Stephen O’Malley

Fahey as parapsychologist

Posted: Nov 20, 2008

Unknown bards:
The blues becomes transparent about itself
By John Jeremiah Sullivan

Discussed in this essay:

American Primitive, Vol. II: Pre-War Revenants (1897–1939). Revenant Records. $31.98

Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, by Elijah Wald. Amistad. 368 pages. $14.95 (paper).

In Search of the Blues: The White Invention of Black Music, by Marybeth Hamilton. Perseus Books. 309 pages. $24.95.

Late in 1998 or early in ’99—during the winter that straddled the two—I spent a night on and off the telephone with a person named John Fahey. I was a junior editor at the Oxford American magazine, which at that time had its offices in Oxford, Mississippi; Fahey, then almost sixty and living in Room 5 of a welfare motel outside Portland, Oregon, was himself, whatever that was: a channeler of some kind, certainly; a “pioneer” (as he once described his great hero, Charley Patton) “in the externalization through music of strange, weird, even ghastly emotional states.” He composed instrumental guitar collages from snatches of other, older songs. At their finest they could become harmonic chambers in which different dead styles spoke to one another. My father had told me stories of seeing him in Memphis in ’69. Fahey trotted out his “Blind Joe Death” routine at the fabled blues festival that summer, appearing to inhabit, as he approached the stage in dark glasses, the form of an aged sharecropper, hobbling and being led by the arm. He meant it as a postmodern prank at the expense of the all-white, authenticity-obsessed, country-blues cognoscenti, and was at the time uniquely qualified to pull it. Five years earlier he’d helped lead one of the little bands of enthusiasts, a special-ops branch of the folk revival, that staged barnstorming road trips through the South in search of surviving notables from the prewar country-blues or “folk blues” recording period (roughly 1925–1939).

Fahey was someone whose destiny followed the track of a deep inner flaw, like a twisted apple. He grew up comfortable in Washington, D.C., fixated from an early age on old guitar playing, finger-picking. After college he went west to study philosophy at Berkeley, then transferred at a deciding moment to UCLA’s folklore program, a degree from which equipped him nicely to do what he wanted: hunt for old bluesmen. He took part personally in the tracking down and dragging back before the public glare of both Booker T. Washington “Bukka” White and, in a crowning moment, Nehemiah Curtis “Skip” James, the dark prince of the country blues, a thin black man with pale eyes and an alien falsetto who in 1931 recorded a batch of songs so sad and unsettling it’s said that people paid him on street corners not to sing. Fahey and two associates found him in a charity hospital in Tunica, Mississippi, in 1964, dying with cruel slowness of stomach cancer. We know you’re a genius, they told him. People are ready now. Play for us.

“I don’t know,” he supposedly answered. “Skippy tired.”

I’d been told to get hold of Fahey on a fact-checking matter. The magazine was running a piece about Geeshie Wiley (or Geechie or Gitchie—and, in any case, likely only a nickname or stage moniker meaning that she had Gullah blood, or that her skin and hair were red-tinted). She’s perhaps the one contemporary of James’s who ever equaled him in the scary-beauty department, his spiritual bride. All we know about Wiley is what we don’t know about her: where she was born, or when; what she looked like, where she lived, where she’s buried. She had a playing partner named Elvie Thomas, concerning whom even less is known (about Elvie there are no rumors even). Musicians who claimed to have seen Geeshie Wiley in Jackson, Mississippi, offered sketchy details to researchers over the years: that she could have been from Natchez, Mississippi (and was maybe part Indian), that she sang with a medicine show. In a sadistic tease on the part of fate, the Mississippi blues scholar and champion record collector Gayle Dean Wardlow (he who found Robert Johnson’s death certificate) did an interview in the late Sixties with a white man named H. C. Speir, a onetime music-store owner from Jackson who moonlighted as a talent scout for prewar labels dabbling in so-called race records (meaning simply music marketed to blacks). Speir almost certainly met Wiley around 1930 and told his contacts at the Paramount company in Grafton, Wisconsin, about her—he may even have taken the train trip north with her and Elvie, as he was known to have done with other of his “finds”—but although at least two of Wiley and Thomas’s six surviving songs (or “sides,” in the favored jargon) had been rediscovered by collectors when Wardlow made his ’69 visit to Speir’s house, they were not yet accessible outside a clique of two or three aficionados in the East. Wardlow didn’t know to ask about her, in other words, although he was closer to her at that moment than anyone would ever get again, sitting half a mile from where she’d sung, talking with a man who’d seen her face and watched her tune her guitar.

