In this hour long interview British blues historian and author Paul Oliver and Chris Strachwitz discuss the Ann Arbor Blues Festival, blues, American music, culture and much more.
Interview: Paul Oliver (1:00:40) LISTEN HERE: Paul Oliver
Paul Oliver (May 25,1927 – August 15, 2017)
A note from Chris Strachwitz, founder of Arhoolie Records and the Arhoolie Foundation, upon hearing of Paul Oliver’s death:
“Paul was a remarkable person and devoted educator who taught me so much and inspired me to become serious about the music and the musicians who continued to create the Blues and who were willing to record for my microphone with which I attempted to document their ever changing music yet which retained a marvelous tradition.
I am of course deeply saddened by his death – but Paul had a very good and rewarding life and like Hank Williams sang “You can’t get out of this world alive” and we all have to join him one day and so I bid farewell to one of my most important mentors and teachers. Our trip together in the summer of 1960 along with Paul’s wife Valerie will remain ingrained in my small brain for the rest of my life.
If I live long enough I will try and put more of my thoughts on paper one day – but right now I do suggest you listen to my interview with Paul back in 1970 over KPFA radio in Berkeley.” – Chris Strachwitz – August 15, 2017
You can also view photos and read Chris’ story about his historical 1960 road trip with Paul by clicking here.
Interviewed By: Chris Strachwitz
Date: September 9, 1970
Location: Berkeley, California
This Interview was originally recorded for broadcast on Chris Strachwitz’ radio program “Music In America” on KPFA-FM, Berkeley, CA and KFCF-FM, Fresno, CA.
A Note About the Transcriptions: In order to expedite the process of putting these interviews online, we are using a transcription service. Due to the challenges of transcribing speech – especially when it contains regional accents and refers to regional places and names – some of these interview transcriptions may contain errors. We have tried to correct as many as possible, but if you discover errors while listening, please send corrections to email@example.com.
Chris Strachwitz: Tonight I have with me, Paul Oliver, who I’m sure most of you know, if you’re familiar with the blues, and after all, I don’t think anybody who doesn’t like blues doesn’t listen to this program. His most recent book, perhaps, is the story of the blues, or actually, what are your most recent ones, Paul? I think we saw some of this the other day.
Paul Oliver: Yes, at the minute, I am editing a series of the Blues Paperbacks, and the first four of these have just come out, Chris. The first four titles are one on Ma Rainey and the classic blues, as a whole classic blues genre. That’s by Derrick Stewart Baxter. Then there’s one called Recording The Blues, which is by Bob Dixon and John Godrich, the coauthors of The Blues Bible. They discovered the Blue Records, as you know.
Chris Strachwitz: The Old Testament.
Paul Oliver: The Old Testament, you might say, yes, and then there’s a third one, which is my own, which is called Savannah Syncopater, which is really a study of African retentions in the blues, a degree to which Africa’s influences blues. There’s a fourth one: Blacks, Whites and Blues, by Tony Russell. Blacks, Whites and Blues is really a study more of an interchange – a cultural interchange – between black traditions and white traditions in blues.
Chris Strachwitz: And what brought you back over here?
Paul Oliver: Well, the thing that brought me back over here was the Ann Arbor Blues Festival. The festival, as you know, is a major event in the blue calendar, and from our point of view in England, anyway, it was a phenomenal event last year. I completed flipped when they invited me to come over and MC the festival this year. That’s really what brought me over, and once over, of course, I set about traveling a little.
Chris Strachwitz: I was in Ann Arbor too, and I certainly enjoyed it. I think you perhaps didn’t … Well, maybe you can get more of a feeling for it, because you were certainly a very valuable asset. Rolling Stone doesn’t mention you’re part in it, but to my way of thinking, anyway, knowing what it takes sometimes to put on this successful concert and getting people on the stage and particularly off the stage, which is I assume is the harder job. They all have somewhat equal time and they all get heard to their best advantage, and you did a marvelous job of doing a very brief, yet very effective kind of Mcing. I’m sure your English accent helped.
Chris Strachwitz: I think you’re knowledgeable of all the singers. I think you … We both been … Actually, we met ten years ago. Where was that, in Memphis?
Paul Oliver: That was in Memphis, yes. That was ten years to the day, actually. We did a field trip then, through Mississippi and Texas and Arkansas and Louisiana, and over here as well, still hunting a few people. That was exactly ten years ago.
Chris Strachwitz: Quite a few of the people who were on the festival at Ann Arbor were people I hadn’t seen for the past ten years and it was really nice that they remembered us, and it was great meeting old friends again.
Paul Oliver: I think that’s true … I think we both met them … And I think Mance Lipscomb was the only one that we had seen since that day.
Paul Oliver: He was really playing as well as he ever was, and he was apologizing for his voice in those days, but he seemed just as good to me now. He certainly is quite a remarkable performer.
Chris Strachwitz: I will never forget it was the start of our Arhoolie Records early that summer of 1960.
Paul Oliver: Yes, our very first record, that’s right.
Chris Strachwitz: It’s been ten years ago now. It’s really amazing to me how well all the artists get along on a program like that. I know that Mance was particularly … he asked me, “Come on, I’d really like to meet Joe Turner,” and so I just went over there to him and said, “Joe Turner, he’d like to meet you, Max Lipscomb.” Max said, “You know, I’ve heard of Joe Turner all these years.” He made records, he had heard him on the jukebox and radio, and I know it was quite a thrill for him to talk to the man there in the flesh, as it was to meet Roosevelt Sykes. Although, he may have met him at some other festival, I’m not sure.
Paul Oliver: I don’t know whether he had met him or not, but certainly, all of the blues singers that I met seemed to just appreciate the kind of atmosphere and the shared experience, where everybody just enjoyed the music and participated. I remember Robert Pete Williams said to me, using a phrase that seemed unlikely coming from his mouth, he suddenly said, “Man, we’re all brothers here, aren’t we?” And it was really very nice. It was very moving, and coming straight up from Louisiana as he was, maybe he felt it particularly strongly, and certainly it touched me.
