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145 Before World War II only a handful of blues records were available in Britain, and these had been swept in with the rising tide of American jazz releases in the late 1930s. Parlophone and Brunswick, the two largest record companies of the day, released few contemporary blues discs. The few Bessie Smith songs that appeared on their labels were perhaps initially issued (and subsequently purchased) because of the noted jazz musicians that accompanied her, but her rich contralto voice and expressive style of delivery soon earned her many devoted followers. James Asman advised, “Learn to enjoy Bessie Smith’s kind of jazz, for it is the only kind there is!”1 Other recordings by classic blues singers could occasionally be found in a Hot Jazz or RhythmStyle series; while these performers inspired less devotion, they nonetheless introduced a number of jazz record buyers to the blues for the first time. Boogie-woogie records lingered in an uncertain categorical domain between jazz and the blues, though they were usually lumped together with Fats Waller and Jelly Roll Morton under the heading of “jazz piano.” 9 BLUES EVANGELISTS IN BRITAIN —ROBERTA FREUND SCHWARTZ Preaching the Gospel of the Blues 146 ROBERTA FREUND SCHWARTZ These were particular favorites of the younger fans who attended the group listening sessions, called rhythm clubs, which met throughout the country. Boogie-woogie discs were somewhat rarer than the classic blues but arguably more potent, considering that blues fans like Chris Barber and Alexis Korner claimed Jimmy Yancy and Little Brother Montgomery as their earliest favorites.2 There were also a few guitar duets by Eddie Lang and Lonnie Johnson3 that were wholly anchored in the jazz idiom but were also strongly flavored by the blues. Lastly, there was English Brunswick 3562, “Drop Down Mama” b/w “Married Woman Blues” by Sleepy John Estes, a recording so far removed from jazz that no one knew quite what to make of it. According to Paul Oliver, it was the subject of intense speculation: None seemed rarer nor more strange . . . the broken voice, the wailing accompaniment . . . and the compulsive rhythm which produced vague references to Africa all confounded criticism. The twelve-bar blues had been accepted as a traditional pattern, and the three-line standard verse accepted as the traditional blues stanza. But at the time when Bunk Johnson was talking of playing the “twenty-four bar blues,” here was issued a blues from a decade before which was on a loose twenty-four measure structure and sung in verse and refrain of a quite a-typical form.4 It wasn’t much, but these few discs were enough to catch the ears of a select group of listeners who then became interested in American race music. Female blues singers—especially Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith—had a relatively wide appeal among jazz collectors, but this other kind of blues was “the subject of an esoteric cult, a backwater of interest in ‘pure’ jazz” that was “valued for its ethnicity, its authenticity and its historic importance rather than for its merits as a music.”5 It might have remained the isolated passion of a few interested souls had it not been for a small but growing number of jazz critics,collectors,and discographers who began to actively promote wider knowledge and circulation of the blues.All were devoted and vocal champions of African American music whose educational activities formed the foundation of the British blues revival. In the span of twenty years they transformed the blues from an odd musical novelty to a niche genre that was as popular in Britain in the 1960s as it was in its native land. It wasn’t until after the War that serious interest in the blues started to spread. There was some interest in the genre before that, but it was only after 147 PREACHING THE GOSPEL OF THE BLUES IN BRITAIN a different war, the one between the revivalists and the modernists, heated up that the active promotion of the blues began. It did so through a combination of factors, but all were tied, in one way or another, to revivalist jazz. In January of 1948 Melody Maker ran a critique of the London swing scene by Ernest Borneman, a figure at the vanguard of blues proselytism. Granted, he wasn’t British, but he was a regular commentator on jazz, as well as a temporary resident of the country, and his evangelical fervor was unquestionable. In a follow-up article...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781604735475
Related ISBN
9781578069606
MARC Record
OCLC
630107738
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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