In Search
Of the Blues

Marybeth Hamilton
Even now, sixty years later, I can hear it: the needle set in the groove, the hiss of the vinyl record, and the gravely voice,

    Oh, the Rock Island Line
    It's a mighty good line
    Oh yes, the Rock Island Line,
    It's the road to ride.

The records moved so quickly in those days ... 78 revolutions per minute. They were inevitably worn with playing (at least on one side, no laser beam in those days, just a weighty "tone arm" with a fat needle, jouncing around the grooves).

    If you ever go to Houston
    Man, you better watch out,
    Sheriff Sloan will arrest you,
    He will put you out.

What we still called "the Victrola" was in the study, a corner room in which the yellow Florida sun would flood the black and white floor tiles, light up the dark books in the shelves --- Robbie Burns and Rudyard Kipling, my father's favorites, seeded with popular novels of the day, The Egg and I, The Just and the Unjust, Miss Lonelyhearts, Topper, Topper Returns. Gone with the Wind, Philip Wylie, John Steinbeck, P. J. Wodehouse, Ernest Hemingway, and a man named Smith who wrote improbable novels --- hidden on the highest shelves --- about women bathing themselves with goldfish so they could nibble their breasts (I wish I could remember the names of these semi-lurid books).

    Yonder comes Miss Lucy,
    Man, how do you know?
    I can tell her by the apron-strings
    and the dress she wore.
    Well, she brought me little coffee,
    Brought me little tea,
    Brought me little everything
    But the jailhouse key.

The photograph on the cover of the Folkways album showed a man with a rugged, black ("black as tar," as my mother ungraciously termed it), heavy-lidded face, a red-and-white bandanna tied improbably around his neck. There was a prominent scar.

The word was that he had gone to prison for stabbing a man in a bar-fight in Texas, shooting another in Mississippi. His name was Leadbelly, because of the bullets he carried inside: you couldn't ask for a better name ... and it was all of a piece with the crusty voice, the hard-edged music, the driving twelve-string guitar he played. This was a man who had lived on the other side with the hookers, the thieves, the drunkards, the fighters ... the violent side.

Ms. Hamilton tells us that this music that we thought was the real blues, the soul of the fields, the jails, the streets ... was nothing of the kind. She says what we were listening to was a music already corrupted by radio and records. The original black music of the countryside had died promptly after the first "race" records came out after WWI. The myth is of the poor, black, soulful, anguished, "untainted black voice," "in a state of nature," a man singing out his heart in the bars and on the chain-gang was, by 1920, no more than a myth. The reality would be Mamie Smith singing "Crazy Blues," or Bessie Smith intoning "Oh, how I hate to see / That evenin' sun go down..." The real blues, Hamilton informs us, may have been recorded a few times at the turn of the century on old wax or tinfoil-wrapped cylinders, by very early students of folk culture (Howard Odum, Dorothy Scarborough), but these cylinders have been lost forever.

If there were any field recordings of "primitive" music, it would be of American Indians. "Though between 1890 and 1930 ethnographers studying Native American song made some fourteen thousand cylinder recordings," she reports, "of African American voices they appear to have made only a handful." The reason: It was thought that "black Americans did not have cultural patterns of any depth or richness [and] they had lost their African traditions in crossing the Atlantic." And so goes our picture of the Mississippi Delta as the rich, original home of the blues. Strictly white collectors' mythology:

§     §     §

I am not so sure that it made or makes that much difference. The Delta Blues, the "corrupted blues" that came out of our radios was very different from the sameness of Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, the Andrews Sisters. The blues, no matter how stylized, were rich, lusty, harsh, often impossible to understand. Lightnin' Hopkins, Blind Willie McTell, Li'l Son Jackson, Blind Lemon, Rev. Gary Davis. To us, this was to us the real music of infidelity, of sadness, of bar fights, stealing, whores. I recall the first time I heard Rabbit Brown's "James Alley Blues," the arch, bitter rendering of love and hate, country versus city, man versus woman, love and hate and desire and class, a tale of the screwy, envenomed, soul-crunching mind-boggling heart-crushing agony of love, a Thomas Hardy novel squeezed down to a bare three minutes:

