In this post, blues historian and EBA website editor Dr. Lawrence Davies reflects on the historical significance of Paul Oliver’s blues research.
Paul Oliver (1927-2017) was one of the world’s leading authorities on the blues. Over a career spanning six decades, Oliver tirelessly documented the music, its performers, and their social context. His research combined incisive lyrical analysis with sociology, anthropology, and oral history. His 1960 book Blues Fell This Morning was the first book-length study of the blues, while The Story of the Blues, published in 1969, is widely regarded as one of the most comprehensive surveys of the genre’s history. One does not have to go far to find glowing reminiscences from other blues enthusiasts and researchers who were fortunate enough to have met and worked with Oliver, or merely just been inspired by one of his many books, articles, or radio broadcasts. These recollections without exception paint a picture of a man who possessed a gargantuan knowledge of African American vernacular music, and – perhaps most importantly – a boundless generosity of spirit and willingness to share his expertise.
The depth of Oliver’s blues knowledge is all the more astonishing when one considers his distance from the subject itself. Although Oliver’s first encounter with the blues was remarkably direct – overhearing African American soldiers singing at a local air force base during World War II – for the main his early exposure to the blues, whether live or recorded, would have been extremely limited. Jazz record collecting had attracted a devoted, if niche, following in Britain from the 1930s onwards, but specialist interest in the blues was far rarer. ‘Blues, Negro folk music, gospel singing and Race music […] will always remain unpalatable to the average jazz collector’, a twenty-eight year old Oliver wrote in 1955; ‘[…] it is hardly conceivable that they will ever achieve […] popularity with the general public’. For most collectors of the 1940s and early 50s, the blues was a footnote in the historical development of jazz, an ‘ur-style’ that pioneering instrumentalists had since developed. The few recordings of ‘classic’ blues singers like Bessie Smith and Ida Cox that were available on British labels attracted interest primarily because of the well-known jazz musicians playing behind the singers.
Oliver took a different tack. The blues and other vernacular forms, Oliver reasoned, had continued to develop along a parallel course from jazz, and merited study in their own right. It was precisely the tenacity of these ‘folk’ forms of expression that made them interesting: that the blues continued to flourish across the diverse communities of black America suggested that it had a particular meaning for its performers and audiences – an ability to encapsulate their experiences, anxieties, hopes, and dreams. Oliver published over sixty articles on the blues between 1952 and the publication of his first major book, Blues Fell This Morning in 1960. Some provided factual information about musicians’ biographies and critical commentary on their available recordings, but the majority addressed the warp and weft of African American life in the early twentieth century: migration, the railroads, romantic relationships; the justice system, gambling, socialising; the Mississippi river, farming, religion, and many other subjects.
Looking back over Oliver’s early writings more than half a century later, it is clear how challenging such research must have been. Oliver managed to access an incredible number of rare American recordings, from Vocalions to Bluebirds and early Paramounts; of the 350 quoted blues recordings included in Blues Fell This Morning, only a handful were available on British labels. Yet the effort of accessing, listening, and transcribing the lyrics to these records was only the beginning of the task. What Oliver gleaned from blues lyrics themselves he contextualised with reference to field-defining works of African American literature and sociology. He was well-versed in the writings of the Harlem Renaissance such as Sterling Brown, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, as well as more contemporary writers like Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. Oliver’s evocative depictions of African American life were made all the more realistic by his references to St. Claire Drake and Horace Cayton’s Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City, E. Franklin Frazier’s The Negro Family in the United States, and Charles S. Johnson’s Growing Up in the Black Belt. Perhaps most provocatively, Oliver made full use of research gathered by the US Bureau of Labour Statistics and the United States Information Service. Many jazz enthusiasts did not even know that this literature existed, let alone were familiar enough with their contents to see how they might be useful for understanding the blues and its social context.
