JJ 09/70: Blacks, Whites and Blues

Fifty years ago, Graham Boatfield enjoyed Tony Russell demolishing the artificial barriers between blacks, whites and blues. First published in Jazz Journal, September 1970

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My eyes were opened some time ago when I saw and heard Champion Jack Dupree singing and playing country and western music with great gusto, shouting out square dance calls, and threatening to carry on all night if the customers wanted it. The further back we go, the more we find that barriers do not really exist. Leadbelly exulted in his cowboy songs and Jimmy Rodgers sang the blues.

If you are prepared to forget the artificial categories drawn up by some of those who like to bureaucratise music and song, this book will please you. If you prefer everything to slip into its little slot, the book may serve as a useful irritant.

Tony Russell sets out to look at the interwining strains of popular music in America, drawing from all sides of race barriers which often did not exist. He illustrates his story with scores of fascinating names and titles, related to their times and their social environment – the life of the world around them. The story starts in the minstrel days and runs up pretty close to modern times.

There are plenty of illustrations of performers, often using old publicity material, and of obscure record labels. A substantial section deals with the great Jimmie Rodgers; this covers his recording career with care and affection, even if it does once again perpetuate that hoary old myth about Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines playing on ‘Blue Yodel No 9’. Perhaps we should listen again.

The book is complete with a useful list of pub­lications, a working discography and an accurate index. Recommended reading.

Blacks, Whites and Blues by Tony Russell. (Studio Vista, 13s. paperback, 27s. hard. Illustrated)