Chris Strachwitz: It particularly sort of strikes me, because when they are on their own, many of these artists, especially people like Bobby Blue Bland and so on, they really are like superstars. In their own right, because they travel alone with their own review or whatever it is, and in their own clubs they are the stars, yet when it comes to a festival like this, they really do treat each other pretty much as equals. They’re just all brothers. I didn’t observe any kind of …
Paul Oliver: Well I think this is true. I think it’s probably credit to the festival itself, because they didn’t really build up to a climax each night. It probably was building that way in a certain sense, but every artist was important and every artist had his particular enthusiasts in the artist. It was rare that any artist didn’t get a standing ovation that was genuinely meant. I think that this probably won the respect, and probably even the surprise of some of the singers, but possibly the more sophisticated ones in seeing how greatly respected many of the older men were. I think that they would have appreciated them anyway. Perhaps it them of their fathers playing or something, but all the way through it seemed to me they really did appreciate the work of the other men.
Chris Strachwitz: Also, considering that some of them are really remarkable individualists.
Paul Oliver: Well I think that they come over very strongly, and these circumstances almost more so. Maybe they are tempted to emphasize their own personalities, so the individuality of each artist seems to come over particularly effectively.
Chris Strachwitz: While we’re talking about the Ann Arbor Festival, it’s kind of a shame if you haven’t read the Rolling Stone issue last month. Center spread deals with it. Unfortunately, it probably won’t happen again because they lost a great deal of money and it was sponsored partially by the … what was it, the Episcopal …
Paul Oliver: It was the Episcopal Church.
Chris Strachwitz: And the student …
Paul Oliver: The Student Union, yes.
Chris Strachwitz: Of course there is more religious and educational organizations are willing to lose a reasonable amount of money, and as Rolling Stone pointed out, up to $5,000, but this, unfortunately, the losses went up to over $20,000.
Paul Oliver: Yes, I don’t think they were expecting a $25,000 loss.
Chris Strachwitz: It may not happen again, but I hope perhaps other students in some other areas … I know that here at Berkley, Joe Garret certainly did a very nice job in putting on this blues festival this last April here. They also lost money, but it wasn’t … I’m not sure as to how the regents now look at us and all of this kind of reaction to what goes on on the campus. Perhaps Berkley will come through and do … Of course, a big problem we have here is the transportation. Most blues singers live on the East of the Mississippi … Or on the riverbanks, but it’s very expensive to bring them all the way out to California.
Paul Oliver: I think that it’s important that we ought to mention is the extraordinary organization of the Ann Arbor Blues Festival. This was organized entirely by students and they had no other help. The way in which they got all the artists to the site and got them back, and saw that they were comfortably situated in motels, then looked after them in every kind of way. It took them 9 months of continuous preparation, and it really paid off. I think that the good atmosphere throughout and all the apprehensions of the city fathers and so forth that there may be trouble, were completely unfounded. This is demonstrated and demonstrated in all sorts of ways to the extent that the Chief of Police congratulated them on the way in which it was handled, which was quite nice.
I think that all of this sort of reflected the way in which the students given the responsibility could handle it and handle it exceptionally well. Although, it would be nice to have another concert over here, yet, Ann Arbor’s kind of an unlikely place and there’s something very attractive about that. I would personally like to see more concerts distributed around the country, rather than centered on the extreme East or the extreme West Coast.
Chris Strachwitz: That would, of course, be very nice too, and perhaps next year there will be some strange little college that comes up with a program like this. I should also point out that they did pay them rather well. I mean, it’s hard to compare it with Rock and Roll artist fees that some of them get, but it certainly is much better pay that the Newport Festival, which treats them all alike and pays everyone $50 and then the profits go to some unknown organization that no one really knows about, very often goes into the hands of researchers and so forth who will do field trips, but I think it’s really best to put them in the pockets of the artists. Whatever money is made, I think they need it most.
Paul Oliver: I’d like to hear of anybody who actually did benefit from the Newport Foundation anyway.
Chris Strachwitz: I would be curious to find out sometimes. Maybe if I ever meet Ralph Rinsler out here we can get some comments, or perhaps I can get Mike Seeger to give me some enlightenment in that direction. However, the only thing that I felt could have been improved, is the fact that country artists, especially the country blues singers, like Mance and Robert Pete and John Jackson and so on, they’re really a great attraction to be part of it, rest in the fact that they’re incredible human being that the public likes to meet, and talk to them, and hear their stories and get some of their views on life and their experiences. That is almost impossible in a concert setting, don’t you feel?
Paul Oliver: Yes, I do agree. In fact, I think that in that could be the salvation in a sense in the Ann Arbor Blues Festival in the future. If they could have sponsorship and support from the city and the university to put it on again, I think that what they could probably do is not invite just about every working blues singer there and make a grand festival with exposure of say, thirty minutes, by each artist, but rather reduce the number and make them more available.
A number of singers – a very large number – like, Robert Pete Williams, who we just mentioned, were there for all three days and yet they were thirty minutes on the stage, and for the rest of the time, just listening. They’re really the kind of people who like to talk, and as you say, like to have personal contact and in a way are fascinated and attracted by the fact that other people want to hear what they have to say. It seems to me that if they had a number of workshops that they devoted the mornings, for argument’s sake, to workshops, which easily could be, and perhaps made the concerts a little less than 13 hours long, as they were this time.
Chris Strachwitz: Yes, most of the kids actually were camped out there. It was nice weather, and they were there, ready to be there in the morning. In that respect, Berkeley was better. We did have workshops here, and the audience could really meet these performers, and that was kind of nice. Also, we had relatively few performers, comparatively, speaking with Ann Arbor. They were quite an army if you think of the expenses involved out here. Well, I’d like to perhaps begin sort of back … I don’t know whether people really know that the blues are really sort of a hobby with you, aren’t they? What is your real job that you make a living at?