Not many ciphers have left as large and beguiling a presence as Geeshie Wiley. Three of the six songs she and Elvie Thomas recorded are among the greatest country-blues performances ever etched into shellac, and one of them, “Last Kind Words Blues,” is an essential work of American art, sans qualifiers, a blues that isn’t a blues, that is something other, but is at the same time a perfect blues, a pinnacle.

Some have argued that the song represents a lone survival of an older, already vanishing, minstrel style; others that it was a one-off spoor, an ephemeral hybrid that originated and died with Wiley and Thomas, their attempt to play a tune they’d heard by a fire somewhere. The verses don’t follow the A-A-B repeating pattern common to the blues, and the keening melody isn’t like any other recorded example from that or any period. Likewise with the song’s chords: “Last Kind Words Blues” opens with a big, plonking, menacing E but quickly withdraws into A minor and hovers there awhile (the early blues was almost never played in a minor key). The serpentine dual-guitar interplay is no less startling, with little sliding lead parts, presumably Elvie’s, moving in and out of counterpoint. At times it sounds like four hands obeying a single mind and conjures scenes of endless practicing, the vast boredoms of the medicine-show world. The words begin,

The last kind words I heard my daddy say,
Lord, the last kind words
I heard my daddy say,

“If I die, if I die, in the German War,
I want you to send my money,
Send it to my mother-in-law.

“If I get killed, if I get killed,
Please don’t bury my soul.
I cry, Just leave me out, let the buzzards eat me whole.”

The subsequent verse had a couple of unintelligible words in it, either from mumbling on Wiley’s part or from the heavily crackling static that comes along with deteriorated 78-rpm discs. One could hear her saying pretty clearly, “When you see me coming, look ’cross the rich man’s field,” after which it sounded like she might be saying, “If I don’t bring you flowers,/I’ll bring you [a boutonniere?].” That verged on nonsense; more to the point, it seemed nonidiomatic. But the writer of the piece I was fact-checking needed to quote the line, and my job was to work it out, or prove to the satisfaction of my bosses that this couldn’t be done. It was Ed Komara, in those days keeper of the sacred B. B. King Blues Archive at Ole Miss, who suggested contacting Fahey. Actually, what I think he said was, “John Fahey knows shit like that.”

Finally a front-desk attendant agreed to put a call through to Fahey’s room. From subsequent reading, I gather that at this time Fahey was making the weekly rent by scavenging and reselling rare classical-music LPs, for which he must have developed an extraordinary eye, the profit margins being almost imperceptible. I pictured him prone on the bed, gray-bearded and possibly naked, his overabundant corpus spread out like something that only got up to eat: that’s how interviewers discovered him, in the few profiles I’d read. He was hampered at this point by decades of addiction and the bad heart that would kill him two years later, but even before all that he’d been famously cranky, so it was strange to find him ramblingly familiar from the moment he picked up the phone. A friend of his to whom I later described this conversation said, “Of course he was nice—you didn’t want to talk about him.”

Fahey asked for fifteen minutes to get his “beatbox” hooked up and locate the tape with the song on it. I called him back at the appointed time.

“Man,” he said, “I can’t tell what she’s saying there. It’s definitely not ‘boutonniere.’”

“No guesses?”


We switched to another mystery word, a couple of verses on: Wiley sings, “My mother told me, just before she died/Lord, [precious?] daughter, don’t you be so wild.”

“Shit, I don’t have any fucking idea,” Fahey said. “It doesn’t really matter, anyway. They always just said any old shit.”

That seemed to be the end of our experiment. Fahey said, “Give me about an hour. I’m going to spend some time with it.”

I took the tape the magazine had loaned me and went to my car. Outside it was bleak north-Mississippi cold, with the wind unchecked by the slight undulations of flatness they call hills down there; it formed little pockets of frozen air in your clothes that zapped you if you shifted your weight. I turned the bass all the way down on the car’s stereo and the treble all the way up, trying to isolate the frequency of Wiley’s voice, and drove around town for the better part of an hour, going the speed limit. The problem words refused to give themselves up, but as the tape ran, the song itself emerged around them, in spite of them, and I heard it for the first time.

