We’re getting thrillingly close to the publication of Michael Gray’s new Dylan book, which is being printed simulataneously in the US and the UK and will be available everywhere by June 15th.
This week’s entry (scroll down for previous entries, on Dave Stewart, Leonard Cohen, Fats Domino and Harry Belafonte) is a little different:
blues, inequality of reward in
The inequality of reward and credit as between the old black singer-songwriters and the newer white ones is a topic that arises unavoidably from any scrutiny of what Dylan has taken from the blues.
Four years after the beginning of Dylan’s recording career, and already a superstar, he is visiting Tennessee, the state in which Memphis is located, to record the deeply blues-soaked album Blonde on Blonde. In Memphis itself, ELVIS PRESLEY is residing in decadent luxury, resting on the laurels of a career launched from the Sun studios on a cover version of an ARTHUR CRUDUP blues at a time when Arthur Crudup wouldn’t even have been allowed to ride alongside Presley on a public bus. (Not that Crudup was in Memphis; he’d migrated to Chicago, where to begin with he’d lived in a wooden crate under the ‘L’ station.)
While Dylan is recording ‘Pledging My Time’, and Elvis is playing games at Graceland, 40 miles south of Memphis on Highway 51, Mississippi Fred McDowell, that state’s greatest living bluesman and a big influence on Ry Cooder and Bonnie Raitt, is working in a gas-station in Como, Mississippi. As Stanley Booth notes in his appealing book Rythm Oil, ‘there is a telephone handy for when he gets calls to appear at places like the NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL.’
What can you say? Several things. Elvis had to live his whole adult life with the accusation that he’d somehow stolen this music, and had only succeeded at it because he was white. This is in every detail untrue. First, Elvis’ early record producer, Sam Phillips, recorded Elvis singing blues because they both loved it; Phillips launched the careers of black artists (HOWLIN’ WOLF included) as well as white, and willingly let each move on to bigger things than Sun could accommodate.
Against the wishes of his manager Colonel Parker, Elvis continued to record black material throughout his life, because his love for it remained undimmed when precious little else did. Rightly he credited its composers on his records and paid them songwriting royalties. That his own music-publishing outfits took hefty proportions was a corrupt practice endemic in the industry then and now, and applied equally to the white songwriters who hit the theoretical jackpot of having Presley record their material. Low royalty rates, and royalties flowing into the wrong pockets, were aspects of the business that applied without regard to race. ROY ORBISON recalled that he’d been signed to Sun Records for quite a while before he heard, from an older songwriter, that you were supposed to get paid when they played your songs on the radio—and when Orbison told CARL PERKINS, it was news to him too.
It’s a myth too that Elvis stole ‘Hound Dog’ from Big Mama Thornton. White Jewish songwriters Leiber & Stoller wrote it, and offered it to Johnny Otis; he offered it to Thornton and stole the composer credit, which, as GREIL MARCUS wrote in his classic book Mystery Train, ‘Leiber and Stoller had to fight to get back. Elvis heard the record, changed the song completely, from the tempo to the words, and cut Thornton’s version to shreds.’
Elvis made this material his own; he did something special with all of it. He couldn’t have ignited a revolution through unfair good luck. That’s the essence of it. And Dylan too takes from the blues because he loves it, and then makes of it something his own. It’s a creative process, and creativity deserves success.
That success doesn’t always come, that life is essentially unfair, is also true, but beyond the capacity of a Presley or a Dylan to affect. Neither is its unfairness racially scrupulous. Consider the case of another old blues singer, FURRY LEWIS, about whom no black writer or singer has ever said a word but of whom white Stanley Booth writes at length. Like Hubert Sumlin, Furry Lewis came from Greenwood, Mississippi, but he moved to Memphis at the age of six, in 1899. At 23, he lost a leg trying to catch a freight train outside Du Quoin, Illinois. A protege of W.C. Handy, he recorded four sessions in the 1920s but the depression killed off his career and he didn’t record again till 1959. After the end of the 1920s he was never again a full-time pro. He isn’t mentioned in Louis Cantor’s history of Memphis-based WDIA, the first all-black radio station: 230 pages on how this wonderful station gave blacks their own voice and put the blues on the air—but no change for a bluesman of Lewis’ generation: he was still excluded. So was FRANK STOKES, another giant of the early Memphis blues scene who was still alive and living in neglect in Memphis when Elvis made his first records there. Stokes died, aged 67, in 1955. ‘Frank Stokes: Creator of the Memphis Blues’, the reissue label Yazoo was calling him two decades later.
