Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Paul Oliver's Blues

A friend in Los Angeles named Bruce Lofgren is a working Jazz musician--hard-working, yet still "scuffling," I think--who plays guitar, composes, produces occasionally, leads a big band, and also teaches for a living. Bruce sends out a "Gig Alert!" (a private email blast to fans and friends) whenever he's hired for a night or weekend, usually booked as a duo or trio.

I wanted to give proper credit to that email-notice idea... because I have a big-time Gig Alert! to announce and help publicize. Paul Oliver, the premier Blues expert of the U.K.--a serious scholar, multiple books author, field recorder, album compiler, liner notes writer, records/CDs reviewer, and much more, universally acknowledged as one of the top Blues experts in the world, and a much-honored architect in his "real life"--will be appearing in the East Bay Area on June 4 and 5. He'll be speaking and participating in organized discussions both days at Down Home Music in Richmond/El Cerrito, in a belated but important postscript to this year's 50th Anniversary of Arhoolie Records and its remarkable founder Chris Strachwitz. The main celebrations occurred several weeks ago, but octogenarian Oliver had health problems and could not make it to the States at that time as planned.

The delay might well prove a blessing in disguise, because now the attention of fans, critics, and collectors can be focused completely on Oliver and Strachwitz, who have been good friends and fellow Blues enthusiasts for well over 50 years. How the Polish immigrant turned 78s collector and the English architect first connected I don't know, but Oliver's Blues research began in the early Fifties and by 1960 he had already published a brief biography of Bessie Smith plus Blues Fell This Morning, his inspired study of Blues lyrics--broad themes and individual "pet" subjects, poetic images, hidden subtexts, and personal demons--the book also including an Introduction by Black author Richard Wright.

By the late Fifties Chris's excursions throughout central California searching for 78s had convinced him he needed to get to the Southern source. So in '59 he traveled to Houston and there managed to meet both eccentric collector-scholar Mack McCormick and brilliant, then-littleknown Blues musician Lightnin' Hopkins. As a result Strachwitz decided he'd head back South the following summer to try recording Blues folk he met while scouting those old 78s. Several thousand miles away, Oliver by then had won an assignment from the BBC to create aural documentaries on Southern music and social history; and after initial stops in Detroit, Chicago and Memphis, he and co-researcher wife Valerie joined forces with Chris and his big automobile to follow leads further South, to locate and record interesting characters who might or might not be working musicians too.

And that's what any attendee at the June sessions will be hearing... their adventures on the road and in the field (so to speak); and how Oliver and Strachwitz eagerly, but inadvertantly, kickstarted the Blues Revival. Oh, they won't make such exaggerated claims themselves, but I will on their behalf. The guys will just talk about traveling through Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, connecting with known and unknown musicians, sharing the work and the results of the field recordings, each of them eventually going home with material he could work with.

Chris launched Arhoolie Records on the strength of his "back porch" recordings of newly discovered elder songster Mance Lipscomb, and followed up with LPs from other casual field sessions by Black Ace, Alex Moore, Lil' Son Jackson, Sam Chatmon, Butch Cage and Willie Thomas, and several others. (A fine trip sampler is Arhoolie CD 432, I Have to Paint My Face.) The slow, steady sales of these releases allowed him over the next three years to record Big Joe Williams, master slide guitarist Fred McDowell, more of Mance, Lightnin' Hopkins (at last!), and then Lightnin's "cousin," Zydeco man Clifton Chenier, and many more. The Arhoolie label soon came to mean Roots Music from most corners of America, as forever-whimsical-collector Strachwitz expanded his interests: Tex-Mex border music (norteno, corrido, conjunto and more); Cajun yelps and Zydeco steps; Bay Area folk in both Folk and Jazz; even Polkas alongside more Blues.