“Last Kind Words Blues” is about a ghost-lover. When Wiley says “kind”—as in, “The last kind words I heard my daddy say”—she doesn’t mean it like we do; she doesn’t mean nice; she means the word in its older sense of natural (with the implication that everything her “daddy” says afterward is unnatural, is preternatural). Southern idiom has retained that usage, in phrases involving the word “kindly,” as in “I thank you kindly,” which—and the OED bears this out—represent a clinging vestige of the primary, archaic meaning: not I thank you politely and sweetly but I thank you in a way that’s appropriate to your deed. There’s nothing “kind,” in the everyday way, about the cold instructions her man gives for the disposal of his remains. That’s what I mean about the blues hewing to idiom. It doesn’t make mistakes like that.

Her old man has died, as he seems to have expected—the first three verses establish this, in tone if not in utterance. Now the song moves into a no-man’s-land: she’s lost. Her mother warned her about men, remember, “just before she died.” The daughter didn’t listen, and now it’s too late. She wanders.

I went to the depot, I looked up at the sun,
Cried, “Some train don’t come,
Gon’ be some walking done.”

Where does she have to get to so badly she can’t wait for another train? There’s a clue, because she’s still talking to him, or he to her—one isn’t sure. “When you see me coming, look ’cross the rich man’s field,” if I don’t bring you something, I’ll bring you something else, at least that much was clear—and part of an old story: If I don’t bring you silver, I’ll bring you gold, etc.

Only then, in the song’s third and last movement, does it get truly strange.

The Mississippi River, you know it’s deep and wide,
I can stand right here,
See my baby from the other side.

This is one of the countless stock, or “floating,” verses in the country blues—players passed them around like gossip, and much of the art to the music’s poetry lay in arrangement rather than invention, in an almost haiku-like approach, by which drama and even narrative could be generated through sheer purity of image and intensity of juxtaposition. What has Wiley done with these lines? Normally they run, “I can see my baby [or my “brownie”]/from this other side.” But there’s something spooky happening to the spatial relationships. If I’m standing right here, how am I seeing you from the other side? The preposition is off. Unless I’m slipping out of my body, of course, and joining you on the other side. Wiley closes off the song as if to confirm these suspicions:

What you do to me, baby, it never gets out of me.
I believe I’ll see ya,
After I cross the deep blue sea.

It’s one of the oldest death metaphors and would have been ready to hand, thanks to Wiley’s non-secular prewar peers. “Precious Jesus, gently guide me,” goes a 1926 gospel chorus, “o’er that ocean dark and wide.” Done gone over. That meant dead. Not up, over.

Greil Marcus, the writer of the piece I was fact-checking, mentioned the extraordinary “tenderness” of the “What you do to me, baby” line. It can’t be denied. There’s a tremendous weariness too. “It never gets out of me,” and part of her wishes it would—this long disease, your memory. (“The blues is a low-down achin’ heart disease,” sang Robert Johnson, echoing Kokomo Arnold echoing Clara Smith echoing a 1913 sheet-music number written by a white minstrel performer and titled “Nigger Blues.”) There’s nothing to look forward to but the reunion death will bring. That’s the narrow, haunted cosmos of the song, which one hears as a kind of reverberation, and which keeps people up at night.

I was having an intense time of it in the old Toyota. But when I got back onto the phone with Fahey, he was almost giddy. He’d scored one: blessèd. That’s what her mother told her, “Lord, blessèd daughter, don’t you be so wild.” I cued up to the line. It seemed self-evident now, impossible to miss. I complimented his ear. Fahey cough-talked his way through a rant about how “they didn’t care about the words” and “were all illiterate anyway.”

A reflexive swerving between ecstatic appreciation and an urge to minimize the aesthetic significance of the country blues was, I later came to see, a pattern in Fahey’s career—the Blind Joe Death bit had been part of it. It’s possible he feared giving in to the almost demonic force this music has exerted over so many—or worried he’d done so already. I’m fairly certain his irony meter hovered at zero when he titled his 2000 book of short stories How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life. More than that, though, the ability to flick at will into a dismissive mode was a way to maintain a sense of expert status, of standing apart. You’ll find the same tendency in most of the other major blues wonks: when the music was all but unknown, they hailed it as great, invincible American art; when people (like the Rolling Stones) caught on and started blabbering about it, they rushed to remind everyone it was just a bunch of dance music for drunken field hands. Fahey had reached the point where he could occupy both extremes in the same sentence.

