On Friday 9th May I attended this seminar to present a paper on Paul Oliver’s Conversation with the Blues (1965), and the role of oral history and photography in developing the iconography of the blues during the 1960s blues revival. The seminar was third in a series organised by the Race in the Americas group, a network of scholars and researchers formed in 2012. In the group’s own words,
We exist partly to counter the view that the election of an African-American US president has resulted in a ‘post-racial’ society. Most of us celebrated Barack Obama’s election and most of us wanted him to succeed, but not all of us believed that race relations in the USA would improve… So long as individuals continue to be gendered and ‘racialised’, RITA aims to continue the discussion. Instead of accepting the view that North America encapsulates the Americas as a whole, we encourage a broad approach towards the region in order to embrace the complexities of race in the Caribbean and South and Central America..
My talk was one among many which examined a range of interesting issues that included gay rap and the problems of black masculinity; protest in hip-pop up to the murder of Treyvon Martin; the reception of jazz in interwar Paris; the popularity of Northern Soul among miners in Yorkshire, and the racial politics of Frank Zappa. These talks brought historians together with sociologists, geographers, cultural theorists and musicians in what was a very interesting day of debate and discussion (see the programme here).
Much to my delight the keynote speaker was Dr Bruce Conforth from the University of Michigan, who delivered an interesting talk on the nature of protest in pre-WWII blues. Dr Conforth has had an illustrious career as both a performer and a scholar of American music. He was also one of the founding curators of the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. His paper argued that white scholars have all too often relied on their own interpretations of ‘protest’, based on their own Western socio-political agenda, leading to misinterpretations on the nature of blues expression. Outlining that blues scholarship has suffered from a crisis of interpretation, he argued that the nature of protest in the blues needs to be understood much more in the context of African American expression in the interwar period, and not in the frame of traditional ‘white’ notions of political subversion or rebellion. Interestingly, and much to the delight of the audience, he followed this up with a performance on the diversity of guitar blues styles from the interwar years, which was very enjoyable informative, particularly to those unfamiliar with the idiom. I believe that it is very important to hear music when people talk about music, and in this case Dr Conforth provided the perfect balance by coupling his performance with memories of learning from legendary figures such as Blind Gary Davis, and Son House. Anyone keen on learning more about American folk music should certainly take a look at his work.