Blues Like Showers of Rain: Paul Oliver’s 1960 Fieldwork on Screen

Paul Oliver’s 1965 book Conversation with the Blues is a landmark of blues research. But the photographs and recordings that Oliver collected in the United States have appeared in other contexts, too. This post highlights a lesser-known – but no less provocative – use of his research materials.

Wade Walton outside his barber’s shop in Clarksdale, MS, Summer 1960. Photo by Paul Oliver

Blues fans are likely to be familiar with Paul Oliver’s Conversation with the Blues. Based on Oliver’s 1960 field trip to the United States, Conversation gathers together the testimonies of a wide range of blues musicians, from leading names like Muddy Waters and Little Walter, to lesser-known artists like Butch Cage, or Willie Nix. Alongside stark, black and white photographs also captured by Oliver, Conversation presents searing accounts of African American life and music in the words of those who have lived it. According to blues scholar Christian O’Connell, Conversation shattered many early blues fans’ romanticised perceptions of black life, forcing them to face up to the harsh realities that lay behind the music they heard on record.

Conversation with the Blues was published in 1965, and it is certainly the most well-known presentation of Oliver’s fieldwork. Some fans may also be familiar with the companion LP released by Decca in the same year, which was discussed in an earlier blog post on this site. But Oliver also found other uses for the material he had gathered, both prior to and following the publication of Conversation.

In August 1961, for instance, Oliver presented a two-part radio series for the BBC’s Third Programme. Also called ‘Conversation with the Blues’, the series – according to the Radio Times – presented ‘field recordings collected in the U.S.A. by Paul Oliver’; the first programme was given the ‘Blues is a Feeling’, while the second ‘Walk a-while, Ride a-while’. An archive recording of ‘Blues is a Feeling’ is held at the British Library.

Oliver also permitted his audio and visual research materials to be turned into a film by the filmmaker John Jeremy. Released in 1970, Blues Like Showers of Rain presents a thirty-minute collage of Oliver’s photographs, set to his interview recordings.  Strikingly, Blues Like Showers of Rain features no moving footage or live participants, an approach Jeremy would also take in the 1972 film Jazz Is Our Religion. Instead, Jeremy uses techniques now commonly associated with acclaimed director Ken Burns to bring Oliver’s photographs to life. His subjects speak – and even sing – to the viewer in an arresting portrait of the blues. When the credits roll at the end, Jeremy includes the names of the blues musicians whose voices can be heard in the film.

Fortunately, Blues Like Showers of Rain can be viewed for free online via the Folkstreams website. You can watch the following short trailer here, or follow the link below to view the whole film.

Click here to view the whole film.

Further reading
Christian O’Connell, Blues, How Do You Do? Paul Oliver and the Transatlantic Story of the Blues (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015)
John Jeremy Filmography
John Jeremy Profile on folkstreams.net