He’d gotten as far as I had with “[a boutonniere?],” which remained the matter at hand, so we adjourned again. Came back, broke off. This went on for a couple of hours. I couldn’t believe he was being so patient, really. Then at one point, back in the car, after many more rewindings, some fibers at the edge of my innermost ear registered a faint “l” near the beginning of that last word: b-o-L-t? Boltered? A scan through the OED led to “bolt,” then to “bolted,” and at last to this 1398 citation from John de Trevisa’s English translation of Bartholomeus Anglicus’s ca. 1240 Latin encyclopedia, De proprietatibus rerum (On the Order of Things): “The floure of the mele, whan it is bultid and departid from the bran.”

Wiley wasn’t saying “flowers”; she was saying “flour.” The rich man’s flour, which she loves you enough to steal for you. If she can’t get it, she’ll get bolted, or very finely sifted, meal.

When you see me coming, look ’cross the rich man’s field.
If I don’t bring you flour,
I’ll bring you bolted meal.

Fahey was skeptical. “I never heard of that,” he said. But later, after saying goodbye for what seemed the last time, he called back with a changed mind. He’d rung up people in the interim. (It would be fun to know whom—you’d be tracing a very precious little neural pathway in the fin-de-siècle American mind.) One of his sources told him it was a Civil War thing: when they ran out of flour, they started using bolted cornmeal. “Hey,” he said, “maybe we’ll put you in the liner notes, if we can get this new thing together.”

The new thing was still in development when he died. On the phone we talked about Revenant, the self-described “raw musics” label he’d co-founded in 1996 with a Texas lawyer named Dean Blackwood. Revenant releases are like Konstruktivist design projects in their attention to graphic detail, with liner notes that are de facto transcripts of scholarly colloquia. Fahey and Blackwood had thought up a new release, which would be all about prewar “phantoms” like Wiley and Thomas (and feature new, superior transfers of the pair’s six sides). The collection’s only delimiting criteria would be that nothing biographical could be known regarding any of the artists involved, and that every recording must be phenomenal, in a sense almost strict: something that happened once in front of a microphone and can never be imitated, merely re-experienced. They had been dreaming this project for years, refining lists. And I’d contributed a peck of knowledge, a little ant’s mouthful of knowledge.

Almost six years passed, during which Fahey died in the hospital from complications following multiple-bypass surgery. I assumed, with other people, that he’d taken the phantoms project with him, but in October of 2005, with no fanfare and after rumors of Revenant’s having closed shop, it materialized, two discs and a total of fifty songs with the subtitle Pre-War Revenants (1897–1939).

Anyone interested in American culture should find a way to hear this record. It’s possibly the most important archival release since Harry Smith’s seminal _Anthology of American Folk Music _in 1952, and for the same reason: it represents less a scholarly effort to preserve and disseminate obscure recordings, indispensable as those undertakings are, than the charting of a deeply informed aesthetic sensibility, which for all its torment was passionately, selflessly in communion with these songs and the nuances of their artistry for a lifetime. Listening to this collection, you enter the keeping of a kind of Virgil.

To do it right entailed remastering everything fresh from 78s, which in turn meant coaxing out a transnational rabbit’s warren of the so-called serious collectors, a community widespread but dysfunctionally tight-knit, as by process of consolidation the major collections have come into the keeping of fewer and fewer hands over the years. “The serious blues people are less than ten,” one who contributed to Pre-War Revenants told me. “Country, seven. Jazz, maybe fifteen. Most are to one degree or another sociopathic.” Mainly what they do is nurse decades-old grudges. A terrifically complicated bunch of people, but, for reasons perhaps not totally scrutable even to themselves, they have protected this music from time and indifference. The collectors were first of all the finders. Those trips to locate old blues guys started out as trips to canvass records. Gayle Dean Wardlow became a pest-control man at one point, in order to have a legitimate excuse to be walking around in black neighborhoods beating on doors. “Need your house sprayed?” Nah. “Got any weird old records in the attic?”

Something like 60 percent of the sides on Pre-War Revenants are SCO, single copy only. These songs are flashbulbs going off in immense darknesses. Blues Birdhead, Bayless Rose, Pigmeat Terry, singers that only the farthest gone of the old-music freaks have heard. “I got the mean
Bo-Lita blues,” sings the unknown Kid Brown (“Bo-Lita” was a poorly understood Mexican game of chance that swept the South like a hayfire about a hundred years ago and wiped out a bunch of shoebox fortunes). There’s a guy named Tommy Settlers, who sings out of his throat in some way. I can’t describe it. He may have been a freak-show act. His “Big Bed Bug” and “Shaking Weed Blues” are all there is of whatever he was, yet he was a master. Mattie May Thomas’s astonishing “Workhouse Blues” was recorded a cappella in the sewing room at a women’s prison:

I wrassle with the hounds, black man,
Hounds of hell all day.
I squeeze them so tight,
Until they fade away.