Then there are the salutary cases of the innovative Noah Lewis and of GUS CANNON, another towering Memphis figure. When Bob Dylan chose to open his performance at the 1996 Aarhus Festival, Denmark, with an approximation of THE GRATEFUL DEAD’s ‘New New Minglewood Blues’, he’s likely to have chosen it not because it’s a Dead song but because it isn’t: because, rather, it’s based on ‘New Minglewood Blues’ by Noah Lewis’s Jug Band from 1930, itself a re-modelling of ‘Minglewood Blues’ by Cannon’s Jug Stompers (comprising, in this instance, Gus Cannon, Ashley Thompson and Noah Lewis) from 1928. The Dead’s recording may well have reminded Dylan of the song, but there’s no reason to suppose that he hadn’t been familiar with the original Noah Lewis’s Jug Band recording, since this had been vinyl-reissued in the early 1960s. The key figure here, then, is the pioneering and splendid harmonica-player Noah Lewis, whose work set new expressive standards in the pre-war period (and who is credited as the composer of ‘Minglewood Blues’ as well as of ‘New Minglewood Blues’: the two may share a tune but are otherwise dissimilar songs—different in lyrics, pace and mood). Lewis was long thought to have been murdered in 1937, but Swedish researcher Bent Olsson discovered that in fact he had retired to Ripley, Tennessee, in the 30s, where in his old age he got frostbite, had both legs amputated and in the process got blood-poisoning, from which he died in the winter of early 1961.
Cannon was by far the better-known figure by the time Bob Dylan reached Greenwich Village. He was one of the featured artists on both HARRY SMITH’s 1952 anthology AMERICAN FOLK MUSIC and on the next crucial release of the period, SAM CHARTERS’ 1959 compilation Country Blues. Cannon’s track on the former, indeed, was ‘Minglewood Blues’ while on the latter was his 1929 cut ‘Walk Right In’, which was taken up by the Rooftop Singers, who topped the US charts with a single of the song, complete with beefy 12-string guitar sound, in 1963.
Cannon’s own career was first ‘revived’ in 1956 when he was recorded, for the first time since 1930, by Folkways. They let him cut two tracks. Then in 1963, in the wake of the Rooftop Singers’ success, Cannon cut an album issued by Stax (!) which featured ‘Walk Right In’ plus standards like ‘Salty Dog’, ‘Boll-Weevil’ and ‘Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor’. He also made appearances at the Newport Folk Festival. He survived to the age of 96, living long enough to still be around in Memphis at the time of Elvis Presley’s funeral there in 1977.
Despite his eminence and his ‘rediscovery’, Gus Cannon too suffered neglect, poverty and lack of respect. His situation is described eloquently by Jim Dickinson, the Memphis session-player who features on Dylan’s Time Out of Mind album twenty years after Cannon’s death:
‘In the summer of 1960, a friend and I followed the trail that Charters left to Gus Cannon. . . . He was the yardman for an anthropology professor. Gus had told this family that he used to make records and he had been on RCA and they’d say, ‘‘Yeah Gus, sure: cut the grass.’’ . . . He lived on the property, back over a garage, and he took us up into his room, and on the wall he had a certificate for sales from ‘Walk Right In’, for which of course he didn’t get any money. And he had a copy of the record that Charters had made for Folkways, but he had no record-player. That was a real good introduction to the blues.’
Likewise, right through to the 1970s Furry Lewis remained a street-sweeper in Memphis. Now and then in the mid-1960s he’d play a set between rock acts at the Bitter Lemon coffee-house in East Memphis. Stanley Booth writes: ‘Next morning he’s back sweeping the streets. At the crack of dawn, on his way to work, he passes the Club Handy. On the door is a handbill that reads Blues Spectacular, City Auditorium: JIMMY REED, JOHN LEE HOOKER, Howlin’ Wolf . . .’
Inequality of reward, like the blues itself, works on many levels.