Ph.D. thesis from 1990.
Unlike most scholarly written books, this essay is written in the first person. In seven thematical chapters, Minton reflects on his own initiation into the musical world in his youth (occuring mainly during the 1970’s) and his personal experience of discovering the various musical genres from the previous decades, being aware of the social background of the American music and the impact of the manufacturing of the records he used to listen to. He questions why, say, during the early seventies, almost everybody seemed to enjoy Robert Johnson’s songs as interpreted by contemporary rock groups like Cream, The Rolling Stones and The Allman Brothers, but most of that same audience could not stand (or even have access to) the original recordings of these same works made by the composer in 1937 and 1938, even on LP reissues. The old folk and blues repertoire was revisited for the old folk and blues repertoire (from Woody Guthrie to Mississippi John Hurt) that was “revisited” or rediscovered during the 1960’s by various white artists like Bob Dylan or The Beatles and many British groups (20). In other words, Minton’s awareness and (re)discovery of roots American music was made backwards in chronological terms: “Even then, I knew enough of Southern culture and history to realize they drew breath from a vast rural underclass and a vanished way of life” (20). Back in the 1920’s, most folksongs were not made by professional artists and performers borrowing various identities for every song, but rather by “ordinary people” whose identities were either “workmate, neighbor, church member” when they recorded their music (21).
According to Minton, music is also a matter of social context, and this dimension is often overlooked by many scholars who study popular music. Contemporary young people listening to music all day long cannot help but be framed by their own era, epoch, background, musical conventions and fashions in musical terms. It is not just a matter of the recognition of the sound or the newer technologies that make most young people reluctant to appreciate the vintage recordings made on 78 rpm; songs cannot just be separated from their initial context, which could be southern culture, rural culture, or anything else. Milton argues that this phenomenon is also true even when some old recordings from the 78 rpm era are transposed into LPs or CDs: “In the early 1970’s, the reissue LP became my own window on old-time music, beginning with Robert Johnson (…)” (212). In an endnote, the author describes another interesting example. The song “Matchbox”, recorded in 1964 by The Beatles was a tribute to rock-and-roll pionneer Carl Perkins who pretended to have composed that classic song in the early 1950’s, but was in fact released by Texan bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson before 1920 (see endnote 3, page 263). Therefore, The Beatles have contributed to globalizing music from rural USA through Great-Britain and the world.
The early 20th century witnessed another shift when oral tradition from previous centuries was waxed on record in an immutable way. Drawing from Josiah Combs’ thesis from 1925, Milton mentions the fact that some rural music lovers from the 1920’s rejected printed music partitions for piano and even the phonograph because both stopped the processes of the spontaneous transmissions, memorizing and reappropriation of rural music through the oral tradition of folklore like the Highlands Music (25). According to Minton, because this vintage music from the 1920’s has been reformatted, reappropriated, and popularized by newer artists from the 1960’s and 1970’s, “the way I hear old-time records has been colored” (213). For better or worse, the newer versions of these folksongs are better known than the originals: “I still cannot listen to Blind Lemon Jefferson without also hearing Bob Dylan and The Beatles” (213). Therefore, “reissues thus provide listening experiences radically different from those of the records they reformat” (215). Nevertheless, I think one could add that maybe in a few generations from now, some future listeners might ignore Dylan and The Beatles’ works and discover firstly the original recordings of vintage artists such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson, without knowing about British followers like Eric Clapton or John Mayall.
Undoubtedly, John Minton has impressive knowledge of the 1920’s music: blues, folksongs, hillbilly, and therefore many celebrated bluesmen and artists like Ma Rainey, Leroy Carr, Blind Lemon Jefferson (109). However, lesser-known and obscure performers are not forgotten; in this domain, fame is not a guarantee for excellence, and obscure pre-war artists could someday be rediscovered by new generations. Extensive excerpts of the lyrics are reproduced, mainly from songs recorded in the late 1920’s (109). Even though John Minton seems quite sincere, and although I had the same musical discoveries almost at the same time that he did, I have to admit I was often annoyed by the autobiographical style of the author in a scholarly book. It sometimes looked like a blog or like the customers’s reviews on the Amazon.com web site because it was very much descriptive and personal, without analysis. At some points, Chapter 6 seems like a collection of short stories about bluesmen like Sleepy John Estes trying to record back in 1938, with imagined dialogues between the artist and his studio producer (125). However, on the other hand, Professor John Minton is at his best whenever he discusses the regional labels (Paramount, Okeh’s catalogs) and their recording artists (120). His enthusiasm for Southern American music is genuine and contagious.