In what is surely a trustworthy mark of obscurantist cred, one of the sides on Pre-War Revenants was discovered at a flea market in Nashville by the person who engineered the collection, Chris King, the guy who actually signs for delivery of the reinforced wooden boxes, put together with drywall screws and capable of withstanding an auto collision, in which most 78s arrive for projects like this. The collectors trust King; he’s a major collector himself (owner, as it happens, of the second-best of three known copies of “Last Kind Words Blues”) and an acknowledged savant when it comes to excavating and reconstructing sonic information from the wrecked grooves of prewar disc recordings. I called him a couple of years ago, looking for details of how this project had come to life. Like Fahey, King graduated college with degrees in religion and philosophy; he can wax expansive about what he does. He described “junking” that rare 78 in Nashville, the Two Poor Boys’ “Old Hen Cackle,” which lay atop a stack of 45s on a table in the open sun. It was brown. In the heat it had warped, he said, “into the shape of a soup bowl.” At the bottom of the bowl he could read the word perfect, a short-lived hillbilly label. “Brown Perfects” are precious. He took it home and placed it outside between two panes of clear glass—collector’s wisdom, handed down—and allowed the heat of the sun and the slight pressure of the glass’s weight slowly to press it flat again, to where he could play it.

Sometimes, King told me, he can tell things about the record’s life from how the sound has worn away. The copy of Geeshie Wiley’s “Eagles on a Half” (there’s only one copy) that King worked with for _Pre-War Revenants _had, he realized, been “dug out” by an improvised stylus of some kind—“they used anything, sewing needles”—in such a manner that one could tell the phonograph it spun on, or else the floor underneath the phonograph, was tilted forward and to the right. Suddenly you have a room, dancing, boards with a lot of give, people laughing. It’s a nasty, sexy song: “I said, squat low, papa, let your mama see./I wanna see that old business keeps on worrying me.” King tilted his machine back and to the left. He encountered undestroyed signal and got a newly vibrant mastering.

Strangest of the songs is the very oldest, “Poor Mourner” by the duo Cousins & DeMoss, who may or may not have been Sam Cousins and Ed DeMoss, semi-famous late-nineteenth-century minstrel singers—if so, then the former is the only artist included on Pre-War Revenants of whom an image has survived: a grainy photograph of his strong, square face appeared in the Indianapolis Freeman in 1889. These two performed “Poor Mourner” for the Berliner Company in 1897. (Emile Berliner had patented disc, as opposed to cylinder, recording; discs were easier to duplicate.)

Dual banjos burst forth with a frenetic rag figure, and it seems you’re on familiar if excitable ground. But somewhere between the third and fourth measure of the first bar the second banjo pulls up, as if with a halt leg, and begins putting forward a drone on top of the first, which twangs away for a second as if it hadn’t been warned about the imminent mood change. Then the instruments grind down together, the key swerves minor, and without your being able to pinpoint what happened or when, you find yourself in a totally different, darker sphere. The effect is the sonic equivalent of film getting jammed in an old projector, the stuck frame melting, colors bleeding. It all takes place in precisely five seconds. It is unaccountable. Chris King said, is not a function of some weird thing I couldn’t fix.” I asked if maybe the old machines ran slightly faster at the start. He reminded me that the song didn’t start with music; it started with a high voice shouting, “As sung by Cousins and DeMoss!”

When this song comes up I invariably flash on my great-grandmother Elizabeth Baynham, born in that same year, 1897. I touched that year. There is no degree of remove between me and it. I barely remember her as a blind, legless figure in a wheelchair and afghan who waited for us in the hallway outside her room. Knowing that this song was part of the fabric of the world she came into lets me know I understand nothing about that period, that very very end of the nineteenth century. We live in such constant closeness with the abyss of past time, which the moment is endlessly sucked into. The Russian writer Viktor Shklovsky said art exists “to make the stone stony.” These recordings let us feel something of the timeyness of time, its sudden irrevocability.

