J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Cross the Water Blues

Cross the Water Blues: African America Music in Europe
Edited by Neil A. Wynn
University of Mississippi Press

From the late Nineteenth Century European tours of the Fisk Jubilee Singers to the 1960’s British Blues Revival tours, African American musicians have often found receptive audiences across the Atlantic. In response to the centennial celebration of W.C. Handy’s first blues publication, particularly Mike Figgis’s examination of the British Blues tradition for Martin Scorsese’s PBS special, an academic conference examining the phenomenon of African American music in Europe was organized by the University of Gloucestershire and the European Blues Association. Many of the resulting papers have now been revised, collected, and published in Cross the Water Blues.

As is to be expected in anthologies, not every contribution offers the same level of insight. However, there are several valuable papers which challenge the notion of an entirely enlightened European embrace of the music. Both Iris Schmeisser writing on Josephine Baker in France and Catherine Parsonage discussing jazz in England identify a similar dichotomy. The French and English were attracted to this music both as an expression of urban modernism and to satisfy an exotic fetish for the music’s perceived primitive African roots. Parsonage writes: “Jazz encapsulates musically the metaphor of the ‘urban jungle,’ as its modernity was expressed through its perceived ‘primitive’ rhythmic qualities.” (p. 92)

One of the more valuable pieces comes from Rainer E. Lotz, whose “Black Music Prior to the First World War,” performs some impressive musical archeology, tracking down details on now obscure musicians who were able to carve out impressive careers on the Continent. Citing many archaic cylinder recordings, Lotz concludes: “African American musicians were among the pioneers of recorded music not only in the United States, but also in Europe.” (p. 81)

Probably the weakest selection was Sean Creighton’s hero-worshipping love letter to Paul Robeson. Glossing Robeson’s loyalty to a Stalinist Soviet Union, Creighton is frankly deceptive when he describes Robeson’s ideology as: “a non-violent crusade for freedom.” (p. 139) As the Hoover Institution's Arnold Beichman catalogues in the Washington Times (article reprinted within comment 47), Robeson sided with the Soviet invaders over the Hungarian people in 1956, defended the Hitler-Stalin Pact, and endorsed the show trials of the Great Terror. Regardless of what you think of Robeson’s ideology, non-violent hardly seems an apt description.

Excepting Creighton’s dubious contribution, Cross the Water is a largely informative volume. As well-mined as the British blues-rock movement might be, Rupert Till finds fresh insight, particularly in his examination of the blues roots of (and litigation against) Led Zeppelin. Many contributors, like Lotz display a laudable enthusiasm for their subjects, while remaining instructive in their papers. Although it is all too easy to believe some of the collected pieces began life at an academic conference, there is much here for music scholars to absorb and debate.

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