    I done seen better days but I'm puttin' up with these
    I done seen better days but I'm puttin' up with these
    I been havin' a much better time with these girls now I'm so hard to please

    'Cos I was born in the country she thinks I'm easy to rule
    'Cos I was born in the country she thinks I'm easy to rule
    She try to hitch me to her wagon, she want to drive me like a mule

    You know I bought some groceries and I paid the rent
    Yes I buy some groceries and I pay the rent
    She try to make me wash her clothes but I got good common sense

    I said if you don't want me why don't you tell me so
    You know, if you don't want me why don't you tell me so
    Because it ain't like a man that ain't got nowhere to go

    I've been givin' you sugar for sugar, let you get salt for salt
    I'll give you sugar for sugar, let you get salt for salt
    And if you can't get 'long with me well it's your own fault

    How you wanted me to love you and you treat me mean
    How do you want me to love you, you keep on treatin' me mean
    You're my daily thought and my nightly dream

    Sometimes I think that you too sweet to die Sometimes I think that you too sweet to die And another time I think you oughta be buried alive...

"Sometimes I think that you are too sweet to die. And other times, I think you ought to be buried alive."

Ms. Hamilton's thesis --- that we are getting a second-hand white-folks rendering when we hear the Delta singers --- is interesting as far as it goes, but it is essentially unimportant. The real treasure here are the actors in the drama of getting blues to the world: Alan Lomax and his father, the originator of the Library of Congress collection, John Lomax. Her recounting of Leadbelly and John together is pure gold: How John built the Leadbelly legend, made him famous, ran his life, made him, at least in 1930s - 1940s America.

The most riveting part is the tale is the one of discovery, Leadbelly found by Lomax in Angola State Penitentiary: "He was short and stocky, with coal-black skin and a chiseled, somber, unwrinkled face; only his hair, gray at the temples, indicated his forty-five years. Across his throat a long, deep, horizontal scar could be glimpsed under the collar of his striped convict's overalls. In his arms he carried a battered twelve-string guitar, painted green and held together with twine, and his eyes bore the wary, deliberately blank expression born of ten years' confinement in three southern penitentiaries for violent offenses about which he remained stubbornly vague."

    He began to sing, and John Lomax was transfixed. This was a find like no other. Spirituals, lullabies, cowboy tunes, shouts from the fields and the levee camp: Leadbelly appeared to remember every song that he had ever heard. He had a deep, booming voice that echoed down the prison corridors, and the propulsive twang of this twelve-string guitar set his vocals off to rich effect. Even when Alan set the recording machine whirling, the flood of songs never slowed.

--- Richard Saturday

World over Water
Robert Gibb
The University of Arkansas Press tells us that Robert Gibb "was born and lives above the Monongahela River in the steel town of Homestead, Pennsylvania." This may or may not explain the non-stop despair that runs through World Over Water. Suicide, missing families, strikes, strike-breakers, jail, attempted assassinations, the ghastlies of late 18th Century - early 19th Century American capitalism, The Forlorness of Metal. In "Touring Clayton, the Estate of the Industrialist Henry Clay Frick," Gibb notes, the tour-guide does not explain that "Frick walled / The millyard in Homestead, / Trying to lock the workers out."

    She mentions the attempted murder
    Without noting Berkman's name
    Or the politics of his anguish...

He then goes on to tell of "the sulphurs / Of the Pittsburgh air." He concludes,

    Of the black vanished furnaces
    Splashing fire, slag like hills
    Of lava, my grandfather in 1905
    Falling to his death in the mills.

§     §     §

What is one to say? It was the pits, there in the pits. A hundred years ago, those who worked in a steel mill --- or the coal-mines, or the cotton factories --- were literally worked to death.

It was long before the New Deal; workers were not allowed to organize. The Homestead strike of 1892 was a bloodletting, a massacre engineered by the owners of the steel-mills who used the "Pinkertons," men paid to beat, run off, or kill those who were but asking a just wage.

It was dramatic, but is it poetry; or better, is Gibb's version of it poetry? Page 67 is give over to a full-page list, a tally of the "195 fatalities in steel plants of the Pittsburgh District, July 1, 1906 - June 30, 1907. --- By Causes." "Total number killed in steel making ... 195."