If Pre-War Revenants marks the apotheosis of the baroque aestheticization of early black southern music by white men, which has brought you such sentences as these, then it’s only proper that the collection appear now, as we’re finally witnessing the dawn of a new transparency in blues writing: the scholarship of blues scholarship. Two good books in this vein have been published in the past few years: Elijah Wald’s Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues and Marybeth Hamilton’s In Search of the Blues (subtitled, in its first, British edition, Black Voices, White Visions, and in the American, The White Invention of Black Music). Both are engaging and do solid, necessary work. I approached them with something like defensiveness, expecting to be implicated, inevitably, in the creepy racial unease that shadows the country-blues discourse, which has always been, with a couple of extremely notable examples (Zora Neale Hurston and Dorothy Scarborough), white guys talking to one another about black music, and about a particular period in the music, one that living black American artists mostly consider quaint.

Both new books replace hoary myths with researched histories of far greater interest. Both seek to deconstruct the legend of the “Delta bluesman,” with his crossroads and hellhounds and death by poison, his primal expression of existential isolation. Both end up complicating that picture instead. Wald’s book takes away the legend of Robert Johnson’s “inexplicable” technical ability, for which, rivals whispered, he sold his soul, and gives us instead Johnson the self-aware craftsman and student of other people’s records, including those of Skip James, from whom Johnson lifted the beautiful phrase “dry long so,” meaning indifferently, or for the hell of it. I don’t think the reviews of Escaping the Delta that appeared at the time of its publication went far enough in describing its genius. Partly this owed to the book’s marketing, which involved a vague suggestion that Robert Johnson would therein be exposed as a mere pop imitator. What Escaping the Delta really does is introduce us to a higher level of appreciation for Johnson’s methods.

Wald puts you inside Johnson’s head for the San Antonio and Dallas sessions, and takes you song by song, in an extremely rigorous way (he’s another lifelong student of the music); he shows you what Johnson decided to play and when and puts forward convincing reasons why, shows you what sources he was combining, how he changed them, honored them. Wald is especially good at comparing the alternate takes, letting us hear the minutiae of Johnson’s rhythmic and chordal modifications. These become windows onto the intensity of his craftsmanship. By picking up certain threads, you can track his moves. Blind Lemon Jefferson sang, “The train left the depot with the red and blue light behind/Well, the blue light’s the blues, the red light’s the worried mind.” That was a good verse. That was snappy. Eddie and Oscar, a polished, almost formal country-blues duo out of North Carolina (Eddie was white, Oscar was black), had already copied that. Johnson probably heard it from them. But when he went—

When the train, it left the station,
With two lights on behind,
Ah, when the train left the station,
With two lights on behind,
Well, the blue light was my blues,
And the red light was my mind.
All my love’s in vain.

—that was something else. Johnson knew it was something else. He knew how good it was, knew the difference between saying “the red light’s the worried mind” and saying “the red light was my mind.” After all, he’s the same person who wrote the couplet “From Memphis to Norfolk is a thirty-six hours’ ride./A man is like a prisoner, and he’s never satisfied.” Part of hearing the blues is taking away the sociological filter, which with good but misguided intentions we allow to develop before our senses, and hearing the self-consciousness of the early bluesmen—hearing that, as Samuel Charters put it in the liner notes to Henry Townsend’s Tired of Bein’ Mistreated (1962), the “blues singer . . . feels himself as a creative individual within the limits of the blue style.”

It’s an extraordinary thought-movie Wald creates for a hundred pages or so. If the jacket copy primed me to come away disabused of my awe for Johnson’s musicianship, instead it was doubled. Everything Johnson touched he made subtler, sadder. He took the mostly comical ravings of Peetie Wheatstraw the Devil’s Son-in-Law and smoothed them into Robert Johnson’s devil, the melancholy devil who walks like a man and looks like a man and is much less easily laughed off.

Whereas Wald wants to educate our response to the country blues away from nostalgia and toward a more mature valuation—by reminding us that all folk was once somebody’s pop—Marybeth Hamilton, an American cultural historian who teaches in England, looks back instead at the old sense of aura, asking where it came from. In Search of the Blues traces white fascination with the country blues to its roots in the mind of one James McKune, a weedy, closeted, alcoholic New York Times rewrite man turned drifter who kept his crates of 78s under his bunk at a YMCA in Brooklyn. Until now his tale has been known only to readers of the 78 Quarterly. McKune came from North Carolina and in 1971 died squalidly after a sexual transaction gone wrong. In the early Forties he was among the first to break from the world of hardcore New Orleans jazz collecting, which developed in Ivy League dorms and was byzantine with specialisms by the late Thirties. Hamilton proves deft on the progression of McKune’s taste. He started out an obsessive for commercial ethnographic material, such as regional dance songs from Spain on the Columbia label. He was interested, in other words, in culturally precious things that had been accidentally snagged and preserved by stray cogs of the anarchic capitalist machine.