Paul Oliver: Well, I make a sort of living by lecturing on architecture and art. I have a department of arts and history at the Architectural Association in London. The Architectural Association is a association which also has a school of architecture. I really spend, well, three quarters of my time doing that and the rest of the time, I suppose, writing about blues, as well as living, of course. There has to be a little room for that.
Chris Strachwitz: You also have a new book out in your …
Paul Oliver: Well, in that area too, yes. There’s a book called Shelter And Society. My personal interest is in popular arts and folk art, anyway. It has always amazed me that so little attention has been given to popular architecture or folk architecture, and sort of formal architecture, and what has been called by Rudofsky, architecture without architects, where I find is a very clumsy phrase.
Anyway, it seems to me that the unifying factor is that of shelter, and the first volume is a collection of writings which I have edited by various specialists who have studied, in depth, particular societies and the relationship of their forms of shelter to the society. At the moment, I have just completed editing a second volume, which is on shelter in Africa, which is especially a concern with the nature of African societies over the continent, and the changing effects of both the society and the environment and climate and the natural resources upon the nature of building.
Chris Strachwitz: You did visit Africa, prior to writing this book. Perhaps some of the people have criticized you on your first blues book, but I don’t think that any of them really know that you had never really been to this country.
Paul Oliver: That’s quite true, yes.
Chris Strachwitz: before writing that one.
Paul Oliver: That’s a long while ago. That was Blues Fell This Morning. It was published here as The Meaning Of The Blues. Well, I wrote that … finished, actually, writing it in 1958, and it’s slightly galling to find that I continually quoted as if my opinion is now exactly the same as those at 12 years ago.
Chris Strachwitz: Unfortunately, it is perhaps the most widely distributed book of yours in this country, I think.
Paul Oliver: Yes, I think it is too.
Chris Strachwitz: It’s available in paperback now, and you can buy it in almost every airport.
Paul Oliver: It seems like it.
Chris Strachwitz: I hope they will eventually get around to your more recent ones to Conversation With The Blues, and …
Paul Oliver: Screening The Blues.
Chris Strachwitz: Screening The Blues, which is called … something else here.
Paul Oliver: I think it’s called Aspects Of The Blues Tradition here. A more resounding title, but Screening The Blues had a particular significance to me, anyway.
Chris Strachwitz: You did visit Africa and see things firsthand before you wrote …
Paul Oliver: My wife and I spent four months in Africa, during which time we were lecturing … Well, I was lecturing on architecture, and she was also teaching graphics to African students, but I was also at the University of Legon and giving lectures in the department of African studies in the music division, and Kwabena Nketia, who is probably the most important of the African musicologists on the music of Africa. There, I was lecturing a bit on the relationship of African music to Afro-American music, as we called it then.
Well, this gave me the opportunity both to further studies with people who were similarly interested, and subsequently, I was able to do a lot of field recording for the BBC of African Music from the rain forest coast into the Savannah regions. This gave me the first inklings of the possibility of a different theory, really, of the relationship of African music to blues and to other forms of black music in America.
Chris Strachwitz: Perhaps people are kind of fasc … or flabbergasted, or mystified by this title of this title of Savannah Syncopators. Do you want to explain briefly what your …
Paul Oliver: Well it’s really kind of a joke. You know there was a band called Oliver’s Savannah Syncopators, so that was more or less a private joke, but it wasn’t really intended to refer to that, except that I felt the phrase itself was actually extremely meaningful, because the point that I was trying to bring out in the book, as a whole, was that it was the music in the Savannah regions that is far more related to jazz and blues than was the music in the areas which are normally considered the areas from which the slaves came, mainly the rain forest regions.
In this term, which has already had like 50 years of reference, or 40 years of reference, in the jazz field, it seemed to me, in fact, a very major clue and I couldn’t resist using it. That’s really all.
Chris Strachwitz: I think that perhaps there are many blues fans, I’m sure, who don’t know the Savannah Syncopators, that is King Oliver. Perhaps they will give a listen to that band. There is really a greater of blues in early jazz, and, although that division increased as jazz became more of a … or perhaps went further away from its roots.
Paul Oliver: Yes, I think this is probably so, but it’s interesting to note that even one of his major recordings with that particular band, Black Snake Blues, was, of course, also the principle recording perhaps of Victoria Spivey. Those were very close, and they were very well aware, I think, of the work of the blues singers of that time. Certainly jazz probably diverged more, and developed more instrumental forms of blues, but it is a little myopic, I think, of blues collectors or of jazz collectors, not to be aware of and to see the relationship between these musics.
Chris Strachwitz: I think Europeans are more catholic there, that they do seem to be just in the entire broad spectrum of black music, rather than picking a certain aspect. Here, I think jazz and blues fans are very far apart.
Paul Oliver: I think some do in Europe. There is also the kind of specialization that you find in anywhere else in rather protected areas, so to speak, which particular enthusiasts wish to keep always to themselves, but I think this kid of eccentricity applies in any form of collecting.
In Europe, the collector really has had to find his own way to a very large extent, and also not being in direct contact with the music – not, perhaps, just hearing it up the street or being able to, even if you didn’t actually go. He’s been really forced onto recorded evidence and to study this and analyze it, and I think that this is the basis of the enormous amount of literature on jazz and on blues, which is emanated from European countries: from France and Germany, and from East Germany, even, and ……. Lamen, and from Sweden, and of course, from England. This is always a source of surprise to American visitors, I find, but it really seems fairly logical to me.
Chris Strachwitz: It’s certainly remarkable how Europeans have expressed their interest in blues and made possible these annual tours, not only of the American Folk Blues Festival, which does tour the continent and England … But individual tours by various artists, who perhaps are better known over there than they are here. I know that I had never met Sonny Boy Williamson until I was on that tour when he was a part of the American Folk Blues Festival. I didn’t even know where he was from.
Paul Oliver: I think the first blues singers who were coming over to England in the late ’50s … Well, in fact, earlier, of course, in the sense that Lonnie Johnson and Big Bill Broonzy, and then Brownie McGee and Sonny Terry, had been visiting fairly regularly, from about 1951 on, and France. By the late ’50s, there was a fairly steady stream of blues singers, like Roosevelt Sykes, and Speckled Red, and Little Brother Montgomery, and Memphis Slim, working and some of them, of course, stayed in Europe … Live there now, in fact.
