As a compiler, Allen Lowe is the music historian’s equivalent of David Thomson with his ongoing editions of A Biographical Dictionary of Film (the latest will be out this fall). In 1998 Lowe produced the nine-CD American Pop: An Audio History—From Minstrel to Mojo: On Record, 1893–1946; in 2006 the thirty-six-CD That Devilin’ Tune: A Jazz History [1895–1950]. Now he is unrolling a thirty-six-CD Really the Blues? A Blues History 1893–1959 in four installments; the first nine-CD box, covering 1893 to 1929, appeared this spring from West Hill Radio Archives. With at least twenty-four numbers to a disc, Really the Blues? is a cornucopia; it’s a swamp. It’s a forest to get lost in, tree by tree or even leaf by leaf. It’s a grand and overarching story—though that ? at the end of his title marks Lowe’s doubt as to whether with the blues such a story is possible, or even a good idea. It’s a flurry of fragments, leaving you grasping for a way to follow the trail.
As his free-swinging liner notes make clear, Lowe is a radical pluralist; as a synthesizer he’s completely idiosyncratic. He may love disjunction far more than unity—but what others hear as disjunctions may be unities to him. Thus along with late-nineteenth-century black quartette singing, Bert Williams, W. C. Handy, early gospel, vaudeville blues, minstrelsy survivals, New York City productions featuring the likes of Mamie Smith, Sarah Martin, and then Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, and the lone-traveler-with-guitar of the country blues, there is also Paul Whiteman, Jimmie Rodgers, white mountain singers, Billie Holiday, bluegrass, Sacred Harp chanting, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, and a Charles Ives piano piece from his Symphony no. 1. In Lowe’s hands, the blues is not a feeling (“A good man/woman feeling bad,” in the classical phrase, or, in Buzzy Jackson’s recent revision, “A bad woman feeling good”). It’s a language: something one can draw from the times and the landscape, or out of oneself; it’s a language one can learn. As a language, it gives whoever can speak it a certain purchase on the world, allowing one to present it or oneself in a light different from the light that falls on you without your will or desire coming into play. That is why it takes so many, even infinite, forms.
In the world of the blues as Lowe affirms it, any attempt at summary, let alone a critical assessment of what his crafted world is worth, of whether it’s a spinning globe or a pile of feathers, would demand far more time than it takes to listen—and given the shape of his production, constantly calling you back to play a given piece a second or a tenth time, to make it fit, to hear how it doesn’t, summary may be beside the point. For that matter, while Lowe covers every conceivable genre, style, form, and fashion, the recordings he chooses are almost never generic, an example of something as opposed to a thing in itself. Within any genre he is drawn to its anomalies, not the master chord but the broken cord. I hope to take up each of his four boxes as they arrive; here are ten echoes from the first.
(1) Bert Williams, “Nobody” (1906). “Not a blues, but—” it’s always said: it’s a spoken piece about being treated as if you don’t exist, or as if you never should have been born. (“Coon Song. Baritone Solo” was the notation on the original release.) As philosophy it’s a straight line from this to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, two world wars, a Great Depression, and forty-six years later. But in its cadence and in the melody of its speech it’s a leap to Muddy Waters’s “Rollin’ Stone” two years before that, and to Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” four years later.
(2) Fisk University Jubilee Quartet, “Poor Mourner” (1911). Formal gospel by trained singers—but in the highs and lows, the irreducibly spooky tones of a different voice, eyes without a face, a face without a name: what John Fahey meant when he said that inside certain gospel records you could hear “a cloven hoof beating time.”
(3) Prince’s Band, “St. Louis Blues” (1915). The big, bouncy, so-called first blues: “A terrible song, melodically bland and formally vulgar, a middle-class state of the blues,” Lowe says. “But the blues was a form Handy could not tame.” You can catch it here, in the half-lights in the verses, the spectre of a haunt already reaching to take the form back.
(4) Roosevelt Graves and His Brother, “I’ll Be Rested” (1926). So modern sounding, with air between every word and every note.
(5) Hendersonville Double Quartet, “I Want My Life to Testify” (1926). Lowe writes of the dignity of this recording. It’s the dignity of the scorned, the illiterate, the worthless, eight people speaking as a group to affirm that none of them is like anybody else, that if they’re worthy God will see each for who he or she really is, which means that if you don’t, you sin.
(6) Blind Willie Johnson, “Motherless Child” (1927). Compared to Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night—Cold Was the Ground,” one of the great works of American art, a pop song: “Blind man’s bluff,” Lowe says. That’s the echo. What does that mean?
(7) Moses Mason, “Molly Man” (1928). In the 1890s in St. Louis, the street singer Bill Dooley may have written both “Stagolee” and “Frankie and Albert,” on the spot. You can imagine that this is what he sounded like.
(8) Frank Stokes, “Take Me Back” (1928). From Memphis, all but turning cartwheels, Stokes always had his tongue in his cheek, and his tongue was like a whip.
(9) William Moore, “One Way Gal” (1928). When Moore looked out at the world, he never saw it end. The sun dropped down to the horizon, but it never set.
(10) Furry Lewis, “Judge Harsh Blues” (1928). Black man, white justice. I was going to say Judge Harsh is forgotten, and Furry Lewis’s name is spoken in a hundred languages, but that is glib. Judge Harsh will never die, and not because Lewis made him immortal. In this modest performance, made up of commonplace lines from a score of other songs (“My woman come a-running, with a hundred dollars in her hand / Crying Judge, Judge, please spare my man / One hundred won’t do, better get your three”), you can, as always when Lewis tells his stories, feel that he has thought them over for a long time, and that he’s still thinking as he sings.