Meanwhile Oliver had produced the expected BBC radio-documentaries--and then, using transcriptions of the hundred or so interviews he'd taped during the trip, created a portrait of the Black South circa 1960, his carefully edited compilation titled Conversation with the Blues (published in 1965), one of the greatest of all such books, rigorously organized yet with language left a bit raw, a racially troubling stunner supposedly issued in the U.K. and U.S. both, though I've never come across an American copy. I was a crazed Blues fan in the mid-Sixties and when I read about the book in the English magazine Blues Unlimited, I promptly ordered one straight from England. (A few years later I also found a copy of the same-name, long-play documentary record issued only in the U.K. Both are among my prized collectibles.)

I actually owe Oliver a debt of gratitude. I pored over his book, mesmerized by the localized dialects and colorful slang and the much-prized "poetry of the Blues" that he had captured on tape. Those remarkable interview excerpts showed me the way forward, and when I wrote my Robert Johnson screenplay, Hellhound on My Trail, in 1968-69, I know full well I incorporated some rhythms and diction and a few particular images I'd found in Conversation. The book definitely helped this grateful white boy's dialogue sound more believable, more convincingly Black.

Around 1969 Oliver published another gem, his photo-rich history titled The Story of the Blues--which many, including me, still consider the best single historical text on the subject. And when I worked as a freeform, hippie-FM disc jockey for a year, I used to read portions of his chapters on the air and play the pertinent or related music samples to match whatever subject or period Oliver was describing. (Helped me fill an eight-hour on-air shift too!) The listeners who phoned in ran about four-to-one in favor of my mini-docs on "The Blues According to Paul Oliver," but even better were the complainers who'd say, "Enough already with that boring old stuff. Play some Hendrix... or Led Zeppelin." Right, the irony was perfect.

Here's the final prescient paragraph of Oliver's Introduction written for the earlier work (with English punctuation and spelling), which summarizes nicely the intent of both books; it also shows him as both elegant poet and straightforward scholar:

In retrospect the recorded conversations from which the following transcriptions have been made seem to have been registered at a significant point in the history of the blues. A long musical tradition led to the threshold of the 'sixties; the rapid changes brought about by popularization and imitation were still to come. Far from the close-carpeted artistes' rooms backstage at the concert hall, the coffee lounge or the college auditorium the recordings were made in shot-gun shack and brownstone house, Mississippi barber shop and Memphis pool-room, in Negro juke and coloured hotel, on street corners and front porches, in club and bar-room, basement and tenement, record shop and garage from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. Barrelhouse pianists and juke-joint guitarists, street singers and travelling show entertainers, jazz musicians and jug band players, sharecroppers and mill-workers, vagrants and migrants, mechanics and labourers--these were amongst the speakers. Some had secure jobs, some had none; some were on relief and some in retirement; some played for themselves, some played for others, some had once ridden high and others were going down slow, some were famous, some unknown, some were young and others venerable: all had played their part in shaping the pattern of the blues. It was a pattern that emerged slowly, logically, dictating its own order from the many hundreds of thousands of words transcribed from the results of weeks of recording: a pattern that was not the history of the blues in detailed terms of every personality and style and region, but which was, nonetheless, from the lips of those who made it, the story of the blues.

Oliver and Strachwitz will have many fine tales to tell, no doubt; fifty years of collecting, serious research, various other books, and hundreds of new albums and historical reissues give them plenty to talk about. I can't attend--no money for another trip right now, not even just to San Francisco and its environs--but I'll be there in spirit. For now, like the old days at KOL-FM, I'm "Broadcasting the Blues" once more.


Steve Provizer said...

Oliver's work was some of the first material I ran across in the 60's-and was fortunate to do so. He created a deeper and richer context for the music.

I Witness said...

Conversation and The Story were particularly great reads too.

Paul Oliverio said...

My name is pretty gosh darn close to Paul Oliver.

If you Italianize the name, you get Paul Oliverio
who is me and I have been reading Mr. Oliver since
the 1970's.

What he once wrote about Sonny Boy Williamson
(the original) was one of the best descriptions
of a blues legend I have ever read.

If humanly possible...after you check it out yourself,
could you forward the following to Paul?