Kinds of Blues

Pete Mayes and Joe Hughes

The primary reason I loathe rap music-aside from the corrosive effect it’s had on urban social interaction and the level of critical discourse-is that rap has destroyed the blues as a living African-American art form. Virtually all of the performers who made Texas blues internationally iconic and shaped the future of rock and soul have passed from the scene. The grand ballrooms and small neighborhood clubs where performers and audience merged into a whole greater than the sum of their parts are mostly shuttered or demolished. The chain of new talent “coming up” and learning from the masters has been broken by cynically well-marketed violence and undertalented instant superstars, and I doubt if that chain can ever be welded whole. While I would like to believe that somewhere in Houston’s Fifth Ward there is a black teen listening to his granny’s old Duke-Peacock and T-Bone Walker 45s and LPs, practicing guitar until his fingers bleed, I would also like to believe that I’m about to be tapped for a high-level cabinet post in the Obama administration. And so I approach Dallas folklorist Alan Govenar’s career opus Texas Blues: The Rise of a Contemporary Sound much as I would the obituary of a dear friend: with much sadness, but curious about what’s being said of my late beloved.

This is the most important book I am aware of on the history of Texas blues. And at $40 for 599 glossy, lavishly illustrated pages (and deeply discounted at the usual Internet kiosks) it’s a remarkable bargain. Govenar, in addition to being a painstaking interviewer and researcher, is also a longtime archivist and photo historian who founded the nonprofit Documentary Arts and has a close working relationship with the Texas African American Photography Archive, both based in Dallas. This book is a unique collection of publicity photos, snapshots, and reproductions of concert posters, album labels and album covers. It’s a marvelous visual record. 

There is also text-analysis, biography and interviews-tracing the Texas blues through its many twists and turns from the days of slavery to the present. The sheer quantity of information presents a challenge to coherence, and Govenar is to be commended for merging history and geography into a chronology that makes immediate and intuitive sense. The prologue is Govenar’s tale of his search for the grave of Blind Lemon Jefferson, the extremely influential and short-lived guitarist and songwriter of the 1920s who is generally considered the grandfather of modern Texas blues. But this is no self-aggrandizing odyssey. Any Caucasian who has ventured into the field of African-American roots music has experienced a moment or 12 when it becomes obvious that the old black folks think they’re dealing with one crazy white boy. Govenar tells his version of this tale well (“… she says ‘Why, he’s been dead for nearly 50 years’ and closes the door in my face …”) and then forges on.

Texas Blues

His introduction is a scholarly look at the roots of African-American music in ancient Africa and, more recently, the pre-Emancipation American South. For all its learned depth, this material brings to mind an interview I did years ago with country musician and archivist Chuck Meade, of the group BR5-49, who told me, “The history of American music is that the black folks gave the white folks the banjo and the white folks gave the black folks the guitar, and that’s pretty much it except for the details.” Govenar fills in the details, illustrated and with footnotes.

And then, for more than 500 pages, the artists themselves do most of the storytelling. The romp begins, fittingly, in East Texas, where in the days of Reconstruction untutored African-Americans began to create something magical with mail-order acoustic guitars. Govenar-and earlier archivists such as John and Alan Lomax, Mack McCormick, Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records, and Les Blank-got to know many since-deceased authentic country “songsters,” including Mance Lipscomb and Sam “Lightnin'” Hopkins, and preserved their music and their words for posterity. Of particular note here is a 1968 interview with Hopkins conducted by Blank on the interrelated topics of music and women. It’s the most hilariously misogynistic rant I have ever read, and leaves me wondering how the legendarily talented Hopkins survived to die of natural causes at the age of nearly 70 instead of being murdered by one of his numerous wives, mistresses or paramours.

As marvelous as Texas’ acoustic country blues were and are, two things happened to move that sound’s fundamentals into the big city and around the world: the electric guitar and Aaron “T-Bone” Walker, who is given justified credit throughout this book as the father of modern Texas blues. In fact, my first quibble with Texas Blues is that someone-I suspect in the marketing department at A&M Press-chose to use a photo of Stevie Ray Vaughan as the cover illustration. Stevie was an important Texas talent, no argument there, but T-Bone should have gotten the cover. The text repeatedly makes plain that Walker was the first Texas blues superstar, and a general to the regiments of post-WWII musicians who spread the state’s native musical statement to the cultural capitals of California and New York and beyond.

T-Bone also makes an appearance in a brief chapter-essential to the narrative-called “Electrifying the Blues,” which features profiles of Walker and three lesser-known talents of the pre-WWII era, including an interview with guitarist and trombonist Eddie Durham, who as much as anyone could be called the inventor of the electric guitar. Then, having accounted for the technological progress underpinning the development of a new sound, Govenar slips back into his regional threads.