One of McKune’s few fellow travelers in this backwater of the collecting world was Harry Smith, who would go on in 1952 to create the Anthology of American Folk Music. Smith urged McKune to send to the Library of Congress for a curious index, compiled by Alan Lomax during his field-recording days and held in manuscript there, of “American Folk Songs on Commercial Records.” That list is the real DNA of the country blues as a genre. Hamilton writes:

What [McKune] read there confounded everything he had ever assumed about race records. The dizzying variety of musical styles, the sheer oddity of the song titles…. Most intriguing of all were Lomax’s mentions of blues recordings [that] promised something undiluted and raw.

A strangeness to notice here is that McKune’s discovery happened in 1942. Robert Johnson, described on Lomax’s list with the notes “individual composition v[ery] f[ine], touches of voodoo,” had been alive and recording just four years earlier. Already he existed for McKune as he exists for us, when we approach him through the myth, at an archaeological remove. The country blues has its decade or so and then is obliterated with a startling suddenness, by the Depression, the Second World War, and the energy of the Chicago sound. In 1938, John Hammond, an early promoter of American folk music (later to become Bob Dylan’s first producer), put together a concert called “From Spirituals to Swing.” He intended it as a statement on the aesthetic legitimacy of African-American music. Hammond sent off a cablegram inviting Robert Johnson to come north and be in the show, to perform at Carnegie Hall. It’s a hinge moment in blues historiography—the second act, which would lead north and then to the festivals, reaches out to the first, which is disappearing with the onset of war, and tries to recognize a continuity. But Johnson had just died, at twenty-seven, either of poison or of congenital syphilis. He was employed to pick cotton at the time. At the concert they wheeled a phonograph onto the stage and played two of his records in the stillness. Even the mediation we think of as being so postmodern, the ghostliness surrounding the recordings themselves as material objects, is present at the very beginning.

McKune undertook to search out these recordings, to know them. Hamilton says he once rode a bus 250 miles from Brooklyn to the D.C. suburbs to hear Dick Spottswood’s recently turned-up copy of Skip James’s “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues.” He walked in, sat down, heard the record, and walked back out. Those who knew him recall his listening “silently. In awe.”

People are drifting
From door to door
Can’t find no heaven,
I don’t care where they go.

Spottswood was one in a circle of adepts who gathered around McKune in the late Forties and Fifties. They went on to become the Blues Mafia, the serious collectors. They didn’t really gather around McKune—he lived at the YMCA. But he visited their gatherings and became the chef du salon. (This is the same Dick Spottswood who a few years later would play Blind Willie Johnson’s “Praise God I’m Satisfied” over the telephone for a young John Fahey—who’d called up demanding it—causing Fahey to weep and nearly vomit.)

McKune was never an object-freak: like Fahey—who went looking for Skip James partly in hopes of learning the older man’s notoriously difficult minor-key tunings—he wanted the songs, the sounds, though he searched as relentlessly as any antiquarian. His early “want lists” in The Record Changer magazine are themselves now valuable collectibles. Hamilton includes the lovely detail that occasionally, in his lists, he would issue a call for hypothetical records. For instance, he might advertise for “Blues on black Vocalion, any with San Antonio master numbers”; that is, records made in the same studio and during the same week as Robert Johnson’s most famous sessions. (Goethe looking for the Urpflanze!)

What McKune heard when the records arrived transfixed him. Hamilton shows her seriousness and should earn the respect of all prewar wonks by not reflexively dismissing this something as an imagined “primitive” or “rough” quality. Indeed, those were the words that would have been used at the time by jazz collectors who for the most part dismissed this music as throwaway hick stuff, novelty songs made by people too poor to get to New Orleans. We can offer conjectures, as Hamilton does, intelligently, about the interior mansions of McKune’s obscurantism—about whether, say, his estimation of Charley Patton as the greatest of the country-blues singers was influenced by the fact that Patton’s records are the muddiest and least intelligible, allowing the most to be read into them—but the rigorous attention underlying all of McKune’s listening stands as his defense.

