Biography

Paul Oliver (1927-2017)

Paul Oliver
Paul at the University of Gloucestershire, 2007

Attracted to the singing of Black soldiers stationed in Britain during the Second World War, in addition to his training and teaching in the arts, Paul Oliver pursued the history and development of the music which this encounter engendered, publishing his first article on the blues in Jazz Journal in 1952.

Born in Nottingham on 25 May 1927, Paul Hereford Oliver attended school in Harrow, Middlesex and trained in Art and Design at Harrow College of Art (National Diploma in Design, 1948), and Goldsmiths College (Art Teacher’s Diploma, 1949). He taught Art at secondary school level throughout the 1950s, soon after his qualification taking up a position at Harrow County Grammar School, which he attended in his teens. In this period he also contributed illustrations to a variety of publications. Between 1955 and 1960 he gave regular public lectures at both the National Gallery of Art, and the Tate Gallery of Modern Art in London.

Blues Fell This Morning
Blues Fell This Morning (1960)

While preparing and writing a study of the blues using themes expressed in the lyrics to recordings, he published Bessie Smith (Cassell, 1959) an account of the life of this significant vaudeville blues personality. This was followed soon after by Blues Fell This Morning: The Meaning of the Blues (Cassell, 1960), his analysis of recorded blues and its social circumstance. The same year he was awarded a Foreign Specialist Grant by the United States Department of State to undertake field work in the United States investigating the lives and social milieu of both contemporary and past blues singers, including circumstances in which they performed and recorded.

Blind Arvella Gray
Blind Arvella Gray, Maxwell Street, Chicago, 1960

This trans-American journey, took in northern urban centres (Washington, D.C., New York City, Detroit and Chicago) and cities and rural settlements in several southern states — Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas, plus California and St. Louis, Missouri. Two BBC radio programmes featuring this material were aired in 1961, and he has broadcast regularly on many aspects of the blues tradition.

The 1960 investigation resulted in Conversation With The Blues (Cassell, 1965), a work that engages thematically with the lives of performers and their associates across the spectrum of their activities — for some, from tent show to vaudeville stage, for others from rural share-crop farming to urban dance halls and club-land. Managers and other promoters are also included in the ‘conversation’, which is peppered with significant photographs, taken during the 1960 expedition.

On his return from the U.S.A. in 1960 Paul Oliver moved his primary discipline from Art to Architecture (his father’s profession), taking up a post as Senior Lecturer in Arts and History at the School of the Architectural Association in London where he worked until 1973. In this context he visited Ghana in 1964 where he also undertook fieldwork related to his musical interests; the result was his monograph Savannah Syncopators: African Retentions in the Blues (Studio Vista, 1970).

Maxwell St Jimmy with King David on harp, Maxwell Street, Chicago, 1960

His exhibition of photographs and ephemera relating to development of blues in general, was held at the United States Embassy in Grosvenor Square London in 1965, it featured many pictures taken during his 1960 field trip to the U.S.A., and formed the foundation of his seminal work The Story of the Blues (Cresset Press, 1969).

Throughout the 1970s, Paul Oliver concentrated his publications on architectural themes, in particular vernacular architecture, publishing a series of books on the subject of Shelter. He became Director of Art and Design at Dartington College of Arts from 1973-1978, before moving to Oxford Polytechnic (later Oxford Brookes University) to become the Associate Head of the Department of Architecture until 1988.

Blues Off The Record (1984)

In the 1980s, Oliver published Blues Off The Record: Thirty Years Of Blues Commentary (Baton Press, 1984) a selected collection of his earlier writings on blues, and in the same year an analysis of proto-blues and black sacred music, Songsters and Saints: Vocal Traditions on Race Records (Cambridge University Press, 1984) that supplements his earlier works on the origins and development of forms of Black American vernacular music. During this period, Oliver worked tirelessly to establish a greater presence for the study of vernacular culture in academic settings. He was a founding member of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM), the academic journal Popular Music, and a founding editor of two pioneering encyclopedia projects: the Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World (Cambridge University Press, 1997), and the Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World (Continuum/Bloomsbury, 1985-). The latter is now in its twelfth volume.