[Dixielandjazz] THE BLUES - Reality vs. perception.

Stephen Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Mon Jul 19 07:18:37 PDT 2004

Does the "artsy" audience among us change our perception of the music?
Legend or reality? Read on if interested to see who "woke up this
mornin". (Leroy Carr, the subject of this article was famous for
renditions in the 20s, of "How Long Blues" and "Aggravatin Papa", which
are played by numerous OKOM bands today)


July 18, 2004, NY Times

The Bluesman Who Behaved Too Well


         WHAT do you picture when you hear the word "blues"? A lone
vagabond walking a dusty road in the Mississippi Delta? A gruff giant
shouting over the noise of a Chicago bar? An outlaw guitar hero
squeezing fiery notes from his Stratocaster?

Today, most people think of blues as the ultimate roots music, the
rawest, earthiest sound America has produced. A typical sketch of its
evolution runs from the Delta growl of Charlie Patton through Robert
Johnson to the electric South Side bands of Muddy Waters and Howlin'
Wolf and eventually to the Rolling Stones and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

This sketch makes perfect sense if you follow it backward. The rock
scene has always equated primitivism with authenticity, and it is
logical that it would latch onto the grittiest, least polished blues
artists as its forebears. Likewise, people in search of an
African-American folk heritage are naturally drawn to the music's most
archaic-sounding performers.

But before blues was marketed as roots or folk music, it was a vibrant
black pop style, and its original audience had very different standards
from those of most modern-day fans. While today's blues lovers look back
to rural Mississippi, black Americans at the height of the blues era
were looking forward to Harlem and "sweet home Chicago." This split is
perfectly exemplified by the two audiences' reactions to Leroy Carr.

Carr was the most influential male blues singer and songwriter of the
first half of the 20th century, but he was nothing like the current
stereotype of an early bluesman. An understated pianist with gentle,
expressive voice, he was known for his natty suits and lived most of his
life in Indianapolis. His first record, "How Long — How Long Blues," in
1928, had an effect as revolutionary as Bing Crosby's pop crooning, and
for similar reasons. Previous blues stars, whether vaudevillians like
Bessie Smith or street singers like Blind Lemon Jefferson, had needed
huge voices to project their music, but with the help of new microphone
and recording technologies, Carr sounded like a cool city dude carrying
on a conversation with a few close friends.

Carr's lyrics were carefully written, blending soulful poetry with wry
humor, and his music had a light, lilting swing that could shift in a
moment to a driving boogie. Rather than Smith's vaudeville jazz combos
or Jefferson's idiosyncratic country picking, Carr sang over the solid
beat of his piano and the biting guitar of his constant partner Francis
(Scrapper) Blackwell. The outcome was a hip, urban club style that
signaled a new era in popular music.

Given his importance, it was logical that when Columbia records had a
surprise success in the early 1960's with Robert Johnson's "King of the
Delta Blues Singers," the label followed up with a Carr compilation. It
was titled "Blues Before Sunrise," after one of Carr's most popular
songs, a haunting ballad that had been covered by John Lee Hooker,
Elmore James and Ray Charles.

But the folk and rock fans who hailed Johnson as a genius showed no
interest in the Carr album. His music was dismissed as an overly smooth
variant of Johnson's fiercer, more rural style, as if he were Pat Boone
to Johnson's Elvis Presley. Never mind that Carr's first records
predated Johnson's first recordings by eight years, or that Johnson's
work showed an immense debt to Carr's innovations. Carr's suave,
laidback style was not what the new audience wanted in a bluesman.

Now Columbia Legacy has come out with a two-disc Carr set — the first
major-label release of his work since the 1960's — and the title
suggests that the company has learned its lesson. Rather than evoking a
lonely sunrise, it quotes a rough and ungrammatical line from the
obscure "Hustler's Blues": "Whiskey Is My Habit, Good Women Is All I
Crave." This line was not original to Carr (it comes from Lucille
Bogan's "Whiskey Cravin' Blues"), but it conjures up the right image: a
hard-living precursor to Keith Richards.

But although Carr died of an alcohol-related illness shortly after his
30th birthday, what made him a key figure in American music was his
records, not his lifestyle. His followers dominated blues for more than
20 years and affected every aspect of the African-American pop scene. In
Chicago, studios filled up with piano-guitar duos and Carr clones like
Bumble Bee Slim and Bill Gaither (billed as "Leroy's Buddy"). In
Mississippi, Muddy Waters recalled "How Long" as the first song he ever
learned. In Kansas City, Count Basie recorded Carr's hits as piano
solos. On the West Coast, T-Bone Walker and Charles Brown made Carr's
smooth urbanity the hallmark of the L.A. style. In New York, vocal
groups from the Ink Spots to the Dominoes harmonized on Carr
compositions. Nat King Cole's first hit, "That Ain't Right," was a
Carr-inflected blues, and the R & B historian Arnold
Shaw traced soul ballad singing from Carr through Dinah Washington and
Sam Cooke to Otis Redding and Jerry Butler.

These artists were trendsetting stars, not obscure geniuses playing in
back-country juke joints, and they were regarded in their communities as
symbols of success. In his heyday as a R & B hitmaker, Muddy Waters wore
gorgeous suits, combed his hair in a high pompadour and appeared on
all-star bills alongside the Clovers and the Harptones. It was only in
his later years, when he was playing for largely white audiences that
considered him a carrier of the deepest Delta blues tradition, that he
came onstage in street clothes.

It is no coincidence that the audience that hailed both Carr and Waters
as up-to-date stars was overwhelmingly black, while the one that
rejected Carr as over-sophisticated and reinvented Waters as a link to
Robert Johnson was overwhelmingly white. Very few African-Americans have
ever been nostalgic for Depression-era Mississippi, while the image of
the Devil-haunted Delta bluesman has been a romantic touchstone for
everyone from the Stones to the White Stripes.

Maybe the time has come, though, when blues can escape its stereotyped
mythology and Carr can assume his rightful place. The subtle eloquence
of lyrics like "When the Sun Goes Down" helped bring a new simplicity
and directness to pop writing. The lonesome passion of Carr's voice on
songs like "Midnight Hour Blues" set the stage for Ray Charles. As for
the roots of rock 'n' roll, the pounding piano and sharp guitar lines of
"Sloppy Drunk" and "It's Too Short" sound like direct antecedents of Ike
Turner and Chuck Berry.

Of course, some listeners will always prefer solo guitar to piano
combos, and Charlie Patton's hoarse country shout to Carr's more subtle
phrasing — just as some prefer B. B. King to Little Richard, the Stones
to the Beatles or Missy Elliott to Norah Jones. But those are matters of
taste, not authenticity. In its heyday, blues was not an old-fashioned
folk style. Like rap, it had deep traditional roots but also a dynamic,
modern sensibility that revolutionized American music. And Leroy Carr
led that revolution, smooth voice, piano, fine suits and all.  

Elijah Wald is a musician and the author, most recently, of "Escaping
the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues"

More information about the Dixielandjazz mailing list