Sunday, October 5, 2008

5 Things on Old Blues Records

From here, and also on the first page that came back
from a Google Image search for old blues records.

The discussion about modern blues records that I referred to in my previous post got me thinking about what I really mean when I say old blues records:
  1. The common complaint with modern "slick" blues recordings is that the scratch and the lo-fiedlity of older recordings are part of the fetishization that goes along with the blues. The phrase blues records is often prefixed with old when evoking a positive description: Tom Waits style has the appeal of old blues records . When a contemporary rock artist gets a little too noodly for his (our) own good (taste), they are sometimes disparaged as haing made just a blues record.
  2. And one should consider that the old blues record is a very conscious, mannered art form. In social practice, blues songs would go on forever, until the dancers left the floor, while the three minute-limit espoused by pop/rock conservatives was dictated by the limitation of what one could put on a side of a 78 (often songs were extended over to the second side when the session was cooking.)
  3. Old blues records were very consciously recorded in studios, engineered to maximize their effects on the playback of the day, to maximize sales. I was listening Zia on KLSU today play (I think) a Sonny Boy Williamson side and the harmonica tore through the scratch and the hiss while the rest of the band existed as a burbling murmur that launched it. If you've ever listened to a blues 78 through the horn of a Victrola, you'll know why the harmonica is a weapon of choice; it rattles the whole machine and the room when it plays, much in the same way Enrico Caruso's voice did on his records. It's the same principle that makes Dr. Dre albums sound so good on a stereo with a heavy bass - it's a psychical exploit of the technology. Maybe if modern blues records were recorded with that sense of exploit in mind - see Duwayne Burnside or James "Blood" Ulmer (who might actually be meta-blues, but whatever) for examples of people who do - they might sound better to our ears.
  4. Modern blues recordings are engineered usually to modern tech spec, where everything can be heard and it flies against what we (or I) think of as blues. Fat Possum and Bruce Dickinson have become legends replicating the lo-fidelity of old blues records in modern technology, Danger Mouse has revolutionized pop production by sounding old. The Daptone sound feels fresh because it is actually anything but.
  5. And it could be that as a white guy listening to the blues, I have an unconscious desire for it (black music) to sound ramshackle, for there to be a noble savage aspect to it. A specific example of this: I was talking to Teddy at Teddy's Juke Joint about T-Model Ford, and brought him a CD hoping it would spur him to book Ford out there. Teddy, it must be said, is a masterful DJ, spinning records that weave a groove through the crowd as he narrates the evening into the mic. I've heard him go from Grover Washington Jr to Lil Boosie and it sounded not only inspired but organic. So I asked him to throw on "Cut You Loose" by Ford, a song where it sounds like his guitar is strung with barbed wire, and while I thought it was glorious coming out of his sound system, it fell completely flat on the largely black crowd who was thankful that T-Model Ford's old timey bullshit kept to three-minute limit. Teddy recognized this immediately and threw on seven minutes of velvet Pendergrass to clear the air. That old timey blues sounds like the ugly past, and it is understandable why any black listener today would want to distance themselves from that, and all too unfortunate that many white listeners embrace it. The real static, it seems, in my feelings about crackly, tinny old blues records, might not be between the needle and the groove, but between my ears.


  1. Black/white conotations of blues music (and thus attendance at Teddy's) have been one of those points that Teddy and I go around in circles over.

  2. I enabled comments you Nazi!

    Oh and good post.

    matt sigur