Memphis Slim and Jack Dupree and Eddie Boyd and Micky Baker … Curtis Jones. These are all blues singers who actually found it very much more satisfactory being here perhaps … In France or in England and they settled there. Sonny Boy himself wanted to do so, and it’s sad that he died before he could.
Chris Strachwitz: I think especially the pianists have had a more successful sort of …… Somehow they seem to be broader, and also they seem to appeal to jazz fans more, rather than …..
Paul Oliver: Yes, I think this is true. The pianists, particularly, in France, have been very successful, and this does reflect the interest of the jazz fan in that aspect of blues, and it dates back to sort of the boogie-woogie craze of the late ’30s and ’40s, which French collectors like Hugues Panassié for example, advocated as an exciting kind of music. Up to a point, they bred a whole generation of enthusiasts for piano and jazz, and as a side issue, piano blues as well. Certainly, the guitarists weren’t known in the way that they were here. Nowadays, of course, they are, but probably there’s more interest in the piano in Europe than there is in the United States.
One of the things that disappoints me, really, is that so much in the way of opportunities for actual field work research have been missed because of the preference for the guitar and the preference for Mississippi blues. It parallels a little bit the New Orleans emphasis, so that the possibility of studying jazz in Jacksonville, Florida or in Mobile or Biloxi or whatever, whether it was there or not, has just been ignored, because all the emphasis has just gone on New Orleans. In much the same way, jazz traditions elsewhere in the United States … Blues traditions elsewhere in the United States have been overlooked with this great emphasis on the Mississippi guitarists, which seems to me unfortunate.
Chris Strachwitz: You know, we just mentioned the other day, it seems to me sometimes that every aspect of the blues has been well-documented and recorded and where do you think this is going to? Do you think we can continue exploring the blues?
Paul Oliver: Well, as you will remember, Mack McCormick and myself have been working and you’ve helped us, for the last ten years on a regional study on the Texas blues, and this, we are just sort of winding up now and we hope will be in print in the not too far distant future (website editor’s note: This book is still being worked on and has not yet been release as of September 2015). That is essentially a regional study, but it does seem to me that there are other areas that could be examined in this same way, or that kind of depth. There are many other aspects. Recently, it’s been interesting to note the greater interest in musicological aspects of blues, and a number of writers, like David Evans and Bill Ferris and … Well, really, several others … John Fahey and so I’m hoping they’re more interested in the music that the blues singers have made and the way in which they play their instruments and what they’ve actually innovated there, and analyzed it from a musicological point of view.
This can be a slightly academic exercise. I wouldn’t advocate it as the main direction which blues research should go, but it’s very good that these areas, that have been largely overlooked by people like myself, for example, are not particularly well-equip to do that. Are now being examined and this certainly is one of the directions, anyway.
Chris Strachwitz: It always strikes me how I always feel that maybe I’ve recorded maybe the last of the greater, important blues singers, yet, so many blues singers are such strong individuals, unlike in any other form of music that I know of. At least, I can’t think of any immediately. Even the third and fourth generation, once you get to know them, they’re really very remarkable individuals who are constantly a blending of their traditions, yet also being innovators at the same time. It seems to keep going, in a way.
Paul Oliver: Well, it does seem to keep going. I have a continual feeling … A developing feeling that it is grinding slowly to a halt as a … As a music, anyway, of direct inspiration, largely, of black America. As we’ve also been discussing recently, it does seem that there is a sort of genuine basis for a sort of multi-racial kind of music, so to speak, which has blues as its base. Nevertheless, I agree that the succeeding generations do seem to come up with new young musicians, and if they’re not in quite the numbers that they were before, it still seems to be in a pretty healthy of a state as yet.
Chris Strachwitz: Well, I’m speaking with Paul Oliver tonight on tonight’s program of Music in America. It’s comments on America, perhaps, is more appropriate. Paul and I met ten years ago, for the first time, when I was really on my first trip through the south, recording. I didn’t really know what I was getting into. I had sort of hopes to start a record label, but I had never imagined that this would all become almost a pop music, which it has done in the last three years, in particular, since I guess the British groups brought it all back home and blues seem to continue to be a very kind of music that we all feel in one way or another. As you mentioned, it’s becoming perhaps an interracial type of music – a new kind.
The form seems to fit whites and … I think one of your books that you’ve edited perhaps might shed some light on that, but the whites have always perhaps been just as fond of the blues as blacks. I mean, who did we sort of compare it to the other night when we were listening to Charlie Musselwhite? You know, you brought out the parallel to the … In the ’20s, when Bix Beiderbecke or Charlie … Or, Jack Teagarden.
Paul Oliver: Yes, well, that’s true. We were considering the … Well, the fact that anyway Charlie rather reminded us of Jack Teagarden and his kind of approach to singing was really related to that of the jazz renditions in their relation to the black musicians who would come up from New Orleans. This is kind of rather a complicated parallel, but it did seem to strike us at the time. I think it still strikes me, in a way. The point that Tony Russell is trying to make in Black, Whites and Blues, is that at the more ethnic levels, so to speak, of blues, there was also this kind of interchange. In fact, the very use of language and the kind of repertoire that both blues singers and white singers from the sort of hillbilly country traditions were drawing upon, was often very, very close, indeed – often paralleled and sometimes exactly the same repertoire. What he’s documented is the way in which these interleaved. The tendency for collectors to divide and to parcel things very neatly into particular and separate sections is meant that the hillbilly collector now has his particular group: his circle, his record labels, his magazines. The blues collector has his group and his pals and his friends and his group of magazines, and the two just never meet. Nobody would believe that they’re part of a folk tradition of music of American south, for argument’s sake. In fact, as Tony has tried to demonstrate, there is a close relationship. Sometimes their polarities are very far apart, but they also do meet and overlap and intertwine and this is hardly to wonder that, bearing in mind that the cultures were really growing together in the south, not so separate.