This logical shift from developments in instrumentation to regional subgenres is very much this book’s strength. The Deep Ellum sound, exemplified by Z.Z. Hill and other post-T-Bone players, followed the invention of the electric guitar, and so Govenar follows “Electrifying the Blues” with the fruits of his decades of research on Dallas and Fort Worth artists. Much of the magic of the postwar Houston sound was saxophone-based, so the dozen-plus Houston artist profiles follow the nine legends immortalized under the rubric of “The Saxophone in Texas Blues.” Both Houston and the Golden Triangle of Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange make legitimate claims as the home of Texas-flavored zydeco, so the chapter on zydeco falls between the archives of those two great southeast Texas music meccas.

While some (especially Yankee academics who self-style themselves folklorists) might argue with the inclusion of zydeco in a blues history, nothing could be more appropriate. Self-appointed keepers of the flame (including the editors of Oxford, Mississippi’s Living Blues magazine) are sure to also take exception to Govenar’s obvious disagreement with their longstanding dogma that the blues is an exclusively African-American art form. Next time they’re in Texas they should check out Angela Strehli. 

Which is not to say I don’t have my own quibbles with this book, however impressive the overall production. For one thing, it’s hard to see how a book in which more than 90 percent of the profiled artists are dead can accurately be subtitled “The Rise of a Contemporary Sound.” There will probably always be earnest and adoring young fans (including, currently, my nephew) who grow up spending hours a day learning Robert Cray, Johnny “Clyde” Copeland and Stevie Ray Vaughan licks in their suburban bedrooms, but they will never experience the dive-bar boot camps known as “nut-cuttings” where anyone, even a young suburban Caucasian, was welcome to step up on a Sunday afternoon and front a five-piece ensemble with over 200 years of professional musical craftsmanship between them. And after a few signature changes from the dark side of Mars, the lost and confused upstart-his testicles properly trimmed-was welcome to return to his seat in humiliation, and then go back home to practice even longer hours until he regrew the courage to return and try again. That, after all, is how the legends learned. Unfortunately, those Parris Islands of blues education are all but lost to memory now. For the most part, those performers and their audiences have gone on to paradise, where a thick fog of menthol smoke and a big glass of Seagram’s gin with a splash of 7-Up greet arriving angels.

Also unfortunately, Govenar, a longtime resident of Dallas, doesn’t know Houston as well as he does his hometown. While I found the chapters on Dallas and Central Texas educational (especially some remarkable interviews with and profiles of Hispanic blues artists from San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley), the same can’t be said for the chapters on H-Town. Govenar admits without shame that he has recycled several interviews from his 1988 Meeting the Blues for this new book. In many cases, the subjects of these interviews lived, performed and recorded for a dozen or more years afterward without an update. The Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown that I had the great privilege of knowing until his death, at 80, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, bore little resemblance to the bitterly unhappy man Govenar interviewed at a low point in his career in 1987. That was a snapshot of Brown at an important, if sad, time; shortly thereafter his fortunes reversed with lucrative record and touring contracts, resulting in some of the most incredible music I’ve ever heard. An update would have been enlightening, and better served this book’s historical functionality.

Clyde Langford

Similarly, while researching the impact of music on race relations and urban development-important issues that Govenar discusses with due diligence-he inaccurately places the nonprofit arts-and-revitalization organization Project Row House in the Freedman’s Town section of Houston’s Fourth Ward, west of downtown. Alas, Freedman’s Town fell to urban-renewal bulldozers years before this book was published. Project Row House is actually southeast of downtown Houston in Third Ward.

(The few other errors I was able to find had to do with layout glitches, but some of these, including the mystifying absence of a promised interview with Houston-born saxman Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, are significant. Insert joke about Aggie copy editors here.)

Even so, the Houston and related chapters are the best record extant of the remarkable influence exerted by the “big-band jump-blues” created by Duke-Peacock Records in the Fifth Ward under the leadership of label owner Don Robey (a controversial figure alternately praised and reviled here by the artists who recorded for him) and studio director Joe Scott. Duke-Peacock artists like Gatemouth Brown and Bobby “Blue” Bland (who, even though he’s the best-known of the Duke-Peacock stars, is neither profiled nor interviewed in Texas Blues), fronting urban jump-blues orchestras that featured “in tune and in step” horn sections, laid down an immortal sound. That sound was later echoed by a younger generation typified by Albert Collins, Johnny “Clyde” Copeland and Joe “Guitar” Hughes (all interviewed by Govenar, and all now dead), who left their inner-city Houston homes to play for adoring crowds at blues festivals and nightclubs around the world without forgetting for a single measure where they came from.

And it is so good to see, here among the legends of the past, a long interview with Copeland’s incredibly talented 29-year-old daughter Shemekia. She may have grown up in and around New York City, but her musical education and her daddy’s genes mark her as a Texan in spirit. Her remarkable skills as a vibrantly young old-school blues shouter make her living proof that every dire warning I’ve ever indulged about the future of the blues might well be just plain wrong.

Jim Sherman lives in Houston’s Fifth Ward, where he occasionally weeps as he walks his dog past vacant lots that used to be really happenin’ clubs.

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