Is it important? For history, yes. For humanity, yes. For fighting injustice, yes. For a history of labor in the United States, yes. As poetry? I am not so sure.

It takes a fine touch to create Disaster Poetry. There must be a distancing, an innocence --- or, in some cases, a certain caustic toughness. Wilfried Owen can still move one deeply in "Dulce et decorum est," even those who have no interest in a war of a century ago that involved massacre, gassing and the death of ten million of the flower of Europe:

    If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
    Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
    And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
    His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
    If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
    Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
    Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
    Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
    My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
    To children ardent for some desperate glory,
    The old Lie;
    Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

Like Owen, Howard Nemerov, Wislawa Szymborska, Carolyn Creedon and Aquiles Nazoa have written poems of desperation and death and sorrow and woe, and, like him, are able to touch the soul. None resort to the flat bitterness that permeates World over Water, a bitterness that turns it from poetry into pure glum.

Furthermore, disaster poetry does not even require an experienced poet like Owen (or the ultimate Disaster Master, Shakespeare). One poem recently published in these pages titled "Tradition" speaks not of a troubled world of 19th Century labor, nor of the roar of the trenches --- but of a male-dominated world that violates an innocent child. It is the voice of an apparently guileless girl who is to be circumcised:

    My mother says     women were made to bleed
    and the whole thing     takes twenty minutes.
    She says afterwards     they'll wrap me up like a butterfly
    for forty nights     and I'll drink only camel's milk.

--- Lolita Lark

Go to the complete

A Force of Nature
The Frontier Genius of
Ernest Rutherford

Richard Reeves
(Atlas Books)
Well, he was a big guy, gargantuan, really. Came from the mountains of New Zealand, from, as they used to say, "the antipodes." One New York Times reporter asked, "Who was that Australian farmer who sat next to me?" C. P. Snow wrote, "His voice was three times as loud as any of theirs."

And yet this country boy, working first in Canada, and then at the Cavendish Laboratory in England, was the first to split the atom. If you had been with him at the time --- April 1932 --- you might not have realized the significance at all, what with his accent ("a mixture of West Country and Cockney") and the words:

    These scintillations look mighty like alpha-particle ones. I should know an alpha-particle scintillation when I see one for I was in at the birth.

A lithium atom had been split, and "hydrogen and lithium had been turned into helium."

"The atom had truly been split by man for the first time," Reeves tells us.

    These discoveries brought nuclear physics from the most recondite 'pure' laboratory sciences into the atomic era, the age of nuclear power engineering and nuclear weapons.

It is said that Rutherford rarely spoke of the military implications of his discovery (he died in 1937) but he did warn one government official to the effect "that someone should, as he put it, 'keep an eye on the matter.'"

There is no doubt he was a man of what we used to call "lots and lots of heart." Those who worked with him in the laboratory with him worshipped him, and many went on to make their own contributions to science, some to win Nobels of their own: C. P. Snow, C. T. R. Wilson, Albert Einstein, Maríe and Pierre Curie, Enrico Fermi, Freeman Dyson, Niels Bohr, Otto Hahn, Hans Geiger, Max Planck, Chaim Weizmann.

The chaotic, low budget way that Rutherford ran his laboratories is a painful reminder of simpler days, when government intervention and financing did not turn scientists into hapless drones. Reeves obviously loves his subject, but does not make an unmitigated hero out of him: he could be moody, explosive --- but was a man who knew how to apologize, and all forgave. His political passions were few, but in 1933, he organized funding, transportation and positions for hundreds of scientists who were driven out of their jobs by the Nazis, not the least of whom was Albert Einstein.

One of the most morbid portraits to come out of A Force of Nature is that of Pierre Curie, who was unwilling or unable to acknowledge the danger of radioactivity of radium (which he carried about with him, in large quantities). In 1903, Rutherford and his wife spent an evening with Curie, who "brought out a tube coated in part with zinc sulphide and containing a large quantity of radium in solution."

    The luminosity was brilliant in the darkness and it was a splendid finale to an unforgettable day. At the time we could not help observing that the hands of Professor Curie were in a very inflamed and painful state due to exposure to radium rays." Pierre was to die five years later from the effect of the radiation.

--- Fred Botts
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