Chris Strachwitz: Right, and it still continues and is really just as strong as ever, I would think. In the rock and roll business, after all there was Elvis Presley, and numerable whites who really took on the blues, at least in the beginnings. Even John Mayall and so on has gone into a very much softer kind of thing, but yet they all start with the hard thing and then develop their own style from that.
Paul Oliver: Yes, this is true. Well, blues as certainly been a fountainhead for … of ideas and inspiration, and I think that probably the borrowings of the earlier white musicians, who are more from blues and the reverse – the blues singers from the hillbilly singers. It’s certainly true, I think, that in the past several years that this has accelerated and it is far greater now than it was in the past.
Chris Strachwitz: I guess that Charlie Prides are rather rare, that as a black man singing hillbilly music. Perhaps it was just as rare in the early days, wasn’t it?
Paul Oliver: Yes, I think it was rare, especially any of the actually specializing in hillbilly kind of music, but of course, you’ve got groups like Mississippi Sheiks, who used a sort of rather hillbilly technique, and you’ve got singers like Blind Willie McTell, singing hillbilly Willie Blues, which is really hillbilly in style and deliberately so. You’ve got Josh White singing with the Carver Brothers in a totally hillbilly way, so that you would never believe that he was on the record, and you’ve got Buddy Woods, the blues singer the Lone Wolf, singing … Or playing, at least, as support to Jimmy Davis. Then, popular country artist and so forth and so on, so that if one really examines the record, the relationship was a lot closer than perhaps we have come to expect or to realize.
Chris Strachwitz: Of course, we really don’t know, do we, as to when they really became a separate forms of music. Don’t you think the early blacks in Civil War days and so on were playing music that was … Was it really a distinct black and white music do you think, in those days?
Paul Oliver: The writings and observations from that period are rather few, but there is that exists, such as Lieutenant Higginson (Thomas W. Higginson ) for example, recollections in army life in the black regiment, in which he quotes songs sung by blacks within the regimen, and of course, the very important collection of slaves songs from the United States, published around 1862. These do indicate that there were qualities of color and approach to the music, which were already quite specifically black. In other words, many of the white people who were collecting them, found it totally unfamiliar, found it difficult to transcribe in any musical notation – had to invent notations to explain what was happening in the way of the singing, so there was a cultural division there. At the same time, they were nevertheless singing within a structure that was very largely European in origin, which they often sang in sort of a ballad form, which was, again, European in origin and they were singing words in a language which was European, so that what one really has to try and unravel are the elements which were essentially black and those which were European in base. What was happening, was that everyone was seeing the emergence of the music of a particular kind of quality, which probably segregation had actually forced and emphasized into one of its own tradition.
Chris Strachwitz: We mentioned that ten years ago, we both started traveling together, and my aim, I guess, was largely to make records. Have you seen any … What strikes you as perhaps the biggest change or the least changes over these last ten years that you can …
Paul Oliver: In the south, or in the blues field?
Chris Strachwitz: I think in the blues field and the south.
Paul Oliver: This is really rather difficult to answer. I think that things have certainly changed, and in American life as a whole, it has impressed me a lot that there’s far more discussion on social issues than there was ten years ago, on the greater frankness and on the whole more willingness, in fact, to meet them and ever to combat such issues, whatever they might be – whether it be homosexuality or abortion or whether it’s matters of race issue. That these are being dealt with far more honestly than they were only a decade ago. Greatly disturbed as of that time, how anything that was a little disturbing was avoided and that there was so much discomfort when one raise an issue which was unpalatable, and this is not the case now. I find that it is very heartening. It shows a sort of maturity of attitude that I feel will be very important in the next few years, so that at a very serious level, which doesn’t necessarily or particular involve the blues at all, I do feel that this is an agent for major change.
As far as the blues is concerned, even in those ten years, I think there has been a decline in the actual activity within the clubs and so on. I even suspect that there is some kind of relationship between those two facts – that blues is probably not a music of protest, as some would like to believe, but it is and was that of a very definitely divided society. Although it is a very painful process, and the divisions, in a sense, have emphasized in some areas in the present time, yet the kind of confrontations and sometimes the kind of meetings that are taking place now, maybe just makes blues a little less necessary.
This could probably be considered as rather fanciful but I, however, somehow feel it.
Chris Strachwitz: I do too, yeah. I think the increasing interest on the whites is there because we all feel sometimes very powerless to change things, and after all, I think that’s what brought us to the blues – sort of that within yourself, you feel it’s kind of a lack of something and you want to … I don’t know if I can …
Paul Oliver: It’s very difficult, actually, to analyze precisely what one’s motivations are, or why one is interested. I have been, all my life, deeply involved in blues and in other forms of folk music, popular music, not particularly that, just popular arts, as I mentioned before. Especially blues, I suppose in making the trip, as we did ten years ago, my own reason was just that I wanted to meet the blues singers, find out how they lived, what they had to say, what their life was like, and what the situation was at that point in time. As there was remarkably little interest, I must admit, over here, in general, it was a great delight to me to be able to make contact with you just by letter and that we would do this together.
I discovered by some mutual acquaintance that you were also going to make a trip and it just seemed a great idea if we all met. Of course, we hadn’t met at all before. I mean, no one was going to turn out … I’ll always remember that we chose that classic local in blues collecting, which is the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, because this is where so many recordings were made and I had not the remotest idea what it was like and it could have been a very rundown shack if it even existed, and it was a great surprise to me to find that there we were meeting in the plushiest of interiors when in our economy, at that date, we looked very out of place. I remember that we promptly moved off to try and find some cheaper motels, but it was a good start.