Although Oliver would make increasing use of field recordings and oral history over the course of his career, commercial recordings remained the bedrock of his research. While this approach has some limits – an over-reliance on one form of documentation necessarily risks excluding anything that was not captured in this medium – Oliver recognised that the sheer breadth of the early recording industry still provided a rich seam for musical enquiry. As David Horn notes, Oliver cut against the grain of the ‘star system’ that he identified as a growing feature of later blues scholarship. Rather than focus on particular musicians and schools of performance style, as some writers have done, Oliver cast his net wide; he focused on musicians whose output was sporadic as well as those whose output was prolific, and those with regional appeal as much as those with national renown. The resulting historical fabric is thickly textured, capturing the many complexities that lie beneath the blues’s otherwise simple stylistic framework. Likewise, Oliver’s extensive interviews with blues musicians during visits to the United States, which formed the basis of Conversation With The Blues (1965), brought musicians’ own lived experiences to the forefront of scholarly understandings of the genre.
Oliver’s research was inevitably informed by his own position within the blues revival of the 1950s and early 60s. Both Richard Middleton and Christian O’Connell have observed Oliver’s inclination to frame the blues as a culture under threat from changing tastes, mass media, and changing economic circumstances, an approach that with hindsight seems unnecessarily nostalgic. At the same time, such historical specificity is important. Oliver’s focus on prewar ‘race records’ and the vernacular performance traditions that predated jazz and blues (explored in Savannah Syncopators (1974) and Songsters and Saints (1984)) demonstrates a parallel concern with the social, economic, and political conditions that were particular to this period. It is no coincidence that the focal period of Oliver’s research is bounded by the passing of Plessy v. Ferguson and similar ‘Jim Crow’ laws at one end, and the passage of Civil Rights legislation at the other. Black vernacular music, whether transmitted orally or via the media of recording and broadcasting, circulated within a complex and multilayered society that suffered from one overriding condition: the subordinate status of African Americans within the nation as a whole.
And it is perhaps here that Oliver’s most valuable contribution to blues scholarship lies. Beneath his renowned humility and modesty lay a radical and steadfast opposition to racism. For Oliver the blues was inextricably tied to the circumstances of its performers and audiences, and as their fortunes increased, Oliver reasoned, the blues would cease to have relevance. Yet this would be a small price to pay, he wrote in the closing pages of Blues Fell This Morning, for ‘the true and complete integration of the Negro into American society’. These words, written on the cusp of the tumultuous 1960s, may appear naive to us in the twenty-first century, but we should also mark Oliver’s final reminder to the reader that the fight was far from over: ‘the blues still fell this morning’. As long as the blues continue to fall, Oliver’s research will have meaning.
Mick Gidley, John Glenister, and Giles Oakley, ‘Letters: Paul Oliver Obituary’, The Guardian, 13 September 2017 <https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/sep/13/letters-paul-oliver-obituary>
William Grimes, ‘Paul Oliver, Pre-eminent Authority on the Blues, Dies at 90’, New York Times, 17 August 2017 <https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/17/arts/music/paul-oliver-authority-on-the-blues-dies-at-90.html>
Elain Harwood and Tony Russell, ‘Paul Oliver Obituary’, The Guardian, 31 August 2017 <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/aug/31/paul-oliver-obituary>
David Horn and Paul Oliver, ‘Interview with Paul Oliver’, Popular Music, 26.1 (January 2007), 5-13
Eric LeBlanc et al, ‘The Paul Oliver 70th Birthday Tribute’, Blues World (May 1997) <https://web.archive.org/web/19971008060605/http://www.bluesworld.com/PAULOLIVER.HTML> [accessed 2 August 2018]
Richard Middleton and Christian O’Connell, ‘Obituary: Paul Oliver (1927-2017)’, Popular Music, 37.2 (May 2018), 290-295
Christian O’Connell, Blues, How Do You Do? Paul Oliver and the Transatlantic Story of the Blues (Ann Arbour: Michigan University Press, 2015)
Paul Oliver, Blues Fell This Morning: Meaning in the Blues (London: Cassell, 1960)
––– ‘Problems of Collecting Race Records’, Music Mirror, 2.9 (September 1955), 13-14
Val Wilmer, ‘Letter: Paul Oliver Obituary’, The Guardian, 5 November 2017 <https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/nov/05/paul-oliver-obituary-letter>