Rarely did McKune attempt published aesthetic statements of any kind, and it’s odd how he keeps repeating one word. Writing to VJM Palaver in 1960 about Samuel Charters’s then recent book, The Country Blues, McKune bemoaned the fact that Charters had concentrated on those singers who’d sold the most records, such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Brownie McGhee, whose respective oeuvres McKune found mediocre and slick. McKune’s letter is sputtering in the arcane fury of its narcissism of minor difference, but the word he keeps getting stuck on is “great.” As in “Jefferson made only one record I can call great” (italics McKune’s). Or, “I know twenty men who collect the Negro country blues. All of us have been interested in knowing who the great country blues singers are” (his again), “not in who sold best.” And finally, “I write for those who want a different basis for evaluating blues singers. This basis is their relative greatness…”

When I saw that letter in Hamilton’s book, it brought up a memory of being on the phone with Dean Blackwood, John Fahey’s partner at Revenant Records, and hearing him talk about his early discussions with Fahey over the phantoms project. “John and I always felt like there wasn’t enough of a case being made for these folks’ greatness,” he’d said. “You’ve got to have their stuff together to understand the potency of the work.”

Before dismissing as naive the boosterism of these pronouncements, we might ask whether there’s not a simple technical explanation for the feeling being expressed or left unexpressed in them. I would submit that there is and it’s this: The narrative of the blues got hijacked by rock ’n’ roll, which rode a wave of youth consumers to global domination. Back behind the split, there was something else: a deeper, riper source. Many people who have written about this body of music have noticed it. Robert Palmer called it Deep Blues. We’re talking about strains within strains, sure, but listen to something like Ishman Bracey’s “Woman Woman Blues,” his tattered yet somehow impeccable falsetto when he sings, “She got coal-black curly hair.” Songs like that were not made for dancing. Not even for singing along. They were made for listening. For grown-ups. They were chamber compositions. Listen to Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.” It has no words. It’s hummed by a blind preacher incapable of playing an impure note on the guitar. We have to go against our training here and suspend anthropological thinking; it doesn’t serve at these strata. The noble ambition not to be the kind of people who unwittingly fetishize and exoticize black or poor-white folk poverty has allowed us to remain the kind of people who don’t stop to wonder whether the serious treatment of certain folk forms as essentially high- or higher-art forms might have originated with the folk themselves.

If there’s a shared weakness to these two books, it’s that they’re insufficiently on the catch for this pitfall. “No one in the blues world was calling this music art,” says Wald. Is that true? Carl Sandburg was including blues lyrics in his anthologies as early as 1927. More to the point, Ethel Waters, one of the citified “blues queens” whose lyrics and melodies had a funny way of showing up in those raw and undiluted country-blues recordings, had already been writing self-consciously modernist blues for a few years by then (e.g., “I can’t sleep for dreaming…,” a line of hers I first heard in Crying Sam Collins and took for one of his beautiful manglings, then was humbled to learn had always been intentionally poetic). Marybeth Hamilton, in her not unsympathetic autopsy of James McKune’s mania, comes dangerously close to suggesting that McKune was the first person to hear Skip James as we hear him, as a profound artist. But Skip James was the first person to hear Skip James that way. The anonymous African-American people described in Wald’s book, sitting on the floor of a house in Tennessee and weeping while Robert Johnson sang “Come On in My Kitchen”— they were the first people to hear the country blues that way. White men “rediscovered” the blues, fine. We’re talking about the complications of that at last. Let’s not go crazy and say they invented it, or accidentally credit their “visions” with too much power. That would be counterproductive, a final insult even.

There’s a moment on those discs of Gayle Dean Wardlow’s interviews, the ones in Revenant’s Patton set. Wardlow is talking with Booker Miller, a minor prewar player who knew Charley Patton. And you can hear Wardlow, who was a deceptively good interviewer–he just kept coming at a person in this Rain Man style that would have made anybody feel the less awkward one in the room—and you can tell he’s trying to get Miller to describe the ritual of his apprenticeship to the elder Patton. “Did you meet him at a juke joint,” asked Wardlow, “or on the street?” How did they find each other? It’s the sort of question one would ask.

“I admired his records,” answered Booker Miller.

—John Jeremiah Sullivan is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. He is writing a book about a lost episode in the history of early America.

From Harpers Magazine, November 2008