Chris Strachwitz: You’re right. At that time, there was still a lot of blues activity in Houston and in … And even in Clarkesdale and so forth, but there’s I think almost nothing left of that sort of thing. It’s all jukeboxes and very little live music and what there is is more the kind of middle of the road black music, that is soul music now, we call it, or rhythm and blues. It’s much more the middle class music, but I think perhaps black people might be interested what drives whites towards the blues, why we love it. You gave your reason for it, and I think initially I was struck by it … I came over here, also being born in Europe, and it just struck me as one of the most direct and emotional kinds of music I’d ever heard. Of course, as a youngster, I was very insecure, one always thinks ones parents don’t understand one and one is lost and looking for a goal and one clings to something, and I think most youngsters find this sort of emotional attachment in rock music – in their popular music. I know many of my peers, they find in hillbilly music or in jazz or in blues or in other forms of ethnic music that really weren’t part of their own tradition.
Paul Oliver: Yes, I think that that’s a very, very interesting point, and I think probably many of us who were interested in blues at that time had similar kind of psychological reasons for it. It is interesting that if blues is becoming this sort of music of today outside of maybe black America, but America as a whole, it is nevertheless the music of a generation. It seems to me that it’s these under 25s and really, the under 20s, who for the most part, are embracing blues very much as their music now. This possibly reflects something of sort of the schism in American society as there is elsewhere. It’s not just essentially here, but the … To renew the old cliché of the generation gap, nevertheless, one that exists, and a sort of feeling of segregation, so to speak, horizontally through the society, rather than vertically as the segregation of races had been in decades in the century. Possibly, always intuitively, always the generation of younger people now, have felt that kind of contact within the music that seem to express something of frustration and the energy, too, of minority groups.
Chris Strachwitz: Perhaps also it reflects sometimes feel a … Or illustrates a lack of culture or a tradition in the American middle class. You think, I mean, many youngsters, although they act as if they’re against their own traditions, yet they try to form a new tradition. I mean, the whole hippie culture to me seems like a real attempt to form a very strong family tie of some kind.
Paul Oliver: It’s supposed to be different kind of family, then.
Chris Strachwitz: An entirely different level.
Paul Oliver: Yes, yes certainly, this is true.
Chris Strachwitz: I think that the fact that we do not have a strong tradition like the Mexican American or the Indian or the blacks or so on, that we cling to other cultures and sort of begin to idolize them sometimes.
Paul Oliver: Well, possibly. I do wish that we could move out of the area of idolatry of blues singers and I think that many young militant black Americans so resent white interest in blues, and actually resent blues anyway, because they feel that it is a record of the past and a generation of their parents, which perhaps weren’t militant enough or strong enough. I think that they also feel that there is an element of condescension … And they possibly resent too, the tendency to put blues singers of a sort of pedestal, but this is almost inevitable in any kind of specialized area, where certain people attain a particular kind of peak of quality which one admires and respects. Nevertheless, I do, in a sense, wish that this would go and that people would recognize a more remarkable thing, in a way, that the very ordinary people were actually creating a music of great vitality, and this is really far more important than thinking of them as somehow rather separate and relating them, therefor, as stars and to show biz, and to somehow, Hollywood values.
Chris Strachwitz: I think in this new hip culture, I guess that’s what it’s called, in the new generation, I do find that there is a comeback of sort of pride in their own heritage. I’ve noticed, especially with people who come from the hillbilly, or should I say country and western tradition, have become hip kids, but who are now very proud to play country and western music. We have a Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen here, who are very popular, who sings tavern music of the ’50s, and they have a large following here. It seems to me that the audience very much identifies with him and are proud of the fact that maybe we are. That is part of our culture, you know, and in this new environment, belonging to this new hip culture, they can take a pride in it.
Paul Oliver: Can take a pride in it … And I think that this actually, for me, has been one of the major revelations of this particular trip, after ten years. Just going back to going to Mandrake’s club the other night and hearing Johnny Musselwhite. As I mentioned to you, at the time, the thing that really impressed me and really struck me, apart from the vitality in the music, were the number of young black Americans who were there also. This was great, I felt. I had not really, up until that time, appreciated that they’re all young people, enjoying the music and not attaching color preference or any other kind of artificial structure to it. For me, not having experienced this in Europe – having been away from the States for ten years – this was really a major discovery, in a sense, or realization, and I think very important to the shaping of one’s attitude to the way in which music is going now. It’s important today.
Chris Strachwitz: In between your MCing the Ann Arbor program and now just winding up here – a short stay here – where did you go?
Paul Oliver: Well, we flew from Ann Arbor, or at least from Detroit, to Phoenix … To violently hot Phoenix … And after mastering the mysteries of the American automatic, left-hand drive car, which is about twice as long as the one we’ve got at home, we gradually made our way into somewhat cooler regions a little bit further north, and then to the desert regions of the Navajo and Hopi reservations. This was very interesting and very exciting for me, because my interest in the culture of the North American Indian has been with me at least as long as that of an interest in blues, but I’ve never felt like to make any contribution to the studies, but I’d always wanted to go to these regions, and I took my wife and eventually we managed to do so.
We went to the inter-tribal ceremonial gallop in New Mexico and this was a very interesting experience, in itself, not only because at the more superficial level, it gave us an opportunity to see the dances of a number of tribes being performed, but at the deeper and more significant level, I think, it gave us an indication of the kind of frustrations that the young Navajo Indians are also experiencing. At this time there were protests by the young Indians against the very tribal ceremonial itself. This was based on the fact that it had been a purely white-inspired ceremonial, and always has been.
Chris Strachwitz: A rip-off …
Paul Oliver: Well, sort of. 49 years they’d been promoting it and even the very ushers that we saw right at the entrance, and in character, the people who took our money, who gave us our tickets and then collected our tickets and then showed us to our seats, and the whole rigmarole was entirely Anglos, as they say in that area. This struck us very forcibly, even before we encountered the Navajo militants. My sympathy’s entirely with them, because, although I did enjoy the ceremonial and the dances and so forth, and the music and the rodeo, and it was great. It was an opportunity for us to see a kind of crash course in what survives American Indian culture. One was fully aware that it wasn’t the real thing, at all, and what was more important to us was to visit the reservations and try to make some minute contact. Not very much, of course, in the space of that time, but enough, perhaps, to give us a start on trying to study on the sites, so to speak, something of both the Indian culture in its traditional form and its struggle with survival and the problems of trying to equate with the rest of American society at this time.
