In my formative years I first encountered the phrase amor vincit omnia – love conquers all. I found the expression in Chaucer. (I tried to apply the incantation, though I could not make it work for me. These truths we hold to be self-evident that amor non vincit Judith Gibbons – unless foreplay counted). As another poet wrote of fickle love: “You can’t start it like a car, you can’t stop it with a gun”.
This is a discussion about research. It will turn out to be about my longest lasting love, country blues from that fertile crescent where the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers meet. Country blues was a genre recorded (in any sense of the word) for a very short time commencing a few years after the First World War. It now exists in re-recordings from uniquely fragile and often scratchy 78 rpm records, or occasionally the cleaner master disks. It was captured at its earliest when a white man put a primitive microphone up alongside a singer whose father or grandfather was likely to have once been considered another white man’s property. The singer was a man whose great-grandfather could have been born under African skies.
Country blues fell out of fashion with the diaspora from the South in the 1930s and wartime exodus to the factories of California. Electrical amplification and fame mutated a field hand from Stovall’s Plantation singing country blues, into sharp-suited Muddy Waters the king of Chicago blues.
But remember, it’s a discussion about research. It’s about the amo, amas, amat of discovery. Darwin was a lover, Pasteur was a lover, Curie was a lover, Sagan (I meant Carl, but Francoise too) was a lover, Watson and Crick,? well it was Cambridge…
My point is research, that tauntingly testing investigation of a premise, is only – or at least at its best – performed by lovers,. For you have to love so much in order to knock on so many closed doors, to stride down so many culs de sac. You must want to, really want to, take your love, your subject, your discipline to a higher place – to reach that orgasm of discovery so that those courtiers around the marital bedstead of your subject will only marvel at your prowess. You know you do, you stud.
The first single I bought was Hey Joe. The first album was King of the Delta Blues Singers by Robert Johnson.
In the once upon a time when Johnson sat down and recorded, little was known by the wider — and for wider read white — public about Johnson and what was known was only known to a clique of ethno-musicologists and liberal socialists, celebrating, yet inadvertently patronising, the ‘Negro’ as noble and put upon. Though the poor and rural people of the South were undoubtedly both noble and put upon in the worst way, they kind of knew it without being told.
By the time John Hammond sent word out for Johnson, summoning him to come to New York to play at Spirituals to Swing at Carnegie Hall, Johnson had spoiled Hammond’s plan, by inconvenienntly being murdered at the mythic age 27 in 1938 – so Hammond fell back on the safer blues stylings of Josh White and Sonny Terry, but I digress.
Johnson’s music was at first a numbers game. Forty-one takes of 29 tracks in two sessions in Texas. Eleven records released in Johnson’s short life and one more after he had tangled with a jealously poison-laced whisky bottle.
But this is a discussion about research and amor. It’s about wiping the steam off the bathroom mirror. By the time of the English blues revival of the sixties the “little is known of Robert Johnson” meme still persisted.
On the cover of that LP King of the Delta Blues, a painting imagining the man had to substitute for there was no photograph. There would be no photograph.
Then researchers – young fans whose obsessive love drove them, in beat up Chevrolets usually, to the stoops of baffled old black men who were once those dangerous Godless heroes, singing the devil’s music. From Johnson’s contemporaries the college kids got stories, but many were just that; stories – crossroads, midnight, devil etc.
Then in 1986 – a photograph. Then four years later another of Johnson. They were of a kid, somewhat dissolute and lazy-eyed, though dandified in one image with snap brim hat at a jaunty angle. But it was those hands, those supremely long fingers that even in a still black and white seemed to want to dance and play, to caress the neck of a guitar or the neck of some other man’s girl.
One by one the old black men died, drawing slowly shut a curtain of possibility on new acts in the drama. But no. Historical research had one more way of seeing — or hearing.
Technology and forensic acoustics have for the past ten years been brought to bear on anomalous aspects of Johnson’s work. Both the tour de force instrumental dexterity (even despite those Paganini virtuosic fingers) and the sometimes strangely heliumised vocal tones were at once explained, well to some musicologists at any rate.
For reasons we can now no longer discern, the recordings may have been made at the wrong speed. Too much music to go onto a 78 record?; a sly marketing tool to spruce up what was already a rural ditch water music into a style which better met the tastes of black record buyers in the cities of the south? As I said; unknoweable.
But like being able to look at the Mona Lisa in profile, or hear George Washington speak, historical research can make startlingly new the all-too comfortably familiar. If you have never heard Robert Johnson shame on you. Even if you have, Google Robert Johnson correct speed and be amazed to discover him anew.
Chalk it up as a victory for historical research.