The Dean of Blues Scholars: Remembering Paul Oliver (1927-2017)

On Monday 14th August, Paul Oliver – the world’s most prolific writer and most respected blues scholar – passed away in Oxfordshire at the age of 90. Scores of blues historians, researchers, enthusiasts and musicians are paying tribute to his life and work on the blues, and obituaries summarizing his life and career have just been published on The Washington Post and  The New York Times. Oliver was remarkable not only for his pioneering work on the blues and African American music, but because he was also a leading figure in the world of vernacular architecture, the basis of his main role at Oxford Brookes University.

I first became aware of his writings on the blues as a teenager, when I was a budding guitar player who was trying to understand how such a powerful and distinctive musical genre could be borne out of the struggles of racial segregation in the American South. I was always puzzled by the fact that black musicians like Charley Patton, Son House, Peetie Wheatstraw and Blind Lemon Jefferson were recording songs and selling records in the 1920s and 1930s when they were denied the most basic forms of citizenship. Oliver’s books of the 1960s were enlightening in the way they not only attempted to explain what the blues was (an unenviable task!), but because they attempted to do so within the context of the African American experience. Amazingly, they were doing so at a time when very little had been written on the history or culture of African Americans in the UK In books like Blues Fell This Morning: the Meaning of the Blues (1960) which analysed the meaning of lyrics in over 350 songs, the photo-documentary style Conversation with the Blues (1965) which contained interviews and photographs of various musicians, and the epic The Story of the Blues (1969),Story of the Blues regarded the first real history of the music, Oliver consistently explained that the blues was the expression of the African American experience in the Deep South, and gave voice to the consequent struggles black Americans who were politically, economically and psychologically oppressed by their social circumstances. As he wrote in Blues Fell This Morning, ‘[t]he blues acted as a catalyst for the blinding anger and frustration that sought to demolish the moral codes and spirit of a man, and the act of artistic creation brought satisfaction and comfort to both him and his companions.’

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Paul Oliver interviewing the blues artist Lightnin’ Hopkins in Houston in 1960. Credit Chris Strachwitz/Arhoolie Foundation        

Despite Oliver’s consistent examination of the blues with the social and cultural context of the African American experience, he did have some critics. Some writers that suggested his British origins meant he was too far removed from the South and black culture to adequately explain the music with enough authority. Others disagreed with Oliver’s view that the blues was not the music of black protest. Most of these disagreements are highly subjective (with some in danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water). However, most blues scholars and historians would agree that Oliver built the foundations on which all subsequent blues scholarship has been based. As the ethnomusicologist David Evans commented, ‘it would hardly be an exaggeration to state that most of our present understanding of the blues is based on the work of Paul Oliver.’ Interestingly, while his primary focus was on the blues, unlike many other writers of the 1960s, he was careful to relate the blues to other genres, and see it as a prominent element in a rich tapestry of American musical tradition. He continued to work on the blues throughout his life, not only in terms of scholarship but also through the European Blues Association.

 

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I feel very lucky that I got to know him between 2009 and 2013 as I worked on my doctorate which examined the development of blues scholarship after WWII. My interviews with him formed the basis of my first book Blues, How Do You Do?. More importantly, however, his writings on the blues and African American culture were crucial in my development as a historian of the United States. I therefore felt hugely privileged when Oliver welcomed me into his home despite the numerous calls on his time. He generously recounted his experiences of writing about the blues in London during the 1950s, meeting musicians such as Big Bill Broonzy, Little Walter, and Lightnin’ Hopkins, and travelling to the Deep South for the first time at a time when Civil Rights activism was in full swing. He was extremely modest and humble on his role as a leading scholar on the blues, but more than anything, he was one of the nicest human beings I have ever met. While I am saddened by his departure, I am comforted by the fact that his work will continue to inspire future generations.

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