Chris Strachwitz: Do you think there’s any kind of parallel between the Indian’s attempt on one hand, of course, to preserve their culture and their way of living, and yet on the other, also being part of the American mainstream and having the economics and satisfaction of owning cars and a house, perhaps, and the blacks also wanting to preserve their sort of soul culture, yet on the other hand, wanting to participate in the economics there.
Paul Oliver: I think there are some parallels, but there are differences also. There are certainly parallels, but not all blacks, by any means, seem to want to preserve their culture. They see themselves as Americans and want to be American and integrate in all the rest of it as soon as possible. I don’t think they are consciously aware of having a culture that is specific and clear. There’s no question about the nature of indigenous cultures, which existed in North America before the whites came, and have continued to struggle and survive against the increasing pressures and pressures within themselves, for that matter. There is no question about those being quite specific cultures, inspired on the continent and being a part of the lifestyle of the people. They’re not exactly comparable, it seems to me, but probably the struggle is very much the same. However, they have a particularly difficult one, because the breakdown of tribal society is almost inevitable in the assimilation of the American values and material, as well as all the others … how many there are.
Certainly, the assimilation of the material culture, and the way in which the Hopi and the Navajo have tackled this problem independently and quite differently is one of the things that interested me and absorbed me most. The Navajo … Possibly because of the better stability of their economy, through the uranium strikes, are using their new wealth very wisely, distributing this slowly through the community through a sort of social well fare, to a very large extent, but not impairing the largely or semi-nomadic way of life for many of the Navajo.
The Hopi, I think, are trying to achieve it by retrenchment. They are actually sort of settling on the mesa and no longer are tourist really welcome. Certainly not welcome with cameras at all. The roads aren’t made up, and in one way or another, they’re trying to preserve what remains of their culture, more or less, by separation. There’s no electricity there, therefor there’s no television there. There’s a bit deal less sort of contact that way.
I think it’s partially successful, but for the new generation of younger Indians, it inevitably must be traumatic I should think.
Chris Strachwitz: Yes, that struck me as this incredible difference then, where you’re confronted as a child, “What am I going to do? Am I going to stay on this reservation and live like my great grandparents, or should I try to make it in the city?” This must be really traumatic, as you said.
Paul Oliver: Well, one of the things that worries me greatly: the process of termination of reservations, where the Indian populace is being sort of distributed, so to speak, or shipped abroad, so to speak, as if it didn’t exist, and greatly wiped off the map. This is not finishing, as I understand it. This is still continuing very much so, and they are gravely concerned about the lack of responsibility to the Indian. Not everywhere, but still to a remarkable degree, and if this isn’t going to be the next crisis issue, I’ll be very surprised.
Chris Strachwitz: Did you notice anything, as to their music? After all, I think on most of our trips, one is exposed to many kinds of music. Every time I go to the South West, I’m more and more fascinated by Mexican American music, and I was wondering whether you had any thoughts about the Indians and their music.
Paul Oliver: Well, of course, the Indian music is to a very large extent, at least I say Indian, I’m really only talking now about two tribes. Music has some secular aspects. Amongst the Navajo, there appear to be, to me, to be far more secular songs than there are amongst the Hopi. This is partly due to the fact that the Hopi religious life is very rich and ……. I mean, ceremonials throughout the year. Particularly, from January to July, in which the music and dance are totally integrated and very much an essential part of sort of living culture.
The Navajo do have sacred dances and sacred music, and this is important to them, but they also seem to have in the other tunes and so on, more secular songs. Whether these are being assailed by the music that they hear on the jukeboxes in song, is really very difficult for me, in so brief a contact, to be able to ascertain. It seems to me that possibly they’re running in parallel. What I couldn’t hear was any indication in kind of amalgam – sort of a halfway house between the traditional and the popular music, which you probably do find in black music in the south.
Chris Strachwitz: That struck me very much the same. You say the parallel … That struck me, because I’ve only heard on the radio when you drive through Gallop, for example, there are two radio stations that are devoted about half time to catering to the Indians. They have and Indian announcer and so, it seems to me that the most popular music is country and western, and yet they do play pure Indian chant music – there were drums and so on – the other half. There are no groups that are kind of a mixture. I noticed that, just from their records.
Paul Oliver: Well, studies in blues, at any rate, in the past few years, seem to have shown that the evidence on recorded music was a good deal more accurate a picture of the music that was being played in the ’20s and ’30s than perhaps we suspected. This may well be so in Indian music too. Maybe what you hear on the car radio, so the speak, is a fairly accurate picture of the situation at present.
Of course, it seems to me that there is just not enough research being done in this area. The ethnic musicology magazines and so on, which I look at, always seem to give the emphasis upon the traditional- the surviving elements – and not sufficient upon culture change, and this is all important. The culture is never static. There is no such thing as a static culture. It’s always in the process of change, either a very slow process, or a very dynamic process. We’re in a stage in time when these processes are being accelerated and it seems to me the responsibility of the anthropologists and the ethnic musicologists to be studying this and to draw what lessons that he may from it, and perhaps feed this back into an understanding of the dilemma that faces the minority cultures.
Chris Strachwitz: That always struck me. Perhaps that’s why I was so turned off by academic approach to folk music. I once tried to take a course and I almost flunked it because they get so pedantic in their little studies of the sort of remnants of the most archaic elements, yet they completely neglect the living folk music of the people, which is constant flux and changing. Just like Cajun music or whatever, it’s constantly undergoing changes and modifications – an evolution.
Paul Oliver: Well, and the day has yet to come that blues is a respectable subject, for example, to study in any kind of way in the university. If you want to, by any chance, write a thesis on blues, you’ve got to go under the guise of a student of Shakespeare or literature, or you’ve got to be a student of mythology and folklore. After playing through Nordic myths, eventually, you can come out with your thesis maybe, but at the moment, there’s a reluctance, it seems to me, in the academic world to face the music as it is. In other words, the culture as it is. This, I’m sure, is an indictment of some order.
Chris Strachwitz: I think a good deal to blame for that is, I would say, that academicians have a tendency to really live in their ivory towers – that they are really sort of scared of going out there and exploring what exists in their own neighborhood.
Paul Oliver: I think that this is probably so, but of course, many anthropologists are working continually in the field. It probably relates a little bit back to the incentive, in the first place, to actually do the field work. I used to be called a romantic as far as writing about music was concerned and that is quite true. In fact, one has to be, in a sense. It’s impossible to be totally objective and go out in the field or indeed, get a complete involvement in music or culture in another society, and be just cold, completely objective, if in fact some objectivity could be achieved, or if it were desirable to achieve it. In fact, you have to be a kind of romantic. Inevitably, that romanticism takes on many colors, and one of them, at least, is … I believe, I think, there’s a reluctance to accept the fact that the culture you admire is in the process of change or decay or altering or a new one is emerging. Maybe it’s just one of the other sides of it.
However, in the academic world … Supposedly, the academic world is being as objective as it can be, and what it’s being objective about is the studies of the romantics of another age. What it’s failing to be, at the moment, is sufficiently objective, but the studies of the romantics of the present.
Chris Strachwitz: Well put. Well, Paul, perhaps you can wind up this program with sort of a brief review, or some comments on what I consider perhaps your most important book, and that’s The Story Of The Blues – largely, because I think that it should be in every library in this country, certainly, and perhaps in most European countries. I think you started it with kind of an exhibit at the American Embassy, wasn’t it? In London, some years ago?
Paul Oliver: Yes, this was in 1964 and the, then, Culture of Affairs Officer, Francis Mason, invited me to put on an exhibit of the blues. I should mention that the American Embassy, at that time, before the big financial cutback was a real cultural center in London of great vitality. It was one of the most exciting places in London and we look back to those days of remarkable exposure of the American arts with real nostalgia. It was a very exciting time, and possibly the embassies these days are not doing that service as well as they might be. Probably, they think that the battle is won in Great Britain. I’m not sure that they’re quite right about that, but this was really exciting and the opportunity, therefor, to put on an exhibition of blues at the American Embassy was a tremendous one – a very exciting one, for me. In fact, it became an enormous exhibition of over 500 photographs and reproductions of ephemera beautifully displayed, and took over the major hall in the big …. in the embassy building in Grosvenor Square. That was, in fact, the most successful exhibition they’d ever had. They put it on for, first of all, three weeks, then for five weeks, then for eight weeks, and thousands of people visited it. This really broke the back, as far as I was concerned, in collecting all the photographs and doing the captions, and preparing all the material and putting it into some kind of order. I really felt that this ought to be in some book form. The problem is finding a publisher who also thought so. Eventually, anyway, we did get the publisher and rather belatedly, but with much new material, rather good that it was belated, because a number of other blues singers had been discovered and far more information had been brought to light. The book was completed and published about nine months ago.
Chris Strachwitz: It really presents the entire history of the blues in pictorial form, and plus a very elaborate and precise text.
Paul Oliver: It was a very difficult thing to write, because they asked for 200 illustrations and 40,000 words, and it ended up being rather more than 80,000 words and 500 illustrations. The publisher was very kind-hearted about this – the enormous growth in the book itself and the process of producing it. I feel that, at least it achieved that end anyway. It gave a sort of basic historical background. At least, I hope so.
Chris Strachwitz: If any of you are wondering where you can buy it cheaper that at your local book store, you should be aware of the fact that Blues Unlimited, perhaps the world’s leading magazine, devoted to the blues, also located in Britain, in Bexhill-on-Sea at 38 A Sackville Road, Bexhill-on-Sea in Sussex, does sell it for almost half the price than book shops here.
Paul Oliver: Yes, I don’t know quite why that is. I don’t know why the price is so high here. It’s $12.50 here, it’s three pounds something there, but if you write to the editor at Blues Unlimited, they will directly send it to you, I believe post-free. I’m not sure this is good advertising for it, but anyway, that’s the fact of the matter, and the publisher can work it out for himself.
Chris Strachwitz: We started the program with mentioning some of your editing a series of paperbacks, dealing with, specific subjects related to the blues. What else can we look forward to in that …
Paul Oliver: Well, some of the people that I have mentioned earlier on, as doing in research in musicological and other aspects of blues, are publishing paperback books in the series, so that forth coming ones … Well, let me see, they include David Evans, who’s writing a book on the blues singer, Tommy Johnson, and he’s writing another one on the sort of Central Mississippi scene around Jackson, Mississippi, and Drew in other words, sharing the whole culture.
William Ferris is doing a book on the creative process in blues, as exemplified in field recordings that he made in the delta. There’s a book on Little Brother Montgomery, and all the people that he knew and the kind of piano culture, particularly, of Mississippi, by Karl…. Heidi, who’s a German writer on the blues. I have been trying to get writers from outside America and Britain, as I say, Karl …. Heidi is German. … Tolleson is Swedish. He’s done some three months of research in Memphis and has been studying the development of the Memphis blues and jug bands, and he has done a book on that.
John Fahey, wrote a master thesis on the music of Charlie Patton. It was the first musicological study of the blues singer to be made. We’re publishing that as a textual on musicological study of a major formative blues singer.
Currently, research is being done by Bruce Baston, in the Carolinas and we are publishing, next year, a book based on this research – a second field trip that he’s made. Also, currently, Mike Rowe is doing research on the last generation of the Chicago blues men in Chicago and this too will be published as a book, so you can see that we’re working toward a dozen or 16 titles in the series. They are published by Stein and Day here, in paperback, and there are, in fact, some hardbacks, for people who want a solid piece of literature on the shelf. Otherwise, there are paperback here and they are published by Studio Vista in Britain.
Chris Strachwitz: Well, thank you very much, Paul. I’ve been talking to Paul Oliver tonight, and it’s been music and talk in America. Thank you and good night.